Indian miniature in Freddie Mercury's collection reflects his family's heritage

Sotheby's sale of Queen singer's possessions in London reveals him as a gregarious host and serious art collector

Inside the world of Freddie Mercury

Inside the world of Freddie Mercury
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The rare, 16th-century Mughal miniature of an exiled prince that once adorned the wall of the London home of rock star Freddie Mercury reveals a more reflective side to the lead singer of Queen.

Mercury bought the illuminated page at Sotheby’s auction house in 1991, just months before his death, aged 45, following a battle with Aids.

The painting is one of over 1,400 objects from Mercury’s home to go on sale at Sotheby's in London in September. Yet it is among the only objects to point to his family’s heritage and journey.

“This jewel-like illumination, produced by a Mughal artist in India at the end of the 16th century, and painted in that Persian tradition, is something that Freddie with his own background would have found instantly recognisable,” David Macdonald, head of Sotheby's single owner collections department, told The National.

Mercury’s family were Parsis, a community from western India who practise Zoroastrianism – a religion with roots in ancient Iran.

The artist was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa.

He spent his childhood at boarding school in Mumbai, before his family fled East Africa to the UK.

“Maybe he imagined himself like this exiled Mughal emperor,” said Rukmani Rathore, a specialist in Islamic and Indian art at Sotheby’s.

Mercury left his home, Garden Lodge, in Kensington, and its contents to his friend Mary Austen, who has decided to sell everything.

Some proceeds from the sale will be donated to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity that fights HIV and Aids worldwide, and the Elton John Aids Foundation.

The items were unveiled to the public this week and the exhibition, Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own, offers a rare glimpse into the artist’s life through his possessions.

At the centre of the display is Mercury’s Yamaha baby grand piano, on which he composed many of his songs. It has an estimated price of between £2 million ($2.55 million) and $3 million.

Handwritten lyrics of some of Queen's hits are also up for sale, with the early draft of the words for 1975 hit Bohemian Rhapsody – widely regarded as the band's signature track – estimated to make between £800,000 and £1.2 million.

Extravagant clothing was an integral part of Mercury's public persona, and his costumes were unveiled to the press on Thursday.

“He had a very strong vision of how he wanted to be seen and what he wanted to look like. He had a real knowledge of fabric and really appreciated the quality,” said Carey Wallace, the sale’s costume specialist from entertainment memorabilia company Wallace and Hodgson.

“He was not into labels. He didn’t follow a particular designer, comfort was his main thing,” she added.

After a trip to Japan in 1975, Mercury became an enthusiastic collector of Japanese art and antiques.

“Freddie should be celebrated as a collector of note,” said Mr Macdonald.

A 20th-century Japanese lacquer panel with mother-of-pearl, featuring swimming carp, is a reminder of the koi that the artist kept in his pond.

The star kept most of his Japanese objects in his private study, which was a space for retreat where only a few select friends were granted access.

Mercury also collected kimonos, and is pictured wearing them at home as well as in concerts.

“Kimonos bridge that gap between his public and private life,” said Jon Adjetey, a specialist in Japanese art at Sotheby’s.

“These long-sleeved robes were typically worn by unmarried women, and they look dramatic on stage because of the motion of the long sleeves.”

Drawings by Salvador Dali and works by Pablo Picasso adorned his home, as did an Art Deco clock by Cartier.

Mercury also decorated his house with 17th-century porcelains from Meissen, Germany, French Lalique vases and a marble and gold leaf gilt bust of a woman by French sculptor Henri Weigele.

Mr Macdonald rejects the suggestion that Mercury’s taste could in some instances be described as kitsch.

“I don’t like that word,” he said. “If you were to think of the collection in one word, it's eclectic. There are wonderful moments of great quality.”

Sotheby’s was Mercury’s favourite auction house, said Mr Macdonald.

“There are colleagues who remember Freddie coming to our galleries. We would close them after hours, and Freddie would come in. He would have his night at the museum,” he told The National.

Among the items found in his home, were sale catalogues that Mercury had annotated.

“He would have a cup of tea in bed, the catalogues would arrive and he would spend time going through them,” said Mr Macdonald.

Mercury also bought from antique dealers on Chelsea’s King’s Road.

At the heart of the exhibition was Mercury’s love of hosting. Friends and collaborators – who included fellow music superstar Elton John – often gathered around the Yamaha piano at his dinner parties.

One evening, he was joined there by the music producer Mike Moran and opera singer Montserrat Caballe, where they began composing the songs that would make up his final solo album, Barcelona.

“We’re all dreaming about Freddie, this process over a few months has been amazing. When you’re looking at the material here, those songs really come to life,” said Mr Macdonald.

“And it's strange, isn't it, the musicality of objects through their association with a man.”

Updated: August 04, 2023, 7:51 PM