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Mercury Sale: Rockstar Provenance and Underestimated Objects

Mercury Sale: Rockstar Provenance and Underestimated Objects
September 14, 2023
Keenan Flack

This is the fourth edition of a multi-part blog series produced in partnership with The Realest on the key events and factors shaping the modern music memorabilia market. The Realest is the first dedicated authentication standard and marketplace for music memorabilia.

Back in April of this year Sotheby’s announced a 6-part sale made up of over a thousand objects from the collection of one Freddie Mercury. Spending a lifetime as the frontman of Queen endowed him, and thereby his estate, with countless artifacts connected to one of the most beloved bands of the last century. Instruments, outfits, fine art, knick-knacks, what have you…Sotheby’s sold it all. 

The sales were a smashing success, netting £39.9 million against a low estimate of £7.6 million initially forecasted by Sotheby’s. Starting on September 6th, the House spent a week in London selling nearly every piece in Mercury’s collection, by way of his ex-fiancee and long time friend Mary Austin. 

Mercury not only collected priceless objects from his career with Queen but was also an avid auction-goer. His proclivity for bidding was evidenced by lot 665 in the ‘At Home’ sale–a collection of fourteen well-worn Sotheby’s and Christie’s sale catalogs from 1991, the year of his death. That lot, by the way, was only estimated to sell for between £200 and £300 but instead reached £12,700. Over 63 times the low estimate.

Photo: Sotheby’s

The initial evening sale that began the week of Freddie-mania, wherein a reported 140,000 people descended on Sotheby’s London to view the collection, yielded an impressive “white glove” showing, meaning each and every lot that went up to the block was successfully sold. More impressively, the estimates of between £4.8 million and £7.2 million were decimated with a sale total of £12,172,290 ($15.2mm) and an aggregate hammer of £9,613,563 ($12mm).

Photo: Sotheby’s

Even with certain higher-estimate objects like Mercury’s piano or an Eugen von Blaas canvas selling below estimates, the aggregate hammer-to-low-estimate ratio was still 1.99. Meaning: even before fees, the total sales nearly doubled Sotheby’s projections. Averaging the hammer ratios of all 59 lots in the evening sale would give you a hammer ratio of 9x, pulled up by the numerous lower end lots that severely outkicked their coverage. This phenomenon can be somewhat explained by Sotheby’s head of single client sales, David Macdonald, who said:

“When it comes to the more everyday objects, the brief to the team was to please put these things up at market value because you can’t anticipate someone’s love for it — you can’t value love”

Justification for imprecise estimates or marketing strategy to stir up bidding wars? You decide!

Photos: Sotheby’s
Graphic: Altan Insights

The real star of the evening sale was the lyric sheets handwritten by Mercury in crafting some of Queen’s most memorable tracks. Among the 27 Mercury lyric lots that were sold by Sotheby’s 14 of them broke the six-figure barrier; the house’s site only shows nine previous lyric lots to have previously done the same. 

In total, the 27 lyric lots found £4.9 million against an aggregated low estimate of just £2 million. This surge in lyric sales underscores the immense value collectors see in pulling back the curtain on his creative process. 

It is maybe an explanation into why the piano went relatively underappreciated compared to these lots. The handwritten lyrics give collectors a glimpse into the creative process of one of music’s most beloved songwriters; the piano - albeit a very nice one - may have many stories to tell, but collectors can’t see the various trials and tribulations of the songwriting journey. Not to mention it’s far easier to find a spot for a piece of paper than a grand piano. Though if you’ve got the cash for either, you probably have the real estate for it. 

Sotheby’s has become somewhat of a specialist when it comes to selling the collections of British rock stars. Before Mercury, Elton John and David Bowie both sold their collections at the house, achieving similar success to the Mercury sale. Bowie’s sold for £24.4 million against a low estimate of  £8.1 million in 2016 and Elton John’s totaled $8.22 million against a low estimate of $5.1 million in 1988. 

The context of each sale is as deep as the collections they were selling. Elton John’s is more comparable to this most recent sale, using the sale as a means to clean out his home of decades of early career memorabilia and start fresh. Freddie is sadly not alive to use this sale to “clean house”, but Mary Austin, his  longtime friend and steward of his collection did note that selling the collection will allow her to move on. She sold nearly all of Freddie’s possessions, keeping only a few photos and personal items. 

Mercury and John’s sales were replete with more than a thousand objects each. Anything and everything was on the table: furniture, mementos, clothing, sunglasses, records (platinum and otherwise). These sales gave hundreds of fans the opportunity to own a piece of the artist, however insignificant a stinky Adidas bag would have been to Mercury if he were alive today. Very curious to know what he would think about someone paying £10,795 for his sweat soaked bag though…

Photo: Sotheby’s

Bowie’s sale was much more traditional when it came to auction. His 2016 sale was made up of only 350 lots, nearly all of which were works of fine art from established artists. Bowie began collecting art in earnest in early 1993 when he began working with art advisor Kate Chertavian. 

Bowie’s tastes aligned with the modern art market much more so than Elton John’s or Freddie Mercury’s; the few paintings seen in the latter sales were mostly Old Masters that rarely receive as much attention as Impressionist and Contemporary offerings. Bowie, on the other hand, collected names like Basquiat, Hirst, Duchamp, and Picabia, along with quite a few works from modern British painters like Frank Auerbach and David Bomberg.

With big contemporary names, it’s harder to understand the impact of rockstar provenance on the value of a work. Bowie’s name was certainly additive to the price, but 2016 was a good time to sell a Hirst or Basquiat work anyway. The confluence of factors to the upside may have skewed the perception of the importance of Bowie’s name in the provenance. 

Mercury’s collection, however, featured quite a few artists that rarely see the limelight, composed mainly of 19th and early-20th century portraits. The standout among these artists is John Bagnold Burgess. Mercury owned two of his portraits, “A Spanish Girl” and “The Offering”, both exquisite oil paintings acquired in 1991 during a buying frenzy in the last months of his life. During this time, he acquired several works as gifts for close friends including Mary Austin and Elton John.

The Offering
Photo: Sotheby’s

Freddie purchased these works for just £3,960 (The Offering) and £4,400 (A Spanish Girl), and they sold for £82,550 and £43,180 respectively, generating CAGRs of 9.95% for the first and 7.39% for the second. It’s unlikely these works would have sold for such sums if they were not owned by Mercury. This becomes especially apparent when you consider the last five recorded Bagnold Burgess sales detailed on LiveArt generated an average hammer ratio of 0.82 and an average price of around $20,000. ‘The Offering’ and ‘A Spanish Girl’ hammered at 20.47 and 8.57 times the low estimate respectively. 

Other artists like Eugen von Blaas and William Russell Flint found their way above estimates, but more narrowly, though works by these artists in the Mercury sale did notch higher prices than their works in any other sale. Flint works in the ‘At Home’ sale hammered at an average of £26,206 vs. £1,710 when sold normally. 

As far as name-brand artists go in the Mercury sales, there were at least four depending on who you count. Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali made appearances in the evening sale, but not a single canvas was offered among them. All were either quite small works on paper or editioned works. It would seem that the Freddie provenance did the trick here as each flew past their high estimates. 

Jaqueline au chapeau noir
Photo: Sotheby’s

Most impressive was a Picasso print expected to sell for between just £50,000 and £70,000 that ended up finding a final price of £190,500 ($237,909) with fees. One might think it normal for a Picasso work to reach into the six figures, but it’s worth knowing that the man created countless editioned sets, and collectors regularly pick them up for low 4 figure prices. This one, depicting his second wife Jacqueline, is more desirable than most. However, it’s difficult to say whether the premium to estimate was derived more from the Mercury provenance or the scarcity of the set.

Cred: Denis O’Regan

In spite of a subdued art market, the Mercury sale offered a reprieve from the doom and gloom. The Mercury collection reminds us that the value of art and collectibles often transcends standard valuation philosophy. As Sotheby's showcases the rich tapestry of these rock stars' lives, it paints a vivid picture of the growing opportunities in merging art, memorabilia, and storytelling.

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