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Between Rock and an Art Place: The Collecting Journeys of Music Icons

Between Rock and an Art Place: The Collecting Journeys of Music Icons
April 27, 2023
Keenan Flack

Art and Music go hand in hand, music is art and art is music, and all that. But when it comes to collecting art, are any of these big names worth their salt? In 1988, Elton John sold his collection. 2016 saw Bowie's collection hit the auction block, made up of the works he had spent a lifetime collecting. And now Freddie Mercury’s possessions (1500 of them to be specific) will be auctioned off in September.

Okay let’s dig in to these single owner rock star sales and see if their musical ability translated into a discerning eye for collecting fine art.

Elton John

In 1988, Sotheby’s held a 4-day sale of items owned by the illustrious British pop singer. 2,000 lots in total, mostly composed of items from John’s career; tour itineraries, jewelry, stage costumes, sunglasses (more than thirty pairs of them), etc… According to John, the contents of the sale were made up of everything he had save for four paintings; some claim the works he held on to were works by great British painters Patrick Procter and Francis Bacon.

The sale at Sotheby’s totaled $8.22 million against a low estimate of $5.1 million. Adjusted for inflation that is a whopping $21.39 million sale total against a $13.3 million estimate. The most expensive piece from the sale was a Magritte canvas depicting a blue fish wrapped in pearls that went for $119,700 (~$312,000 in 2023 dollars). The majority of the lots were low ticket value memorabilia from the singer’s career; more than thirty of his iconic sunglasses were sold, all for at least $1,500.

A pile of Elton John's famed Sunglasses

Totals that were quite impressive considering the sale was predicated on Elton John cleaning out his four-story mansion; “it had become less of a home, more of a warehouse really”, John told BBC when interviewed on the lead up to the sale. When most people clean out their homes after a lifetime of over-consumption, the garage sale usually totals somewhere between $1,000 and someone offering to trade for a used Toyota Corolla. Not bad, Elton!

When asked if the sale marked the end of his collecting journey, he responded:

“When you get to forty it’s good to start again, and give yourself other goals. Maybe I’ll collect other things, when I start, if I start collecting again, but I don’t think they will be the same sort of things that I have collected in this instance.”

And he did, six months after the sale Elton John started anew, both in gaining his sobriety, but also with a renewed passion for collecting. This time, photographs.

Upon a chance meeting with renowned photography gallerist, David Fahey, he was shown the work of Irving Penn. John was awestruck, not seeing photography “as an art form” prior to that moment. He went on to amass one of the great collections of the medium, made up of works from Penn, Edward Weston, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Dorothea Lange—to name a few.  

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother"

He bought a home in Atlanta in order to house these works, he said “I didn’t need the space, but I just wanted the space to put the photographs on the wall”. His new obsession with photographs covered nearly every inch of every wall, conjuring images of Mr. Krabs house in Spongebob's 'Wet Painters' (S3 E50a).

In 2016, Tate Modern displayed 150 of his photographs in ‘The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection’. Entire walls of his Atlanta home were lifted and recreated at the Tate Modern; offering a chance to view the works as John sees them every day.

The last 30 years have seen demand for the art form skyrocket. Grails of the medium have been setting records over the last few years, most notably Man Ray’s, “Le Violon d’Ingres” which sold for $12.4 million at Christie’s. John may not have that exact print in his collection, but in 1993 he did acquire Man Ray’s ‘Glass Tears’ for £112,000, setting the record for a single photo at the time. Experts value the work today somewhere in the low seven figures.

Man Ray, 'Glass Tears'

Though, this pricing information would unlikely be helpful to John. It is often said that “to build a great collection you should only buy things that you would never sell”, and John is doing just that. He and his husband, David Furnish, plan to live with the works for the rest of their lives before eventually giving them to the national collection.

After selling out of his rather underwhelming collection of memorabilia and fine art in 1988 Elton John re-embarked on a new collecting journey that would be successful outside of his name in the provenance. Anyone with a few extra bucks in their pocket and some cache in the art world can buy art, but as they say, you can’t buy taste.

And understanding and appreciating a medium a decade before the rest of the art world is proof of the good taste of Sir Elton John.

David Bowie

If the maxim of real estate investing is “Location, Location, Location”, then an analogous one for collecting high-end fine art might be “Provenance, Provenance, Provenance”. David Bowie died in 2016, but the works he collected propelled several artists to new heights, 12 to be exact.; a cool dozen artists found record auction prices in Bowie’s single owner sale at Sotheby’s.

Although these works were made more valuable by his ownership, Bowie also acquired works from some of the most celebrated (read: expensive) artists in todays market.

The 2016 sale was made up of 350 lots—or 65% of the works in Bowie’s collection. Like Elton, Bowie’s early collecting years were rather unexciting to other collectors. Prior to 1993, the artist collected only furniture from ‘Memphis Group’; an Italian design firm that was active in the 1980s. One day of the Sotheby’s sale was dedicated to these items—100 lots of Memphis pieces brought in £1,387,000 ($1.73mm).

His collecting journey following 1993 is one purely of fine art, mostly paintings. He met art adviser Kate Chertavian and began participating in auctions and acquiring works from galleries.

It is a rare collector who influences the art he or she collects in as powerful a way as Bowie did. He collaborated with Damien Hirst on “Beautiful, hallo, space-boy painting”—selling for £785,000 against a high estimate of £350,000.

Damien Hirst and David Bowie, “Beautiful, hallo, space-boy painting"

Bowie was deeply ingrained in the art world—much more so than the average collector even. The image of his face has been artistically depicted countless times by countless artists. He played maybe the most celebrated artist of the 20th century in a movie, Andy Warhol; the movie being ‘Basquiat’, directed by artist, and friend of Bowie, Julian Schnabel.

Speaking of, Bowie’s sale included two lots from the beloved Brooklyn-born Neo-Expressionist. ‘Untitled’ and ‘Air Power’, two massive canvases displaying Basquiat’s supreme command of color and his unique brand of iconography.

The latter work, ‘Air Power’, had been going through a bit of a hot-potato phase following the death of the artist. As the market is wont to react with great transactional greed when a young and talented artist meets a tragic end. Bowie ended this streak though, buying the work in a 1995 Christie’s sale for $120,122; holding onto the work until he too had passed away. The work sold in 2016 for $8.8 million with fees, against a low estimate of $3.3 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Air Power"

Another surprise estimate beat was a canvas from Frank Auerbach named “Head of Garda Boehm”. A piece Bowie acquired at Christie’s in 1995 for $87,102—where he described it by saying “I want to sound like that looks”. It sold for £3.8 million ($4.8 million) against an estimate of £300,000 to £500,000.

Frank Auerbach, “Head of Garda Boehm

Outside of Basquiat and a few others, the collection was nearly all modern British painters. A department that is often tucked away off to the side auction house calendars. The Bowie provenance stamp attracted intense bidding for these paintings. Peter Lanyon, David Bomberg,  Lyon Hitchens, names that usually are not found in well publicized evening sales. All found renewed interest from collectors due to their having “David Bowie” in their provenance.

Provenance, Provenance, Provenance. It is possible to over-inflate the value provided by having a beloved collector in the ownership history of an object. There have been few names as celebrated as Bowie when it comes to creative pursuits—seeing his name in the provenance is a stamp of approval that tells whoever visits your house: “You know David Bowie? Yeah, well we have the same taste in art”.

Freddie Mercury

Just a few days ago, Sotheby’s announced a single owner sale from the collection of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury. The sale will be made up of 1500 objects that have been sitting in the singer’s house for the last 30 years since his death in 1991.

The lots in the sale hark back to that of the 1988 Elton John sale. Expect die-hard Queen fans to be very excited come September; hand-written lyric sheets, stage-worn costumes, as well as  Japanese art, and Victorian paintings; eclectic to say the least.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge"

That is not to say it won’t be a smash-hit for the house. Elton’s sale was made up of basically everything in his house and it was a rousing success, beating the high estimate by over $3 million.

“Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own” is made up of six total sales, three in London and three online. The details for each of the 1500 lots has yet to be released, but the low estimate has been set at £6 million.

Elton John and Bowie were both afforded the opportunity to adjust their path in collecting; John to photography and Bowie to paintings. It leaves us thinking—if Freddie wasn’t taken from the world so young—what new and beautiful things would he have found to collect?

Photo Credit: Sotheby's

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