The 'Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own' auction series that took place 6-13 September, 2023 was a unique event. Featuring excitement, surprises, humour, poignancy and lots of money, it was experienced by thousands of people around the world, and provided an education on how auctions work. The items for sale were taken from Garden Lodge, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury's home in London where he spent his final days.
I like to be surrounded by splendid things... I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.
- Freddie Mercury
Although Freddie Mercury travelled around the world with Queen and lived in various places, Garden Lodge was his home in London from 1980. There he composed many famous songs, and also held parties for his friends. Early in 1991 he had been working at a recording studio in Montreux, Switzerland, but he moved back to Garden Lodge in June of that year. He died of HIV/AIDS-related illness on 24 November, 1991. He bequeathed the house and its contents to his best friend Mary Austin, who had known him since 1970.
For more than 30 years, Garden Lodge stayed much as it had been during Freddie's life, filled with the items that he had collected over the years including Queen memorabilia and awards, musical instruments, clothes and books, plus artworks that he purchased from Sotheby's and other auction houses. In 2023, Mary decided to sell all of the items, apart from a few personal mementos, 'to put [her] affairs in order'. Sotheby's were enlisted for the task.
How Auctions Work
The basic principle of this type of auction is that people bid an amount they are willing to pay for an item, and the one who wants the item most pays the most.
Items can be viewed before the auction, either via the sales catalogue or by visiting the sale room. All items are valued before being added to the catalogue, and an estimate of how much they are likely to sell for is made. A seller can set a 'reserve' - the lowest amount they will accept for their item. This is usually higher than the starting bid, but must be less than or equal to the lowest estimate of the value of the item.
Bids can either be accepted in advance of the auction (when a maximum bid can be set and the auctioneer will bid on a person's behalf up to that maximum) or during the auction itself (either by people in the sale room, people speaking to sale room staff on the telephone, or people bidding online via an app). The auctioneer stands at a rostrum and takes bids in order - if someone in the room bids the same amount as someone who made an advance bid, the advance bidder takes it as they placed their bid first. When it looks like everyone has finished bidding, the auctioneer gives 'fair warning' (just in case someone decides to make a last-minute bid), then 'brings the hammer down' (bangs a gavel on the rostrum) to confirm the winning bid.
After the sale, the buyer pays for the item (plus a premium to the auction house, and any taxes due). The item is either collected on the day, or delivered to the buyer. The seller receives the remainder of the winning bid (the 'hammer price') after the auction house's commission has been deducted.
Many of the items from Garden Lodge were put on display at Sotheby's in London. Some items, such as furniture and ornaments, were laid out in 'rooms' like they would have been in the house. Other items, such as Freddie's extensive collection of kimonos, were displayed on stands or hangers for easy viewing. His stage costumes, and items from his personal wardrobe, were displayed on Freddie-shaped mannequins. Around 140,000 people visited to see the display, which was a record number for any London auction series dedicated to a single person.
A portion of the proceeds was donated to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity set up in Freddie's memory in 1992 to help with the fight against HIV/AIDS. Proceeds from the sale of items that had been gifts to Freddie from his friend and fellow musician Elton John were donated to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
There were mixed feelings before the sale, and many commenters suggested the items should have been kept together and turned into a museum. Queen guitarist Brian May said: 'Freddie's most intimate personal effects, and writings that were part of what we shared for so many years, will go under the hammer, to be knocked down to the highest bidder and dispersed forever. I can't look. To us, his closest friends and family, it's too sad.' However, other people mentioned reports from the time that Freddie bequeathed his estate to Mary because he wanted the house to be lived in, not to become a museum. The sale allowed fans to see into Freddie's world, and learn about his love of auctions. It also enabled (rich) fans1 to buy a piece of his history and increase his legacy to the world.
'The Evening Sale'
The first auction in the series, 'The Evening Sale', took place on 6 September, 2023 from 5.00pm to 9.30pm. The event was live streamed on YouTube, so people from around the world could see the auctioneer, the audience in the room, and the sale room staff on the telephones. The auctioneer and sale room staff were in evening wear, and some members of the audience even dressed up as Freddie.
The sale started strongly. The Garden Lodge gate, covered in the graffiti that had been drawn by fans wanting to pay tribute to Freddie, was the first item to be auctioned - the hammer price of £350,000 was more than ten times the estimate of £15,000-25,000. Decorative items by famous names including Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique also exceeded expectations. Enthusiasm for artworks was more limited, however - one painting failed to meet the reserve price at first attempt. It was auctioned again at the end of the session, and was successfully sold, but fetched thousands less than the estimate of £70,000-90,000 suggested it would. Freddie's favourite piano also failed to meet the expectations of its £2-3 million estimate, but even so £1.4 million was a record amount paid for a composer's piano.
Items more personal to Freddie were in higher demand - the snake bangle that he often wore in the 1970s (including in the video for 'Bohemian Rhapsody') fetched £550,000 - the estimate had been £7,000-9,000. The handwritten lyrics to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' sold for more than a million pounds, as expected. The crown and cloak that Freddie wore at the finale of gigs in the 'Magic Tour' of 1986 fetched half a million pounds, illustrating his status as rock royalty.
The auctioneer's sales patter was persuasive yet humorous - he didn't miss the opportunity to quote Queen lyrics and say that the bidders would be 'waiting for the hammer to fall'2. The auction was a 'White Glove Sale' - to confirm that all the items had been sold, a white glove was brought to the auctioneer. To finish the event, the auctioneer hammered out the rhythm of Queen's anthemic song 'We Will Rock You' on the rostrum and the audience joined in.
'On Stage' and 'At Home'
The second and third auctions in the series were a blend of online and traditional bidding. Unlike in 'The Evening Sale', when advanced bids were only revealed during the auction, for these sales people were able to bid online and see the value of the highest advance bid before the auction started. The events were not live streamed on YouTube, but a live stream of the auctioneer's rostrum could be viewed via the Sotheby's website and app. The sessions started at 10.00am and lasted for more than eight hours, with several different auctioneers taking a turn on the rostrum.
The sales again saw a mixture of outcomes. Artworks that inspired Freddie's costume designs sold well. Large items of furniture were sold for relatively low amounts, while small ornaments commanded relatively high prices (perhaps due to being bid on by people wanting souvenirs of the event that didn't require much storage space) - for example a silver cat measuring less than 2½in (6cm) in length sold for £17,000 from an estimate of £100-150. In a meta moment, three of the lots being auctioned by Sotheby's included Sotheby's catalogues. They also sold for thousands rather than the hundreds of pounds that had been expected.
At the end of the third auction, the auctioneer thanked the exhibition visitors, the Sotheby's clients old and new, Mary Austin, and Freddie Mercury himself. Then the rhythm of 'We Will Rock You' was again hammered out on the rostrum.
'In Love With Japan' and 'Crazy Little Things'
The last three sales in the series were online-only auctions. These enabled more items to be sold in a shorter amount of time than a live auction3, as bids could be taken on several items at any one time. Items were scheduled to close at one-minute intervals, but if someone bid within the final 60 seconds then the item stayed open for a further two minutes - this could happen numerous times for an item, so other items could close in the meantime. This worked well - the countdown timers were fascinating to watch. The only disadvantage was that it could be tricky for buyers interested in items close together in the listings, as they couldn't be sure whether they had won the first item before deciding to bid on the second. The online auction was also not like eBay, where people can bid what they like, such as £42.01. In these auctions the amounts had to go up in roughly 10% increments - for example, bids between £20,000 and £30,000 went up by £2,000 each time.
Even though there was no human auctioneer using sales patter to persuade people to bid higher, some items still sold for surprisingly high amounts. The first online auction was titled 'In Love with Japan' and included items that Freddie had purchased when Queen had toured in East Asia, plus items he had bought from Sotheby's and other auction houses to add to his collection. Several 18th Century woodblock prints sold within their estimates of £6,000-£8,000, but other items again exceeded expectations - for example several incense boxes sold for at least 10 times their £2,000 estimate.
The 'Crazy Little Things' auctions contained miscellaneous merchandise, including ornaments, books, kitchenware and clothing - vests, wristbands and even tiger-feet-shaped slippers. Cat- and fish-related items sold for vastly more than their estimates, but even sets of plates or spoons commanded four-figure price tags. A lot named '[Freddie Mercury] His personal record collection'4 sold for £70,000 even though it included albums by fellow Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor that hadn't been produced until after Freddie's death.
The biggest surprise of the auction series was a moustache comb by Tiffany, the famous jewellery design company. It had been estimated to sell for £100-150. However, by 18 August bids had already reached £24,000. At the start of the auction on 13 September, advance bids had reached £100,000. It looked like the price couldn't go any higher, but then in the final two seconds another bid was placed. The lot stayed open for two more minutes, so yet another bid was placed. This time there was no drama as the timer counted down - the final hammer price was £120,000.
Based on the estimates, the sale was expected to raise around £6 million. In actual fact, the total of the hammer prices was over £31 million, so the auction house had considerably underestimated the passion for Freddie Mercury and his world. For those people fortunate enough to purchase an item, the auction was a thrilling event - there were no guarantees of success until very moment the hammer fell or the countdown timer reached zero. For those who placed bids but were unsuccessful, it was educational to experience the different auction formats. A limited-edition book about the sale was also on offer as a consolation prize or souvenir of the event. Even for those Freddie fans who watched rather than being able to participate, the auction series and its results provided a talking point both online and offline.