When Elton John Auctioned Everything So He Could Start Again
Elton John was at a low ebb in the late ‘80s. A series of albums bombed, and he’d made the terrible mistake of marrying Renate Blauel – even though he had no interest in the union except to keep “living a lie” constructed amid his rise to stardom.
“The biggest regret I have about getting married is that I hurt someone who was a special person, one of the funniest, nicest, most attractive and fabulous people that I’ve ever met,” John told David Buckley in 2007's Elton: The Biography. “She knew what she was getting into by marrying me but she genuinely loved me. I knew I was being dishonest but I couldn’t admit it, because I didn't want to be seen to be wrong.”
Left alone in the doldrums of negative reviews for 1986 LP Leather Jackets, John decided to take control of the situation. “I came up with a radical solution,” he wrote in his 2019 memoir Me. “I was going to sell it – all of it. Every painting, every bit of memorabilia, every stick of furniture, every objet d’art. All the clothes, all the jewelry, all the glasses, all the gifts that fans had sent me. Everything in the house, except the records.”
His Woodside home in Old Windsor, southeast England, had become something of a museum since he bought it in 1975. John was a well-known shopping addict who was said to have once brought home 67 cases and 42 trunks of purchases after a U.S. tour. So, he’d built up a huge collection: “I liked to think I had developed a good eye for art and furniture, but I also had a remarkably high threshold for gaudy kitsch,” John admitted. “There were things in my home that made my old stage outfits look like the last word in understated good taste.”
Those things included “a model of a bonobo gorilla in an Edwardian dress … representing the futility of war. There was a radio in the shape of a doll wearing a see-through negligee: the volume and tuning controls were mounted on her tits,” John said. “There was a pair of brass bath taps with large Perspex testicles attached to them. I decided that I should keep some original Goon Show scripts, complete with Spike Milligan’s handwritten annotations … and four paintings: two Magrittes, one Francis Bacon portrait of his lover George Dyer that people had told me I was crazy to spend £30,000 on back in 1973, and The Guardian Readers, the Patrick Procktor painting that had appeared on the cover of Blue Moves. Everything else could go.”
It took the Sotheby’s auction-house staff days to evaluate and remove all the items for the September 1988 sale. John’s property was divided into four sections: stage costumes and memorabilia; jewelry; art nouveau and art deco; and diverse collections. Highlights included Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, a replica of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen’s throne, a tour program signed by Elvis Presley, illustrations created by John Lennon, the costume John wore at Dodger Stadium, the Doc Marten boots he wore as the Pinball Wizard in the Who’s Tommy movie, and the Eiffel Tower hat he wore in Paris.
Experts imagined that John might make as much as $5 million. In the end, the collection sold for $8.2 million. “The auctions were a huge success,” John wrote. “They had to put up crash barriers outside to cope with the crowds. Paintings sold for double the anticipated price. Things that I thought fans might pick up for a few quid went for thousands. Everything went. … They even sold the banners that hung outside Sotheby’s advertising the auction.”
John was keen to dismiss the idea that he’d given up shopping as part of a restyled life. “I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of leading a more simple and meaningful life, uncoupled from the yoke of consumerism and unencumbered by material possessions,” John said. “If anyone thought that, they were swiftly disabused the first time I went to Sotheby’s for a meeting about the upcoming auction: Supposedly there to discuss disposing of my worldly goods, I instead ended up buying two paintings by Russian avant-garde artists Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky. It was more that I wanted a new start.”
He didn’t attend the auction and didn’t return to his home until the redecoration was complete two years later. “I wanted to completely remodel and redecorate Woodside,” John added. “I didn't want to live in a berserk pop star’s house anymore: I wanted somewhere that felt like a home.”
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