The sale of the Freddie Mercury collection at Sotheby’s showed once again the powerful commercial combination of the cult of celebrity and the 21st century marketing department.
With 1500 items of ‘Mercuriana’ on offer over six sales, fans wanted it all.
A 59-lot evening sale held on a sweltering night in London on September 6 kicked off proceedings. Many of those present in the crowded saleroom had never been to an auction before, not least at Sotheby’s.
They needed stamina. Such was the level of competition, and the desire to squeeze the event for all it was worth, it took an hour to sell the first seven lots. The whole auction itself lasted over four hours.
This was not the typical Bond Street evening sale. The audience sang along to We Will Rock You during the build up. Every lot was applauded (even one that failed to sell) while Sotheby’s porters rolled back the years, carrying lots into the audience so they could by viewed like religious relics as bidding got underway.
One bidder wearing a seemingly identical rainbowcoloured satin arrow jacket to one worn by Mercury on Queen’s 1982 ‘Hot Space’ tour, stood up and gave a twirl after encouragement from the auctioneer. “I have almost lost count of the number of auctions I have presided over from this rostrum”, said chairman of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker, who conducted the entire event without a break. “But I know for certain that I will never forget bringing the hammer down tonight.”
The sale got off to a flying start. Lot one, the extensively graffitied garden door to Mercury’s Kensington home, drew multiple bidders and a 20-minute contest as it overshot a £15,000-25,000 estimate, eventually selling at £325,000 to a phone bidder.
Another epic contest involving online, phone and room bidders came for the silver snake bangle favoured by Mercury in the mid-1970s.
He can be seen wearing it in numerous photographs of the period as well as in the video for Bohemian Rhapsody. It sold for over 60 times its top estimate at £550,000. It set a record for ‘a piece of jewellery belonging to a rockstar’ according to Sotheby’s.
Other crazy-little-things with big price tags included a Cartier onyx and diamond ring from 1975 given to Mercury by his friend Sir Elton John. One of six lots generating money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, it was carried up to £215,000 from a £4000-6000 guide.
Sir Elton, who sold much of his own collection at Sotheby’s in 1988, said: “Freddie and I shared a love of collecting and exchanged many gifts over the years, including some in this brilliant auction.”
The top lot of the collection was Mercury’s Yamaha model G2 baby grand piano which was estimated at £2m-3m but offered without reserve. With at least four bidders participating, it sold at £1.4m to an online bidder.
Mercury had paid about £1000 for it back in 1975 and had used it to compose some of Queen’s greatest songs. With fees added, the £1.74m price was a record for a composer’s piano at auction according to Sotheby's, topping the £1.45m for John Lennon’s Steinway brown upright model Z bought by George Michael in 2000.
A leading UK piano dealer told ATG that a similar age standard Yamaha model G2 without a Mercury provenance would be worth around £4500 in the trade.
A series of autograph manuscript lyrics attracted high levels of competition. The eight-page manuscript draft with lyrics and melodies for Bohemian Rhapsody sold at £1.1m to an online buyer. Dating from c.1974, it revealed an alternative title to the song – Mongolian Rhapsody – that Mercury had considered before crossing it out.
An autograph draft for We Are The Champions from c.1977 made £250,000, draft lyrics for Somebody To Love from c.1976 made £190,000 while those for Don’t Stop Me Now, c.1978, took £250,000.
The Mercury collection was consigned to auction by Mary Austin, the singer’s former girlfriend.
The song Love of My Life 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.
While huge numbers of people watched the auction on the Sotheby’s website and on YouTube (the auction house reported 600,000 people viewed the sale catalogue online in total), one person who didn’t tune in was Brian May.
The Queen guitarist said on Instagram that he would be “speaking to Welsh farmers about cows and badgers and bovine” as “Freddie’s most intimate personal effects, and writings that were part of what we shared for so many years, go under the hammer, to be knocked down to the highest bidder and dispersed forever.”
He added: “I can’t look. To us, his closest friends and family, it’s too sad.”
The buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s was 26/20/13.9% plus 1% overhead premium.
MERCURY IN NUMBERS
The number of visitors who attended the month-long exhibition of the collection at Sotheby’s London
The number of days the exhibition ran for with Sotheby’s giving over the entire viewing space at its London saleroom
The number of hours it took to sell 59 lots at the evening sale
The total including fees for the evening sale
The number of people registered to bid
The proportion of bidders who were new to Sotheby’s
The number of countries from where bidders participated