Offered at last night’s 59-lot evening sale with an estimate of £800,000-1.2m, the autograph lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody drew bidding both online and on the phone before the lot was knocked down at £1.1m on the internet.
Dating from c.1974, the eight-page manuscript was described by the auction house as an ‘extensive and detailed draft providing an unparalleled insight into the development and composition of Mercury's greatest song’.
It also revealed a possible alternative title to the song: Mongolian Rhapsody. In the notebook Mercury had crossed Mongolian out and replaced it with Bohemian. The song is now the third best-selling UK single of all time and has been streamed almost four billion times across Spotify and YouTube.
Other handwritten lyrics also performed strongly with an autograph draft of working lyrics for We Are The Champions from c.1977 making £250,000 against a £200,000-300,000 estimate, and autograph draft lyrics for Somebody To Love from c.1976 making £190,000 against a £150,000-200,000 estimate.
The autograph manuscript draft lyrics for Don't Stop Me Now, c.1978, took £250,000.
High levels of competition came throughout the sale. Mercury's Yamaha model G2 baby grand piano was estimated at £2m-3m but was offered without reserve and the bidding rose quickly after the lot opened at just £40,000. With at least four bidders participating, it sold at £1.4m.
Mercury had paid about £1000 for it back in 1975 (shortly after Yamaha has opened a branch in London) and had used it to compose some of Queen’s greatest songs including Bohemian Rhapsody, Don’t Stop Me Now andSomebody to Love.
The sale got off to a flying start with lot one, the extensively graffitied garden door to Mercury’s Kensington home, drawing multiple bidders. Overshooting a £15,000-25,000 estimate, it was the subject of a prolonged bidding battle and eventually sold at £325,000 to a phone bidder.
The price drew a round of applause in the saleroom, something that continued throughout the auction each time Sotheby's auctioneer Oliver Barker knocked down his gavel.
Another lengthy bidding battle involving online, phone and room bidders came for a silver snake bangle worn by Mercury in the Bohemian Rhapsody video. It sold for over 60 times its top estimate at £550,000, making vastly more than its value as an object which was probably less than the £7000-9000 estimate.
In terms of the pictures in the collection, the highest price came for a James Jacques Tissot (1836-1902) portrait of his model, muse and mistress Kathleen Newton that drew bidding from two online bidders and sold at £380,000. The picture from 1880 was the last artwork that Mercury bought – he purchased it at Christie’s for £159,915 in October 1991, a month before he died.
It hung in his drawing room at his London home although whether he knew the tragic story of Kathleen's premature death and it struck a chord with his own waning health is not known. Titled Type of Beauty, it was one of the few lots that failed to reach its estimate which in this case was £400,000-600,000.
Greater competition came for a copy of Utagawa Hiroshige’s (1797-1858) woodblock print Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake from 1857. It sold for £230,000, a record for an individual work by the artist and more than double any previous single copy of this print has fetched at auction.
The Mercury collection was consigned to auction by Mary Austin, the singer’s former girlfriend who remained one of his closest friends throughout his life. The song Love of My Life which was composed by Mercury in 1975 was dedicated to her.
When he died in 1991, he left both his house, Garden Lodge in Kensington, and its contents to Austin.
In all, around 1500 items are being offered in three separate live auctions and three online sales. Before the sale, Sotheby’s gave over its entire viewing space at its London saleroom for the whole of August to exhibit the collection. The auction house reported almost 140,000 visitors over the 33-day run.
Austin is donating a portion of the proceeds of the sale to both the Mercury Phoenix Trust and the Elton John Aids Foundation.
The Mercury sale follows a number of other major auctions at Sotheby's comprising the collections of members of rock and roll royalty. These include the sale of more than 2000 items owned by Elton John back in 1988 and the David Bowie collection in 2016.