Under Pressure: Putting a price on provenance

6 minutes

When it came to stage presence, Freddie Mercury was the world’s greatest showman – but who knew the singer-songwriter had such impeccable taste in art, jewels, furniture and collectibles?

The Freddie Mercury: ‘A World of His Own’ auction at Sotheby’s in London opened my eyes to a real connoisseur – and the eye-watering bids, often going 10 or even 20 times over the estimate, demonstrated the power of provenance when it comes to auction prices.

Freddie travelled the world collecting wonderful treasures and kept them in pristine condition at his London home, Garden Lodge.

He never made it to Russia but that didn’t stop him starting a Carl Fabergé collection and he famously said: “They wouldn’t let us into Russia. They thought we’d corrupt the youth or something.”

(Image, left: A classic Faberge gem-set, nephrite and enamel desk clock. Image, centre: Tiffany Co. silver moustache comb. Image, right: ©Denis O’Regan (www.denis.uk) Freddie Mercury, Queen - Wembley Stadium 1986, Photograph by ©Denis O’Regan.)

Among 35,000 possessions in 1,500 lots that went under the hammer, a Fabergé jewelled pink gold and silver-mounted guilloché enamel nephrite desk clock sold for £69,850 (estimate £30,000 - 50,000) while the bidders went wild for a tiny Fabergé jewelled gold-mounted agate vesta case, circa 1890, which sold for £95,250 against an estimate of £6,000-8,000.

On the subject of crazy little things, Freddie’s tiny 20th century silver Tiffany moustache comb was a stand-out lot at £152,400, smashing the estimate of £400-600. Not surprisingly, stage clothes also got temperatures rising, with a rainbow-coloured satin arrow appliqué jacket worn on the 1982 ‘Hot Space’ tour going under the hammer for £203,200 (estimate £10,000-15,000) and the signature crown and cloak ensemble worn throughout the 1986 'Magic' tour achieved £482,600 (estimate £400,000-600,000).

In fact, every single item at the auction sold (known as a 'white glove' auction) and a total of £12.2 million was achieved.

The collection came to Sotheby’s after Freddie’s closest friend, Mary Austin, to whom he left Garden Lodge, decided to sell the whole contents. Since Freddie’s death in 1991, Mary had left every item in place ensuring they stayed in pristine condition.

Sotheby’s Head of Valuations Rachel Reilly displayed the lots across the whole of Sotheby’s upper and lower floors, in themed galleries for the six auction sale events: The Evening Sale, At Home, On Stage, In Love with Japan, Crazy Little Things I and II.

The September sale was timed perfectly, with the exhibition of lots beautifully displayed, and attracting Queen fans from the 1980s who are now at least in their mid-50s and a generation with some disposable income.

More than 14,000 fans filed through the exhibition including a new generation who have learned how Freddie’s death, at the age of 45 from health complications relating to AIDS, marked a turning point in history to bring a greater awareness and understanding of the illness.

Among the extraordinary collection of Japanese art, Utagawa Hiroshige’s ‘Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake’ was another top lot, achieving £292,100 (estimate £30,000-50,000). As one of Hiroshige’s most famous designs, it is the masterpiece of the series ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’. With dense clouds gathered in the sky releasing a heavy summer downpour, pedestrians hurry across the bridge, huddled under umbrellas or capes while a solitary boatman guides his raft of logs along the river.

Freddie bought a beautiful James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot painting near the end of his life – ‘Type of Beauty: Portrait of Mrs. Kathleen Newton’ which went under the hammer for £482,000. The artist’s muse and mistress, Kathleen, wears flamboyant clothing with a nod to Japoniste taste suggested by the black fan and the blooming flowers surrounding her, which would have appealed to Freddie's love of fashion, Japanese style and gardens.

20th century prints also held up well; a 1962 Pablo Picasso linoleum cut print, ‘Jaqueline au chapeau noir’, impression number 3 from the edition of 50 achieved £190,500 (estimate £50,000-70,000) while ‘Masque blanc sur fond noir’ by Henri Matisse, conceived in 1949-50 and printed in 1966 sold for £30,480 (estimate £3,000-5,000).

(Image: James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, Type of Beauty Portrait of Mrs. Kathleen Newton.)

A world record-breaker

I joined piano auctioneer Sean Mcllroy for early access viewing at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street, ahead of the sale and the fans who took advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Freddie’s possessions at the ‘A World of his Own’ exhibition.

A huge moustache over the entrance had everyone smiling, but none more so than Sean, director of Piano Auctions Ltd, who was on cloud nine when bidding for Freddie’s Yamaha baby grand piano which reached a world record-breaking price of £1.74m (including fees) for a piano at auction.

Sean had been involved in early discussions with Sotheby’s, not just regarding valuation, but assisting with a condition report and cataloguing.

Sean told me: “At first they asked for a valuation of two pianos without any hint of who had owned them. The first one, the 1973 Yahama baby grand Y G2 would usually sell at around £3,000-£5,000 while a 1930s Challen grand piano, lacquered in a Chinoiserie style, tends to sell at around £2,000.

“Six months after an initial chat with Sotheby’s Head of Valuations Rachel Reilly, she asked me to meet her and sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). By then the Freddie Mercury auction had been announced and as I was driving into London I guessed who the owner of the pianos might be.

“I expect Sotheby’s used many consultants across the whole collection of fashion, furniture, jewels, art, lyrics and memorabilia but I was the piano man and really excited. This was such a huge privilege to be involved in a sale that encapsulated the music, glamour and history of my youth.

(Image: Freddie Mercury's Yamaha Baby Grand Piano which broke all auction records for a piano.)

“Then came the difficult bit. If Sotheby’s asked, how would I put a price on provenance? Even if I did not have to give an official valuation, I was sure a ‘whisper in the ear figure’ would be asked – and yes, an off-the-record conversation did take place.

“Provenance is the hardest thing in the world to put a figure on at auction but I knew, with musical instruments, the highest provenance comes when a top artist has owned an instrument.

“Ownership is much more important than just having played or practised on an instrument. Freddie Mercury would have played on hundreds of pianos, but he owned the Yamaha on which he composed some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

“I had also learned the piano was Freddie’s first instrument. He took piano lessons at school in India and, as a teenager, he was the pianist in his band The Hectics. The piano was his musical outlet after moving to England in 1964 and, although he found his voice and showmanship with Queen, the piano was always at the heart of his music and it remained his principal composition instrument.

“So, with this cherished baby grand at the heart of an extraordinary story, unrivalled in modern pop and rock music, when I sat at the Yahama to test the keys and produce the condition report I couldn’t help myself and played the first few bars of Bohemian Rhapsody.

“The spirit of the late Queen frontman certainly got to me, but I kept my head to complete the report. When it came to my thoughts on value, I used the guideline from when singer George Michael bought John Lennon’s piano in 2000 for around £1.45m. I felt we were talking a similar level of megastar and I think we got it just right.”

(Image: Queue at Sotheby's with moustache over main door.)

More ‘A World of His Own’ highlights

Hand-written lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody written on a British Midlands Airways 1974 calendar, £1,379,000 (est £800,000-£1.2m)

Silver snake bangle, worn in Bohemian Rhapsody video, 1975, £698,500 (estimate £7,000 -£9,000)

Autograph manuscript draft lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody, c.1974 £698,500 (estimate £7,000-9,000)

1934 black lacquered and chinoiserie case piano by John Broadwood & Sons, £444,500 (£40,000-£60,0000).
Note: Being built before 1947 with ivory keys, meant under Article 10 of the CITES Act, this piano was exempt from a no-sale ban as long as it was registered with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Wurlitzer Model 850 'Peacock' design duke box by Paul Fuller, £406,400 (estimate £200,000-300,000)

Notebook with autograph manuscript lyrics for songs in the album Jazz, £330,200 (estimate £200,000-300,000)

Autograph draft working lyrics for 'We Are The Champions', £317,500 (estimate £200,000-300,000)

Autograph manuscript draft lyrics for 'Don't Stop Me Now', £317,500 (estimate £120,000-180,000)

About Sean McIlory
Sean McIlroy, a former associate director at Bonhams and previously Phillips, launched Piano Auctions Ltd with co-director Richard Reason in 2003. The company is one of the world’s largest specialist auctioneers of pianos with a global network catering for the needs of private buyers and vendors, professional musicians and the piano trade. Visit pianoauctions.co.uk

Insurance advice

If you own an item with special provenance, be sure to add the information to your insurance policy as this could impact its value. Retain the invoice, paperwork, photographs and serial number (if relevant) as effective record-keeping is an essential part of building a collection.

You will need to keep up to date with its value, as in the event of a claim you don’t want to realise you’re underinsured. It’s also important to decide upon the basis of valuation. Most times it should be for insurance purposes, but in some circumstances you may be able to insure at auction value, although bear in mind that what you agree may be the most you get back.

To speak to Howden about your insurance, please call 020 8256 4901 or email privateclients@howdeninsurance.co.uk