20 February 2024

How Freddie Mercury's piano achieved the world's highest ever price for a piano at auction

By Julie Webb Client Director

Everyone in the music world is talking about the world record-breaking price of £1.74m (including fees) paid for Freddie Mercury’s Yamaha baby grand piano at the Freddie Mercury: ‘A World of His Own’ auction at Sotheby’s in London.

The piano achieved the top price among 35,000 possessions in 1,500 lots that went under the hammer after Freddie’s closest friend Mary Austin, to whom he left his London home Garden Lodge, decided to sell the whole contents.

The sale certainly opened my eyes to the fact that Freddie was not just a musician and showman, but a real connoisseur of the art from ceramics and textiles to Japanese art, art deco and nouveau objects, and works by Picasso, Miró, Fabergé and Tiffany.

I joined piano auctioneer Sean Mcllroy for early access viewing of the piano in New Bond Street, ahead of 14,000 fans who took advantage of seeing Freddie’s memorabilia, lyrics and musical instruments displayed across the whole of the upper and lower galleries.

Sean, director of Piano Auctions Ltd, was on cloud nine when bidding for Freddie’s Yamaha reached £1.4m plus fees as he had been involved in early discussions with Sotheby’s, not just regarding valuation, but assisting with a condition report and cataloguing.

Sean said: “I couldn’t believe Sotheby’s had come to me for advice. At first they asked for a valuation of two pianos without any hint of who had owned them.

“The first one, the 1973 Yamaha 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, 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.

“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.

“According to Mary Austin he ‘searched intensely, for weeks, in numerous stores’ for a piano that would meet his musical needs and fit into his living room. He eventually found the piano at Harrods. It cost around £1,000 and filled one third of their sitting room.

“Sotheby’s put no reserve price on the piano and highlighted the real magic on its website: ‘In the spring and summer of 1975 Freddie was working on his most ambitious song yet, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the rich sound of his new instrument surely encouraged Freddie to embrace greater grandeur and range when working on his masterpiece’. Mary also adds: ‘It was an extension of himself, his vehicle of creativity. He would never smoke at the piano or rest a glass on top of it and would ensure nobody else did either. The piano was always pristine’.

“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 Yamaha 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 my report including details: Yamaha No E1683689, 1973, 5ft 7in model Y G2 in a bright ebonised polyester case, raised on square tapered legs, terminating in brass cappings and castors and faux-ivory keys (so, importantly not affected by the 2018 CITES Ivory Act) alongside details on the sound board and general wear.

“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.

“I also submitted a condition report for Freddie’s 1934 Chinoiserie grand piano, thought to have been bought in New York in 1977. The black lacquered and chinoiserie case by John Broadwood & Sons was also in pristine condition and put on display in the exhibition’s Japanese Room. It looked really stunning and sold for £444,500, against an estimate of £40,000 – £60,000.

“This piano’s age was an important factor because, being built before 1947 with ivory keys, meant under Article 10 of the CITES Act, it was exempt from a no-sale ban as long as it was registered with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

“Every single item at the auction sold (known as a ‘white glove sale’), often at 10 times or more than the estimate. A total of £12.2 million was achieved, so Sotheby’s valuer Rachel Reilly got the timing and measure of the auction right.

“Queen fans from the 1980s are now at least in their mid-50s and a generation with some disposable income. Freddie also appeals to a whole new generation through films such as The Final Act as well as the theatre show We Will Rock You, with younger fans learning how his death, in 1991, at the age of 45 from health complications relating to AIDS, marked a turning point in history and a greater awareness and understanding of the illness.”

More ‘A World of his Own’ music-related auction lots

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

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

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 c.1978 £330,200 (estimate £200,000-300,000)

Autograph draft working lyrics for We Are The Champions c.1977 £317,500 (estimate £200,000-300,000)

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

1960s-70s acoustic guitar, £50,800 (estimate £2,000-£3,000)

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 prides itself on a personal and bespoke service and is one of the world’s largest specialist auctioneers of pianos, with a global network stretching from the UK and Europe to Australia, China, Japan and the USA, catering for the needs of private buyers and vendors, professional musicians and the piano trade.

Visit pianoauctions.co.uk

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