Legendary "Queen" singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury's love for Japanese art and culture was one of the highlights of a monthlong exhibition of his personal belongings put on by London auction house Sotheby's ahead of their auction in a series of events that started earlier this month.
At the "Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own" exhibition that wrapped up on Sept. 5 on what would have been the British rock star's 77th birthday, approximately 60 kimono were on show alongside some of his iconic stage costumes.
Other items in Mercury's extensive Japanese art collection, rubbing shoulders with paintings by Picasso and other giants of Western art and luxury items such as a Tiffany & Co. mustache comb, included lacquerware, ceramics and ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
The collection was put up for sale by Mercury's close friend and estate heir, Mary Austin, as part of six auctions that kicked off with the "Evening Sale" on Sept. 6.
On that night, a baby grand Yamaha piano on which multiple Queen hits were written sold for 1.7 million pounds ($2.2 million), while handwritten working lyrics for "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- revealing "Mongolian Rhapsody" as an early potential title -- went for 1.4 million pounds ($1.7 million).
Mercury, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, first visited Japan while touring with Queen in the spring of 1975.
With a passion for kimono already stirred after studying fashion at college, he collected many "furisode" (long-sleeved kimono) over the years and became a collector of woodblock prints after wandering into Sotheby's during a Japanese art sale in the late 1970s.
Sotheby's associate Japanese art specialist Jon Adjetey says that while Mercury's ukiyo-e collection was "a known secret" in the Japanese art world, no one in Sotheby's Japanese department was prepared for the sheer number of prints he had accumulated or the breadth of his lacquerware and ceramics collections.
"Every time he went to Japan, (Mercury) always bought on his trips," Adjetey said. "On his last visit in 1986, he even went to places like Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture and Kyushu on an exclusively private trip -- so that shows more than just a cursory interest."
Out of all of Mercury's Japanese objects, including assortments of lucky cats and chopsticks, Adjetey's personal highlight is a "fantastic impression" of Utagawa Hiroshige's masterpiece "Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake," which famously inspired a copy by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Purchased by Mercury in Japan after he lost out on a different copy auctioned at Sotheby's, the print is notable for its fantastic condition and full margins, making it particularly desirable to "ukiyo-e" connoisseurs, Adjetey says.
"The print has such a central role in both Japanese and Western art history, so I can see why he wanted it," Adjetey said. "Personally, I really love its design and its history through Van Gogh. So it's definitely a favorite."
It sold for seven times its estimated value at 292,100 pounds ($364,200) at the Sept. 6 sale.
Other notable pieces in the Queen frontman's collection include an Ando Cloisonne vase that sold for four times its 6,000-10,000 pound estimate ($7,500-12,500) and a lacquer standing screen by artist Katsuhiko Urade that fetched 190,500 pounds ($237,000) -- 19 times its original estimate.
The koi carp motifs of both pieces are significant due to Mercury's fondness for his own collection of the Japanese fish, kept in the pond of Garden Lodge -- his Kensington mansion where all of the sale items had been kept as they were at the time of his death.
David MacDonald, head of single-owner sales at Sotheby's, hopes the exhibition -- visited by around 140,000 attendees during the monthlong event -- not only captured Mercury's life and achievements but also his private world behind the stage persona and his seriousness as a collector.
"Everything was cared for so beautifully -- it was lived with and loved," MacDonald said. "It wasn't under sheets or put away in a warehouse, which is really special. Freddie saw a room as a complete artwork in a way."
Mercury, known to be a longtime friend and customer of the London auction house during his lifetime, MacDonald and the Sotheby's team were conscious of paying tribute to him by making both the exhibition and auctions "an extravaganza worthy of Freddie" in line with his ethos and style.
"It's been a global effort for a global icon really," Macdonald said, "He was amazing as a curator -- it's maximalism at its most glorious. I've been at Sotheby's for 23, 24 years, and I've never worked on anything as magical as this."