T he one thing I would really miss if I left Britain would be Sotheby’s,” Freddie Mercury once told an interviewer. “I love going to auctions.”
The lead vocalist and principal songwriter of Queen – one of the most-successful acts of all time, with 300 million records sold globally since they formed in 1971 – delighted in filling his Kensington home with rare and beautiful antiques and fine objects. Some of his most-treasured pieces were bought at London sales at the height of the band’s commercial success in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the first week of September, his favourite London auction house will hold six Mercury-related sales – the first time Sotheby’s has dedicated so many consecutive sales to a single collector, in honour of a man who would bid in person or send friends on his behalf.
“The whole building will become Freddie,” says David Macdonald, senior director and Sotheby’s expert in single-estate sales. “The run-up will be the longest public preview in our history.” Bringing together Mercury’s inner and outer worlds, it will tell the story of one man’s extraordinary vision, artistry and taste. Featured objects range from the instruments, lyrics and costumes that made magic on stage – including the iconic crown and cloak worn on his final Queen tour – to artworks by Matisse and Picasso, and even his Tiffany & Co. silver moustache comb.
“Mercury delighted in filling his Kensington home with rare and beautiful antiques”
One of the six auctions will be titled In Love With Japan, focusing on Mercury’s collection of Japanese works of art, particularly those of the 19th and early 20th century. It includes fine ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Taishō and Shōwa period ceramics and lacquer from the Edo period. The sale reveals not only Mercury’s deep fascination with the country, but also a serious, intellectual streak within the exuberant showman. A separate auction, On Stage, will focus on Mercury’s spectacular costumes, including some of his exquisite kimonos, which he wore in performances as well as at home.
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on the East African island of Zanzibar in 1946, where his father worked for the British colonial office. His Indian-Parsi parents fled the Zanzibar revolution in 1964, arriving with their children in London as British citizens. Mercury studied graphic design before forming the band that would become Queen with guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bass guitarist John Deacon.
His international, peripatetic early life seems to have shaped a sharp intellect and global curiosity. Mercury bought antiques and artefacts all over the world: not only from auctions but also from dealers, air-freighting them back to his home in Kensington.
Mercury’s affection for Japan can perhaps be traced to a sequence of events beginning in the US. In 1975, the band toured America – then, as it is now, the most important music market in the world – to promote their album Sheer Heart Attack. There were disappointments, including cancelled dates due to Mercury straining his vocal cords. Mercury described the band as being “dogged by bad luck” at that time, in Freddie Mercury: A Life in His Own Words.
Later that year, by contrast, Japanese fans greeted Queen with rapture and respect on their first visit to the country. Thousands turned up to greet them at the airport, and the band played in eight cities. Though they later achieved huge success in the US, Mercury talked in interviews of the boost the band received from Japanese fans at a crucial point in their career. In return, the frontman was an enthusiastic cultural advocate. He said: “I loved it there: the lifestyle, the people, the art. Wonderful!” Mercury’s deep care for the country was cemented.
“Of Japan, Mercury said: ‘I loved it there: the lifestyle, the people, the art. Wonderful!”
One extraordinary aspect of the Japanese collection, says Mark Hinton, director, head of Japanese works of art, London, is how it illuminates the studious aspect of Mercury’s character. He collected books and catalogues, and “in 1986 he went to Arita in Kyushu, a town a long way out of Tokyo that is famous for its ceramics,” says Hinton. “Among other wares, he would have found are those of Fukugawa and Koransha, many examples of which appear in the sale.”
Even more revelatory is how Mercury displayed the treasures he collected in his home. In 1980, he bought the Garden Lodge in Kensington – a large detached neo-Georgian house in west London – and lived there until his death. The house was the former home of the artists Cecil Rae and Constance Halford. Mercury turned what had been their joint studio into a large room for parties and entertainment, the part of the house into which guests would be invited.
Less public was a ground-floor drawing room, which became the “Japanese Room”, dressed by Mercury in the Japanese style as a tribute to the country for which he felt such affinity. There were no parties here. It was, says Macdonald, a room dedicated to privacy, study and comfort, “far, far removed from his stage world”. “To be invited into that space was a big honour,” Macdonald continues. “It was not for everyone.”
The Japanese Room was full of antique furniture and objects, from Edo to Shōwa period porcelain to lacquered boxes and japanned chairs with pagoda-like backs. An antique tsuitate partition decorated with carp on an inky ground stood in front of the fireplace, mirroring the singer’s cherished koi pond in the garden. The centrepiece was a baby grand piano made by John Broadwood & Sons in 1900, decorated with chinoiserie scenes and bought by Mercury in New York then shipped to London. Other highlights include a rare, 17th-century porcelain Kakiemon bowl decorated with Ho-o birds, and a set of four lacquered wood and glass candle stands, which would be lit for guests.
At Garden Lodge, “decoration was a considered process and suggests an intellectualising of the everyday,” says Macdonald. Mercury’s collection of 18th and 19th-century woodblock prints – some of which were bought in Sotheby’s 1977 London sale of important Japanese prints from the collection of the French fine jeweller Henri Vever – was particularly well-considered. Both Macdonald and Hinton say that one of the important highlights at Garden Lodge was Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake, made by Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857 as part of his One Hundred Views of Edo series. Van Gogh so admired the work, he painted a copy of it, which hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The Hiroshige print will be offered with an estimate of £30,000–£50,000.
Mercury alluded to collecting as a retreat in interviews. “I have to be surrounded by something, even if it’s just objets d’art,” he said. “So I collect a lot… I suppose it’s a sort of shy outlook.” Macdonald explains that Mercury was doing so within a very competitive market, but “there was no way he was looking at this stuff as an investment. He bought it because he loved it”. He was ahead of his time, too. “When he was collecting, a lot of people in Japan were buying Impressionist paintings. Freddie was doing the opposite to those Japanese buyers inspired to collect western art.”
Mercury’s untimely death as a result of Aids complications in 1991 shocked his fans all over the world. It came just 24 hours after a public statement had been released about his diagnosis.
When we speak, Macdonald and Hinton are still cataloguing for the sales: a huge task of sifting, sorting and valuing a house full of treasures. They believe September will offer many a chance to understand more closely a side to Mercury that, until now, has largely remained hidden: the deeply passionate and considered collector.
“He had a certain style, a certain taste,” says Hinton. “And he did it all on his own.”
Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own Collection Book | Pre-Order Available Now
£50, worldwide shipping available
This limited edition volume presents selected highlights from Freddie Mercury’s personal collection at Garden Lodge, ranging from artworks and ephemera to stage costumes and handwritten lyrics, as well as dozens of photographs from his archive.
Cover image: Performing in California, March 1977.