Ten years ago today (July 11, 2008), the iconic drumskin from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover sold for £541,250 ($1M) at a Christie’s Memorabilia auction in London. Beatles fanatics have spent years trying to uncover details of the artist – one Joe Ephgrave – and some believe the elusive man is another clue in a decades-old conspiracy theory.

In September 1969, Drake University student newspaper editor Tim Harper published an article referring to rumours which had been circulating around the college, entitled Is Paul McCartney Dead?. It proffered evidence that McCartney – bassist and vocalist for The Beatles, who at that point had just released Abbey Road, their 11th and last album as a full band – had died in a car accident three years prior, and been replaced with a convincing look-a-like. Despite numerous rebuttals from the band’s PR team and a Life magazine interview with McCartney the following month, some people were adamant there was an ongoing cover-up afoot.

To date, the (apparent) evidence includes:

  1. The phrase “Turn me on, dead man” can be heard when track Revolution 9 is played backwards
  2. John Lennon can be heard saying “I buried Paul” in the outro to Strawberry Fields Forever
  3. The Abbey Road album cover resembles a funeral procession: Lennon, all in white and at the head of the parade, represents Jesus Christ; George Harrison, in functional workwear denim, represents the gravedigger; Ringo Starr, all in black, symbolises the undertaker; and McCartney, walking out of step with his bandmates and barefoot, is the corpse.

Which is where Joe Ephgrave comes in.

Very little is known about the artist who actually painted the Lonely Hearts Club Band logo onto the bass skin. It’s well-documented that the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover was designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, but some sources include the name Ephgrave as a hired painter, who is variously described as a “fairground” or “circus” artist, and was apparently very skilled in lettering and signwriting.

But such meagre info, along with that ominous surname suffix, has produced the following step-by-step hypothesis:

  1. Joe Ephgrave is expanded to Joseph Ephgrave.
  2. Doing a little letter juggling, we can morph it into J o s (eph) (Eph) grave, which is then morphed into J o (s) F F grave.
  3. If each letter is assigned a number in the traditional a=1, b=2 fashion, one could read the name as 10 o’ (S) 66 grave.
  4. Which we can take to mean: 10th of September ’66, grave.
  5. Ergo, on September 10, 1966, Paul died.

Whether you subscribe to the theory or not, there’s no denying the enduring iconic appeal of that bass drum; it fetched the highest price of any music memorabilia on that auction day. No mean feat, considering the other items sold included John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for Give Peace a Chance (£421,250 or $750,000 AUD), a pair of prescription tinted sunglasses belonging to Lennon (£39,650 or $71,000 AUD) and a Marshall amp used by Jimi Hendrix in concert (£25,000, or $45,000 AUD).