It started at 40,000 pounds, or about $50,000. Then the competition exploded, with a half-dozen bidding paddles raised in the London salesroom, followed by a flurry of bids online and by phone.
“The very piano on which ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was composed. The instrument,” the auctioneer Oliver Barker intoned as the bidding paused after spiraling into seven figures. When Barker’s hammer finally fell at $2.2 million to an online bid, the piano had taken six minutes to sell, appropriately the length of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
That sale on Wednesday of Freddie Mercury’s 1973 Yamaha G2 baby grand was always going to be the high point of Sotheby’s auction of about 1,400 items from the personal collection of the charismatic lead singer of the British rock band Queen.
Mercury composed many of Queen’s hits at the Yamaha. It was originally estimated to sell for at least $2.5 million in Sotheby’s 59-lot evening auction of the most desirable pieces from the collection offered by the singer’s lifelong friend Mary Austin.
Less high-profile items will be sold at two further evening sales this week, and in three online auctions that run through Sept. 13.
Mercury’s cluttered collection of artworks and furniture, as well as handwritten lyrics, clothes, stage costumes and other personal effects, had remained at Garden Lodge, his neo-Georgian West London home, since his death in 1991. The singer bequeathed half of his royalties, together with Garden Lodge and its contents, to Austin, who has lived in the house ever since.
“It was important to me to do this in a way that I felt Freddie would have loved,” Austin, 72, said in a news release about her decision to sell the collection. “There was nothing he loved more than an auction.”
After a tour of highlights in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, the entire collection was displayed in London for a month. More than 140,000 visitors attended the exhibition, with the line at times stretching almost a quarter-mile.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Freddie’s passions. It’s almost like meeting him. And it’s free,” Neil Leonard, 48, a Queen fan since his early teens, said last week while gazing admiringly at handwritten early draft lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The draft, thought to date from 1974, shows that Mercury toyed with titling Queen’s most famous song “Mongolian Rhapsody.”
In Wednesday’s sale, that draft was the most valuable of six lyric manuscripts for Queen classics. Estimated to fetch at least $1 million, it sold for $1.7 million to an online bidder to rapturous applause.
Instead of the stone-faced art professionals who usually sit through Sotheby’s sales, the audience of more than 400 was enthusiastic and largely unfamiliar with auction protocols. Every lot was applauded — even when a 19th-century painting by Eugen von Blaas failed to attract initial bidding.
The auction’s lots reflected Mercury’s life as a musician, performer and collector. He once said he wanted to “lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.”
Garden Lodge was duly crammed with a decorative mishmash of 19th- and early-20th-century pictures of beautiful women; Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Orientalist furnishings; luxury knickknacks from designers like Cartier; and numerous feline-related ornaments. (Mercury owned at least 10 cats in his lifetime.)
His taste in Western art might, at times, have verged on the kitsch. But after touring Japan six times with Queen, Mercury became a discriminating collector of Japanese woodblock prints, lacquer and kimonos. About 20 percent of the lots in the Sotheby’s sales are related to Japan, with one of the three online auctions entirely devoted to the subject.
One of the few museum-worthy works in Mercury’s collection was a fine 19th-century colored woodblock print, “Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake,” by Utagawa Hiroshige. The image influenced many Western artists, including Van Gogh, who painted a version now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It sold for $368,718 against a low estimate of $35,000.
More often than not, the magic of the Mercury provenance pushed prices far beyond the levels for similar objects, on which Sotheby’s estimates were based.
The first lot set the tone: The graffiti-covered door from the outer wall of Garden Lodge soared to $521,014 from a telephone bidder against a low estimate of just $19,000. A Fabergé gold-mounted agate vesta case, made in Moscow around 1890, later sold to an online bidder for $120,234, more than 10 times the estimate. Mercury’s opulent Art Nouveau-style Wurlitzer jukebox from Garden Lodge’s kitchen was bought for $512,999 by a bidder in the room.
When the distinctive silver snake bangle that Mercury wore in the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” soared to $881,717, there were gasps and whoops. The lot, bought by an online bidder, had an official minimum valuation of $9,000.
Among the dozen or so concert costumes offered, the jeweled crown and ermine-lined scarlet cloak that Mercury wore on Queen’s 1986 “Magic” tour was a predictable favorite. It sold for $801,560 to Rafael Reisman, a Brazilian exhibition promoter, who raised his arms in triumph when he secured the lot.
“We were looking to put together a collection of iconic lots to use for a special immersive exhibition,” said Reisman, 53, who bought four other Mercury lots at the sale. The low estimate was $9,000.
Overall, the sale netted $15.4 million against a presale low estimate of $6 million. The marathon event took more than four-and-a-half hours.
Becca Robbins, a Queen fan from Bedfordshire, had never been to an auction before but bid $57,000 on a rainbow-colored satin appliqué jacket that Mercury wore on Queen’s “Hot Space” tour in 1982. It went on to sell for $256,499.
“I owned it for a nanosecond,” said Robbins, 61, who was wearing a replica of the same multicolored jacket. “But I took something from the exhibition that you can’t put a price on.”
POST AUTHOR: Scott Reyburn