Champagne, Elton and million-pound lyrics: Inside the eye-watering Freddie Mercury auction

Black tie isn’t a dress code you hear very often anymore. Even the most upscale of weddings tend to be cocktail affairs – but if any occasion were to call for a sharp tuxedo, it would be tonight: the first of Sotheby’s six evening auctions to sell off Freddie Mercury’s belongings to the highest bidder.

A Tiffany moustache comb, the scribbled-down lyrics to “Don’t Stop Me Now”, his Yamaha baby grand piano: the Queen frontman left these and everything else he owned to Mary Austin, his close friend and first love. Now, more than 32 years after Mercury’s death, Austin is selling it all at Sotheby’s in the largest single-collector sale the prestigious Bond Street auction house has hosted in years. A portion of the proceeds will go to charity, one lump to the Mercury Phoenix Trust and another to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. How much, however, is unclear.

The mood is jovial and buzzes with anticipation. Champagne is the only drink available besides water and empty glasses are topped up attentively. To the left of the stage is a row of telephone auctioneers standing at attention as they wait for the billionaires on the other end to submit their bids. Those in attendance appear similarly expectant, eyes cast upwards where some of the lots hang proudly on display.

One such item is Mercury’s iconic rainbow jacket, worn by the musician for the Hot Space tour in 1982; it is later bid on by a latecomer who is wearing an exact replica. Paddles are at the ready when the thunderous sound of “We Will Rock You” filters through the room from above, triggering a Sotheby’s-wide stomp-and-clap motion.

The auction begins in suitably starry fashion: Mercury’s dear friend and fellow dilettante Sir Elton John has sent a letter to be read aloud by principal auctioneer Oliver Barker. “I miss Freddie to this day,” reads the note. “He was a wonderful friend, more full of love and life than anyone I’ve ever met.” (An hour or so later, the Cartier onyx and diamond ring gifted to Freddie from Elton sells for £273,000, nearly 70 times its estimate.)

As Barker introduces the lots for tonight, he speaks not only of Freddie the musician but Freddie the man. He suggests the items for sale promise to shine a light upon his much-talked-about private life. It’s a touching sentiment, but also one I can’t help recall when Brian May later criticises the auction, writing that it was “too sad” to see his bandmate’s “personal effects” be “knocked down to the highest bidder”.

First up is Lot 1: a garden door ripped off its hinges from the musician’s Kensington home. Splattered with graffiti left by fans from around the world who made the pilgrimage to visit the property, the door remains a testament to Mercury and his throng of acolytes – as devoted today as they were then.

In the crowd, among the suits, is a Freddie doppelgänger. Wearing a white wife-beater, matching skinny jeans, and a wonderfully thick moustache, he is the spitting image of the man we’ve all gathered here tonight to honour. (As it turns out, he is Phil Copping, the lead singer of a well-respected tribute band called Supersonic Queen.)

Cheers and whoops erupt as Barker’s hammer falls at a price of £400,000 for the garden door, far exceeding – as many of the evening’s lots do – Sotheby’s modest estimate of £25,000. Not long after, Freddie’s silver snake bangle, the very same one worn by the singer in the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, surpasses its £9,000 estimate within seconds to reach a bid of £698,500.

Barker, who previously oversaw Sotheby’s sale of David Bowie’s art collection in 2016, is an endearing emcee, routinely charming a further £10,000 or £20,000 from respective bidders as easily as taking candy from a baby. “Is that your wife next to you, sir? May as I say, this would make a lovely gift,” he says of Lot 29, a Fifties diamond brooch in the shape of a feather that fetches £171,450. There is jewellery and catsuits, knick-knacks and kimonos, but it’s the big-ticket Queen-related commodities that draw the loudest oohs and aahs.

Mercury’s signature crown and red cloak ensemble go for £635,000, while the autographed manuscript lyrics to 1975’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” fetch upwards of £1.38m. The baby grand piano on which the same song was composed, however, is one of few items tonight that attracts less than Sotheby’s estimate.

The sleek black instrument fetches £1.74m from an online bidder. It’s not a shabby amount by any means, and is, in fact, a record high price paid for a composer’s piano – but it is a far way away from the £3m figure the auction house had predicted.

As the evening draws to a celebratory close – three hours, 59 lots and millions of pounds later – I think back to a particular entreaty of Barker’s: “Come on, it’s worth the price. It’s Freddie’s!” The bidders tonight certainly believed so.

Lyrics to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (1979) sold for £317,500

A woman wearing an exact replica bids on Freddie Mercury’s iconic rainbow jacket

Mercury’s signature crown and cloak ensemble – worn at the end of every ‘The Magic Tour’ gig – ascends to £635,000, more than 10 times the low estimate.

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