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.”

A Rare Sight: The rarest of items that recently achieved record-breaking sums…

The stunning HK$226.3 million Sakura Ring, Kobe Bryant’s record-breaking signed rookie jersey, a rare Ming Dynasty ceramic jar, and a masterpiece by famed panter Jean-Michel Basuiat, these are the the rarest in auction highlights that had recently achieved large sums…

gafencu auction highlights rare collectibles the sakura ring

The Sakura Ring: The largest ever pink-purple diamond fetches HK$226.3 million
Charming and ultra-elegant, fancy colour diamonds make a fashion statement while consistently increasing in value. Prices of pink diamonds, in particular, have soared at auctions in the last five years. Proof of this was seen recently at Christie’s Magnificent Jewels sale in Hong Kong, when The Sakura ring set a new record for the largest purple-pink diamond ever to go under the hammer.

The 15.81-carat fancy vivid purple-pink cushion mixed-cut diamond set with half-moon diamonds on a platinum and gold ring commanded HK$226.3 million, bedazzling the previous record holder, The Spirit of the Rose, a 14.8-carat purple-pink diamond, that sold at Sotheby’s last November for US$27 million. The Sakura’s internally flawless main attraction was the largest of its ilk to be graded by the Gemological Institute of America in the past year, and it outshone the auction competition. The lots that collected second- and third-highest bids were The Sweet Heart, a unique heart-shaped coloured diamond ring, and an exclusive Diamond Pendant Necklace that fetched a cool HK$50.7 million and HK$20.7 million respectively.

gafencu auction highlights rare collectibles the sakura ring the kui dragon jar

Rare Xuande-period Kui jar fires up all collectors
When it comes to Chinese lore, the kui dragon – a symbol of power and auspiciousness – was widely used in its protective capacity to decorate the gateways and doorways of palaces and temples in the Yuan and Ming dynasties. But it did not typically grace porcelain and ceramic wares until Emperor Chenghua’s reign in the early Ming dynasty (1464-1487). This lithe, one-legged kui derives from the makara, or sea dragon, of Hindu origin and entered Chinese art with the dissemination of Buddhism.

An extremely rare Blue and White ‘Kui Dragon’ Jar of Hindu origin from the earlier Xuande period (1426-1435) was an astonishing addition to Christie’s Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 28 May. Featuring the Xuande six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle, it realised an astounding HK$31.5 million, underscoring the collectible’s cultural, artistic and historical value.

Only four such Xuande-marked jars are known to have been unearthed – three of which are in museums, while the fourth resides in the possession of a collector. The present vase had been acquired by the Shanghai-born super-collector, Robert Chang, and was sold to benefit his eponymous Art Education Charitable Foundation.

gafencu auction highlights rare collectibles the sakura ring kobe bryant's rookie jersey

Kobe Bryant’s game-worn jersey breaks all records
A week after Kobe Bryant’s posthumous induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame on 15 May, memorabilia belonging to the NBA great scored highly at auction – each coveted item is a piece of history of one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Having earned two MVP titles and five championship wins, on top of playing in the NBA All-Star Games 18 times, Bryant won over the hearts of sports fans all over the world during his 20-year career. Niche auction house, Goldin Auctions, unsurprisingly garnered much buzz for the lots offered in its May Elite sale, especially for the late star’s Rookie Jersey — his earliest-known game-worn LA Lakers shirt – which went for a whopping US$3.69 million, making it the most expensive jersey ever sold. 

Featuring Bryant’s signature on the front, the No.8 jersey has been photo-matched to four games during the 1996-97 NBA season, his rookie year, as well as his rookie photoshoot. It beat the previous priciest basketball shirt, Michael Jordan’s University of North Carolina jersey, by more than US$2 million, which fetched US$1.38 million at an auction just two weeks before.

gafencu auction highlights rare collectibles the sakura ring jean michel basuiat versus medici

Basquiat’s enigmatic ‘Versus Medici’ proves to be still relevant
Few contemporary artists enjoy the reputation of becoming a revolutionary influence and remaining relevant for decades. For Neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, however, he has managed to continue leaving his imprint on society even 30 years after his untimely passing at the age of 27. 

Basquiat first made a splash on the streets of New York with works signed ‘SAMO’ in collaboration with fellow graffiti artist Al Diaz. He then blazed a brilliant trail in the ’80s, subsequently earning his standing as one the most influential artists of the 20th century.

The career of the youngest artist to take part in Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York, was cut short by his death from a heroin overdose in 1988. Still, his enigmatic masterpieces continue to draw praise. Versus Medici recently amassed the attention of those in attendance at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction in early May. The perplexing acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on three joined canvases, which had been off the market for a decade, realised a staggering US$50.8 million, proving the artist’s raw, gestural style of painting, grafitti-like images are still relevant till now.

Vintage Treasures: Exploring The Time Machine @ Museum Concept

Imagine losing yourself in the wonders of bygone eras, surrounded by the allure of beautiful antique pieces that evoke a heady sense of nostalgia. That is exactly what The Time Machine at Museum Concept, the interior decorations showroom that specialises in antiques and vintage furniture pieces, offers to discerning collectors and high-end home owners.

Museum Concept - 1

For the uninitiated, Museum Concept was established 20 years ago by Christian Pilard, a self-professed lover of vintage collectibles. Boasting a capacious 2,000sq.ft showroom – replete with a 1,400sq.ft terrace – in Chai Wan, this unique venue offers interior designers, architects and collectors alike the chance to find beautiful and often one-of-a-kind retro pieces ranging from early 20th-century industrial furniture and decorations to prehistoric fossils and much more besides.

Museum Concept - 2

Beyond just individual creations though, Museum Concept also offers a unique Room of Dreams experience. Here, the focus is not just on one-off designs, but on combining individual pieces to present a cohesive theme, be it an underwater paradise, a prehistoric jungle or the royal palace fit for any princess-to-be.

Museum Concept - Room of Dreams

So whether you’ve got your heart set on accentuating your abode with a period-accurate wine rack or you dream of transforming your home into an homage to times gone by, a perusal of the stunning objets at Museum Concept is well worth a visit.

Museum Concept - 3

The Time Machine @ Museum Concept
Address: 302-310 Honour Industrial Centre, 6 Sun Yip St, Chai Wan
Tel: (852) 2513 5930 

Pink Performance: Pink Floyd guitar sale fetches stunning sums

David Gilmour, the legendary lead guitarist of Pink Floyd, that most cosmically-inclined of British rock bands, has played stunning solos on some of the world’s bestselling albums – most notably The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon.

Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour with his 1969 Black Strat
Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour with his Black Strat, which sold for US$3.975 million

When news broke out, then, that he intended to auction off his personal guitar collection, it was no surprise that music memorabilia aficionados the world over went into something of a meltdown. Nor was it a huge shock that the collection raised the undeniably grand figure of US$21 million when Christie’s New York brought the gavel down on the final lot, the proceeds of which have been earmarked for Gilmour’s charitable foundation.

1969 Black Strat

By far the star performer of the day was a 1969 Black Fender Stratocaster – also known as the Black Strat – which went for a stunning US$3.975 million, exceeding its pre-sale estimate of US$150,000 by some 2,650 percent. It has to be said, though, that the initial valuation was somewhat conservative, seeing as this was the very instrument that gave the world some of the most memorable Pink Floyd tracks, including Money, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Comfortably Numb.

Auto Exotica: Shelling Out on ’60s Super Car Shelby Cobras

Auto enthusiasts got a treat when the Mecum Indianapolis 2019 Spring Classic auction revved into action. In total, 1,000 vintage cars were sold over the six-day event, with three near-mint ’60s Shelby Cobras – the rump of the estate of Steven Juliano, a New York night club impresario and classic car collector – commanding top billing and collectively selling for over US$7 million.

shelby cobras

All created by Carroll Shelby, the celebrated American car designer, whose works spanned such iconic models as the AC One and the Shelby Mustang, the star billing went to a 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 S/C Roadster. One of just 27 such roadsters ever made, its all-original parts, factory-delivered Goodwood tires and an odometer reading of just 10,760 miles saw it fetch US$2.86 million.

shelby cobras

Coming in a close second was a 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 Roadster. Lauded as one of the best-maintained original Cobras still in existence, it sold for truly impressive US$2.42 million. Rounding out the list was a 1964-built 289 Roadster with its attention-grabbing Ford Rangoon Red livery. One of the most customisable designs of its day and the only one of its kind built specifically for road use, it went under the hammer for a very creditable US$1.76 million.

Bugatti La Voiture Noire becomes world’s most expensive new car

Just when you thought the world of autocratic automobiles couldn’t possibly get any more exciting, the very latest supercar – the Bugatti La Voiture Noire – smashed all previous records by commanding a price of US$18 million.

Bugatti La Voiture Noire is now the world's most expensive new car

Luxuriously crafted and exotically created by France’s Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S, a Volkswagen group subsidiary, it is now officially the most expensive new car ever sold. At least part of its value is down to the fact that it is a genuine one-off, with no take two planned for this most memorable of motors.

Bugatti La Voiture Noire sold for over US$18 million

Undoubtedly the most remarkable motor vehicle to have been crafted in the 21st century to date, the genuinely magnificent La Voiture Noire comes equipped with a massive 8-litre quad-turbocharged 16-cylinder engine capable of delivering up to 1,500 bHp.

Bugatti La Voiture Noire details

Describing the “aesthetic feast” that is La Voiture Noire, Bugatti president Stephan Winkelmann said: “We are paying tribute to a long tradition, to France and the creative work of Jean Bugatti. At the same time, we are transferring extraordinary technology aesthetics and extreme luxury to a new age.”

Hornographics: Antique Golden Horn pot resurfaces at auction

A rare example of Iznik earthenware – ceramic items produced in 1475–1700 AD in what is now Turkey – a Golden Horn pottery dish no less, went under the hammer at the Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World auction early last month, the first item to be sold through such means in more than 30 years.

Antique Iznik Golden Horn pot

This particular bit of tableware purportedly dates back to around 1530, with its distinct look said to be down to the unique illustrative skills of the specially-trained court officials of the day. Even more remarkably, its distinctive cobalt blue spirals designs – featuring stems, flower-heads, floral vines and palmettes – remain nearly as vivid as they must have been when they were first rendered some 500 years ago.

This Golden Horn pot is over 500 years old

An item sure to outshine any other in even the most salubrious ceramics cabinet, it last came up for auction back in 1989 and has languished in a private collection ever since. As for its Golden Horn (Tuğrakeş) classification, it is the categorisation for a group of ancient pottery fragments discovered over 120 years ago along a series of waterways off the southern shores of Istanbul.


High Flier: Unusually prized Belgian pigeon fetches US$1.4 million

If you only see pigeons as two-winged toxin factories, gliding germ generators with a mastery of in-flight infection, then the fact that a Chinese buyer has just spent more than US$1.4 million to secure the services of one may cause you some degree of bafflement. That, however, is the case.

Belgian pigeon sells for US$1.4 million

More specifically, Armando, a Belgian racing pigeon of some renown, is the latest recruit to the all-star flock of some sadly anonymous mainland millionaire. In total, he spent US$1,408,518.78 on luring the clearly admirably aerodynamic Armando eastwards, which, as any fool will tell you, is more than triple the US$425,000 transfer fee secured by Nadine, the previously Highest-priced Pigeon of All Time.

Armando, a Belgian pigeon, sold for US$1.4 million to a mainland buyer

Armando, though, is something very special. Bred in West Belgium and hailed as the tiny European country’s leading long-distance racer, he was reared by Joel Verschoot, apparently a legendary pigeon impresario. Given that Armando has been expertly schooled in winging it back home from wherever he’s released in record time, it could be that his oriental occupancy is, however, something of a brief one…

US$4.5 million bid for Fourteen Poems on Planting Bamboo by Li Dongyang

With 2019 looking set to be the Year of Reemerging Classical Chinese art, another venerable artefact from the Middle Kingdom’s golden era smashed expectations when it come up for auction at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong earlier this year. The collectible in question, Fourteen Poems on Planting Bamboo by Li Dongyang (1447–1516), dated back to the time of the Ming Dynasty and eventually changed hands for US$4.5 million – five times the original estimate.

Li Dongyang

For those wondering just how this handwritten scroll’s hefty price tag can be justified, a brief history lesson may prove enlightening. Li Donyang was something a distinguished fellow – a scholar, a poet, a painter a calligrapher and a holder of the highest level-imperial degree. Naturally highly regarded, his 14 poems run the length of the 10-metre scroll, with every character exquisitely calligraphed in the author’s distinctive cursive script. Even more impressively, it is virtually in mint condition, with only four characters said to have been lost in the five centuries since he sat down to work on it. A remarkable feat and one that, understandably, commanded a remarkable price.

Liquid Gold: The most expensive Japanese whiskies ever sold

While Scottish single malts have long held sway over discerning alcoholic beverage boffins, it’s no secret that the world has now fallen head over heels in love with Japanese whiskies. In fact, in 2018 alone, three much-coveted vintages of these newcomers smashed all expectations at auction and set consecutive and ever-increasing records for the most expensive bottle of Japanese whisky ever sold. Here are the three amazing bottles behind the stunning upset.

Top three most expensive Japanese Whiskies

Yamazaki 50-year-old Single Malt

Right at the start of 2018, one particular Sotheby’s auction saw a new record set when a Yamazaki 50-year-old single malt sold for an eye-watering HK$2.337 million. To put things into perspective, a more affordable Yamazaki 12-year-old currently sells for roughly HK$1,000, making this vintage lot a true star attraction.

Most expensive Japanese whiskies - Karuizawa 1960 52-year-old The Dragon

Karuizawa 1960 52-year-old The Dragon

Scarcely had the dust settled when, in May 2018, another record was set at a Bonhams Hong Kong auction. The culprit? A rare Karuizawa 1960 52-year-old The Dragon, one of just 41 bottles produced and the unquestionably the oldest Karuizawa whisky in the world. The final hammer price? A staggering HK$2.45 million.

Most expensive Japanese whiskies - Yamazaki 50-year-old single malt

Yamazaki 50-year-old First Edition

The title of ‘Grand Daddy of all Japanese Whiskies’, though, undoubtedly goes to an extremely rare Yamazaki 50-year-old First Edition, which was purchased at a Bonhams Hong Kong auction in August last year for a record-breaking sum of US$343,000 (HK$2.69 million).

While Japanese whiskies still have a ways to go before they can challenge the current record-holder of the most expensive whisky ever sold – an accolade held by a Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 60-year-old, which sold for HK$8.64 million – there is no question that the whisky makers of Japan have quite literally hit upon liquid gold.