Frenzied Freddie Mercury auction totals $24 million

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Freddie Mercury brought down the house one last time on Wednesday night at Sotheby’s in London, when items from the late Queen frontman’s estate blew past their high estimate of £7.2 million to total £12.2 million ($23.9 million).

A high-energy, in-person audience regularly burst into applause and cheers. Many attendees dressed up in Mercury-related outfits. One man, after purchasing Mercury’s famous crown and cape for £635,000 jumped up with two fists clenched in the air in triumph.

Freddie Mercury’s signature crown worn throughout the ‘Magic’ Tour, on display at Sotheby’s auction rooms in London. The crown and the cape sold for $1.24 million.Credit: AP

“The reception for the collection as a whole has been nothing short of phenomenal,” said Sotheby’s specialist Thomas Williams, speaking ahead of the sale. “What the fans have really enjoyed is getting to know the private side of Freddie’s life: The art he collected and what these objects show about Freddie and how he lived and what he was passionate about behind closed doors.”

The 59 lots that hit the block on Wednesday are part of a series of six auctions Sotheby’s will hold in September. In total, the auction house will attempt to sell 1406 lots which account for roughly 30,000 unique objects, according to Williams. The presale estimate of £7.6 million to £11.3 million was surpassed by the first auction alone.

The entirety of the sale was consigned by Mercury’s longtime friend Mary Austin, who inherited his London home and many of his belongings. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Mercury Phoenix Trust and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

When the sale was announced, Austin released a statement that read in part: “For many years now, I have had the joy and privilege of living surrounded by all the wonderful things that Freddie sought out and so loved. But the years have passed, and the time has come for me to take the difficult decision to close this very special chapter in my life.”

The ‘Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own’ evening sale at Sotheby’s in London. Credit: Getty

Long lines

There were early indicators that the evening sale would be a success. Since opening an exhibition of Mercury’s belongings in early August, a record 140,000 people queued up—often in lines that stretched around the block—to visit Sotheby’s London headquarters.

“I was fortunate enough to allow the first members of the public through into the gallery,” says Williams. “One woman came bedecked in her own version of [Mercury’s] iconic arrow jacket, which was something she’d sewn herself relying on grainy images. To put her in front of the real thing … she was speechless.” That “set the tone for the next four weeks.”

The crowds weren’t just in-person. Sotheby’s opened up online bidding in advance of every auction but the evening sale. To date, over 19,000 bids have been placed across those five sales, according to a Sotheby’s representative, and the auction house site has had more than 600,000 unique visitors, “which is traffic we’ve never seen before and likely will never see again,” Williams says.

All of that attention “translates instantaneously into hard bids,” he says.

Before the auction began, the entire room, including auction house specialists in black tie, banged their hands to the Queen song ‘We Will Rock You.’

On Wednesday night, the crowds were once again in force: 2000 people registered to bid in advance of the sale. “As you can probably anticipate, it had to be a ticketed event, and there’s an overflow auxiliary room to accommodate one of the biggest audiences we’ve ever had on Bond Street,” says Williams.

The audience seemed to get the memo. Before the auction began, the entire room, including auction house specialists in black tie, banged their hands to the Queen song “We Will Rock You.” At one point in the sale the auctioneer stopped proceedings and asked a bidder to stand up and show the crowd her own version of the “arrow” jacket.

A Yamaha G2 Baby Grand Piano which was used by Freddie Mercury to develop and hone the track Bohemian Rhapsody, on display August 3, in London. Credit: PA

Serious bidding

Festive as the audience might have looked, the bidding got serious, fast. As is customary with most celebrity estate sales, the valuations were based “according to their market value in the current climate,” Williams explains, meaning that many of the valuations were (particularly in retrospect) absurdly low. A kimono Mercury wore on stage carried an estimate of £6,000 to £9,000 and sold for £57,150; a blue Lalique vase carried a high estimate of £10,000 and sold for £82,550. A large standing screen had a high estimate of £12,000 and sold for £190,500. (Estimates do not include auction fees known as the buyer’s premium, but totals do.)

One of the most active bidders in the room was a woman who later, in an interview, identified herself as Min Zhu, an arts patron and the owner of an IT company. Zhu bid on, and won, a bust of Diana (£88,900), a Daum vase (£45,720), and the £190,500 screen. A self-professed lover of Queen, Zhu saw the movie Bohemian Rhapsody twice.

“I love auctions, they’re like a game,” she says, speaking through a translator. Zhu says she also bid on a Miró print, which the auctioneer actually took off the podium to show her up close in the middle of the sale; she was willing to bid up to £60,000 for it, she says, but it ended up selling, with premium, for £88,900.

“I would have bid on more lots,” Zhu says. “But I know there were other fans in the room who wanted a piece of Queen and Freddie Mercury.”

There was steady bidding for many of the objects, but the room seemed to erupt every time a piece that directly referenced Mercury came up for sale. At times, bidding was so furious that TV screens in the auction room had the appearance of a Las Vegas slot machine, with prices escalating higher and higher. In one instance, auctioneer Oliver Barker was calling numbers so fast that he stopped, laughing, and said, “it’s like bingo up here.”

After aggressive bidding from people in the room, on the phone, and online, the silver snake bangle that Mercury wore in the Bohemian Rhapsody music video (high estimate: £9,000) sold for a stunning £698,500. Similarly, bidding began at £500,000 for the autographed draft lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody which carried a hefty £1.2 million high estimate. The lyrics contain an early, alternative title for the song: Mongolian Rhapsody. A dedicated handful of bidders slowly pushed it to a £1.38 million total.

And then there was Mercury’s cloak and crown, which he wore on the Magic Tour at the end of (nearly) every concert, and which produced some of the most memorable images of Mercury’s career. It carried an estimate of £60,000 to £80,000, but interest was so great that within minutes its price had risen to £300,000. With premiums, the outfit finally hammered for £500,000— premiums pushed it up to its £635,000 total.

The star lot of the sale, though, was a Yamaha grand piano which Sotheby’s—with uncharacteristic immodesty—called “the instrument used to compose some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.” Carrying an estimate of £2 million to £3 million, bidding began at just £40,000. Bids were numerous, but despite widespread enthusiasm, its final price—£1.74 million—didn’t quite fall within estimates.

Stage costumes and kimonos worn by Freddie Mercury are displayed at Sotheby’s auction rooms in London in August.Credit: AP

Works of art also landed softly. The evening sale was characterised by the comparatively lofty estimates set for serious paintings and decorative objects, some of which are not exactly in keeping with contemporary taste.

A painting by Eugen von Blaas of a woman holding a rose was estimated between £70,000 and £90,000, and failed to sell after seemingly not attracting a single bid.

At the end of the sale, Sotheby’s “reopened” the lot, and someone purchased it for £69,850. And a gilt kingwood bookcase from about 1900 carried an estimate of £30,000 to £50,000, and after anemic bidding sold for just £25,400.

A final note

The final lot of the night (that is, before the unsold painting was offered again) was arguably the most personal: an archive of about 265 photographs, primarily from the 1980s, which showed Mercury clowning around and relaxing at home with friends and family.

A lot note specified that the photos were sold for private use only; the buyer had no right to reproduce the images or put them to commercial use. The lot’s buyer, in other words, would be purchasing them simply to look at and admire. The photo archive carried a high estimate of £7,000 and fierce bidding erupted almost immediately. When the dust had settled the images had sold for £88,900.

As the room burst into applause when the gavel came down, Barker thanked the crowd for coming.

“We’re going into this last lot, and then the music’s going on very loud,” he said.


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