Rock on a roll: Generating huge prices at auction, collections of pop memorabilia are hot alternative assets

At a June preview of the Freddie Mercury collection that will shortly be sold by Sotheby’s, the media forms a semicircle around a young woman holding aloft the left shoe of a pair of white high-top sneakers. “These are the shoes Freddie may have performed in at the Live Aid Concert in 1985,” says Gabriel Heaton, a Specialist in the Books and Manuscripts department of the auction house, before clarifying: “However, as there are other pairs which are similar, careful checking indicates that we cannot be certain these are ones used in the Live Aid Concert.”

The fact that these Adidas shoes were worn by the flamboyant Queen frontman during the band’s mid-80s tours is enough, though, to set the room abuzz with excitement. Of all the items on display during the media tour, it is a simple pair of shoes within touching distance that generates the most interest.

As the ritual of media photo-taking gets underway, there is an almost spiritual, slightly unworldly moment in time, when Freddie himself seems close, like he is being reincarnated in a ghostly apparition. He wore these shoes as he held the audience in the palm of his hand during his mid-80s pomp when he knew his time was short, and every time he stepped onto the stage he was determined to put on the show of his life. Mercury loved the freedom of movement and comfort the high-tops brought him as he strutted, preened and sang like an angel. These sports shoes seem to represent the physical embodiment of a force of nature and everyone in the room wants a part of it.

Mercury Rising

The Adidas footwear was among 20 highlights from the collection of the flamboyant rock idol showcased in Hong Kong before a series of dedicated auctions to be held at Sotheby’s London from 4 August (online) and during 6-8 September 2023 (live). A portion of the six ‘Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own’ sales will be donated to the Mercury Phoenix Trust – an Aids charity founded by the band after the singer’s death in 1991 – and the Elton John Aids Foundation.

Part of the fascination with Freddie Mercury is that he was a complex man with multiple personalities. Heaton talks of how reserved he was, but of how he also loved to hold lavish parties. He points to Mercury’s iconic stage crown thought to be loosely modelled on the coronation crown of St Edward; a life-size picture of the maestro wearing it in his full regal attire forms a striking backdrop. The crown is estimated to sell for £30,000-£40,000 (about HK$300,000-$400,000), and as Heaton notes, Mercury donned it for the final rendition of God Save The Queen at the end of his last performance, at Knebworth Park in Hertfordshire, UK, on 9 August 1986, in front of a crowd of more than 120,000.

Rhapsody Revelations

The collection previewed in Hong Kong included handwritten working drafts of lyrics to some of his most famous songs. An early draft for Bohemian Rhapsody, the third best-selling UK single of all time, is written in black and blue ballpoint pen and pencil on stationery from the now defunct British Midlands Airways.

This is the song that changed everything for Queen, when the “volcano erupted”, as Mercury put it, and these lyrics are estimated at £800,000-£1.2 million. The page on display (from 15 in total) indicates that he originally planned to call it ‘Mongolian Rhapsody’ – ‘Mongolian’ is crossed out and replaced with the word ‘Bohemian’ – rhythmically similar but with a different resonance, as Heaton points out. The sheets reveal detailed notes on harmonies and the painstaking drafting and redrafting by a man who was modest about his composition process.

“In these pages we see Freddie Mercury wrestling in grand operatic terms with profound themes – sin, damnation, stoic acceptance – and witness the great efforts he goes to pinpointing precisely the right words to embody these emotions, and to create the most extraordinary narrative,” says Heaton.

Songs Going for a High

According to the expert, this type of memorabilia often generates huge interest. “The highest prices tend to be for original handwritten lyrics and also musical instruments when they have a significant playing history with a great musician,” he says.

Referring to the Rhapsody lyrics, he continues, “Early drafts such as these are easily lost or discarded, so the rare survival of these manuscripts provides us with fascinating insights into how his songs were developed and put together, as well as reminding us of their musical complexity and sophistication.”

Heaton adds: “There are, of course, other valuable items: rare records, stage-worn costumes and other evocative items – I sold a pair of John Lennon’s sunglasses for £137,000 a few years ago.” An ivory-hued satin catsuit inspired by the mythic god, Mercury, which was used in Bohemian Rhapsody’s groundbreaking promotional video is estimated at £50,000–£70,000.

“In general people pay high prices for music memorabilia for the same reason that they pay high prices for art or ceramics or rare books – because they are passionate about them.” The majority of collectors will have a love for the music they buy into. “Sometimes these are people who collect in other areas, other times they are not – it is the passion for the music that unites them,” notes Heaton.

Music to Collectors’ Ears

According to Darren Julien, Founder and President of Julien’s Auctions, iconic pieces worn during a stage performance, video or red-carpet event often sell for higher amounts since that appearance is recorded by photographs or on film. There is an element of nostalgia involved. “These items represent a time or a memory in one’s life that drives the bidder at an auction in the hopes of winning and keeping that memory alive,” he says.

An 18-carat white-gold and diamond Omega wristwatch worn by the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, and seen in photographs during his extraordinary career, sold at a 2018 Phillips auction for US$1.8 million (HK$14.09 million) after frenzied bidding, smashing the world record for an Omega.

Julien’s Auctions famously sold the Beatles’ handwritten Hey Jude lyrics in 2020 for US$910,000, nine times its original estimate. The acoustic-electric guitar used by Kurt Cobain at a 1993 MTV Unplugged performance went for US$6 million in 2020, a world record for guitars sold at auction. The US auction house has also sold items from the Rolling Stones and other major stars. “The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, U2, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Cher and Barbara Streisand are all highly collectible and have a huge global audience. But contemporary artists such as BTS are also highly collectible, along with Taylor Swift, Coldplay and even Rosario,” says Julien.

Sound Investment Vehicles Pop Rock memorabilia is now regarded as an asset class. “People buy these items not only for the cool factor but also as investment vehicles. Museums also buy iconic pieces and fans are always hoping to win something representing their idols’ life and career.”

The resale value of iconic pieces is also tremendous, notes Julien: “We sold Kurt Cobain’s green cardigan from MTV Unplugged for US$120,000 in 2015 and resold it in 2019 for $340,000. In 2006 we sold an Elvis Presley belt from the Aloha tour gifted to his friend Jack Lord of Hawaii Five-O for approximately $65,000 and we resold it in 2018 for over $354,000.”

“Collectibles continue to be highly sought after by a global audience and prices continue to rise with the help of improved technology and social-media awareness. We also see NFTs as a new class of investing in all things celebrity,” adds Julien.

Ahead of Sotheby’s Freddie Mercury auction, Heaton notes that the star’s attraction remains undiminished to this day. “Queen’s songs are woven into the fabric of our culture and have an incredibly wide appeal, and Freddie himself is widely acknowledged as amongst the most powerful vocalists in rock history,” he says. In Heaton’s view, the popularity and value of pop memorabilia will not diminish in the foreseeable future. “It is now more than 60 years since the Beatles began recording, and 50 years for Queen. If people still love the music now, I am sure they will do so in another generation.”