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The biggest selling single in the history of music

Conventional wisdom dictates that people who excel in one area are excluded from any other kind of talent. Take Elton John, the pop singer who gave his last concert in 2023 after no less than 5000 shows and 300 million albums sold, including 33 million for “Candle in the Wind”, the famous tribute to Princess Diana. You might imagine that the man with the biggest selling single in the history of music may have a multitude of other hobbies but nothing really as serious, apart from accruing fancy watches and fancy cars…

Keen taste for the eye-catching

And then there’s his flamboyant clothes, his flashy glasses, his “glittering” kitsch appearance, which might lead us to believe he has a keen taste for the eye-catching, including when it comes to art. But it turns out that Elton John, whose real name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight, knighted by the Queen in 1998, is remarkable in a field other than songwriting: collecting photographs.

Tate Gallery

This was noticed when the Tate in London tried to sweet talk him in 2016. Probably hoping for a donation, which up until that point hadn’t happened, the English museum, which is relatively poor in this field, suggested to the star to exhibit 60 of his photographs. The son of an air force veteran born in a London suburb has a passion for early 20th century photography.

Limitless ambitions

Let’s be clear: when it comes to photos, like with pop music, his ambition is limitless. In the exhibition catalogue, then-director of the Tate, Frances Morris, explains how the 8000 prints in his possession formed “one of the most significant collections of photographs in the world”. The man himself commented very modestly: “collecting works from this period over the past twenty-five years has brought me enormous pleasure. Each one of these photos has inspired me in life. They hang on the walls in my houses, and I consider them to be precious treasures.”

Living in 1232 m2 in Atlanta

The main residence of the artist and his husband David Furnish was for almost 20 years based in Atlanta, on the 38th floor of a jointly owned property across 1232m2. According to People magazine he sold it in November 2023 for 7.2 million dollars. This sale was accompanied by the decision to auction a large portion of its contents.

Tash Perrin

At Christie’s the vice-president Tash Perrin explains that the auction had been in talks for a long time (Christie’s refused to release the video of the interview). It takes the format of an extended operation that started online on 9 February and continues until 28 February, with the “live” sale as a grand finale on the evening of the 21st.

Fetishizing objets

We’re well aware that for a long time there’s been a market that fetishizes objects once belonging to celebrities. In September 2023 for example the sale dedicated to Freddie Mercury’s “relics” brought in a little over 46.5 million dollars at Sotheby’s in London. The man behind “We Are the Champions” composed his songs on a Yamaha G2 piano which sold for 2 million euros. A percentage of the proceeds from this sale is also due to go to the Elton John Aids Foundation.

Flamboyant Versace shirts

Elton’s sale also features a Yamaha grand piano from 1992 (estimate: 30,000 dollars). In the category of objects from pop culture, the catalogue presents silver platform boots from the 1970s (estimate: 5000 dollars), seven flamboyant Versace shirts from the 1990s (estimate: 4000 dollars), and Cartier’s famous Crash watch in gold with a twisted face from the 1990s (estimate: 70,000 dollars).

Damien Hirst  and Banksy

By way of example, the auction house Bonhams sold a similar model in Paris on 7 February 2024 for 152,800 euros. It goes to show the estimates take little account of the famous provenance. Photos of the apartment show the singer filling up all the wall space. We find a portrait of him and his husband given to him by Damien Hirst, a painting in the form of a heart covered in butterflies dating from 2008 (estimate: 350,000 dollars), and a picture by another Brit, the street artist with an unrivalled talent for marketing, Banksy (estimate: 1 million dollars). The catalogue specifies that the work, “Flower Thrower Triptych” depicting a protestor throwing a bouquet of flowers made in 2017 in three parts with spray paint, was acquired directly from the figure who wishes to remain anonymous.

Darius Himes

But it is the photography part of the collection that turns out to be the most exceptional by far. 360 prints are presented at the sale. For Darius Himes, head of the photography department at Christie’s, “his taste is particularly sophisticated when it comes to photos and his knowledge is far greater than you might expect from a rockstar.”

Richard Avedon

He gives the example of an extremely rare image by one of the leading lights of 20th-century photography, Richard Avedon (1923-2004). He produced, among other things, one of the most famous fashion photographs ever, depicting the model Dovima in 1955 wearing an evening dress flanked by two elephants. The young woman’s supple form echoes the pose of the pachyderms with their trunks.

Dovima with Elephants

“This shot is best known when Dovima is wearing a black dress. Here it is in white. Moreover the print, taken for the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, is covered in Avedon’s annotations,” explains Darius Himes. “That is why he chose it.” (Estimate: 100,000 dollars). In July 2020 a large-format edition of the version featuring the black dress sold for the record price for Avedon of 1.6 million euros. Gagosian gallery is staging an exhibition in Paris until 2 March dedicated to Avedon, which features a giant print and a small print with the white dress of the same “Dovima with Elephants”.

Terry O’Neill

Doisneau, Klein

The Christie’s sale confirms that Elton John’s quest when it comes to photography is encyclopaedic in nature. One of the icons is “Rue Mouffetard”, an image from 1954 depicting a small boy proudly holding two bottles of wine By Robert Doisneau (estimate: 20,000 euros) or “Le saut dans le vide” from 1960 showing, through visual trickery, Yves Klein throwing himself off a balcony ready to fly (estimate: 6000 euros).

Andreas Gursky

The highest estimate is for a print from 2004 by the German artist Andreas Gursky (born in 1955) which spreads across 3.7 metres. We see the window of a Dior sunglasses shop, which becomes almost abstract here with the strips of shelving against a luminous background. In the 2010s his works – which when seen up close were extremely detailed but from far away seemed more conceptual – were snapped up for astronomical sums. In 2011 a view of the Rhine, almost abstract and just as monumental, sold for 3.1 million euros. Since then his prices have dropped considerably. A large-scale image of the Chicago Stock Exchange sold in May 2023, however, for 698,000 euros.

Victoria& Albert museum

Back home, the pop star will receive the national honours. On 18 May 2024 the Victoria & Albert museum is due to open an exhibition of the photography collection of Elton John and David Furnish. In 2019 the eminent institution announced a long-term partnership with Sir Elton John, one which would “revolutionize access to photography” following a financial donation to the V&A of an undisclosed sum.

Peter Hujar

In 2022 Sir Elton John was the curator of an exhibition in San Francisco at the excellent Jeffrey Fraenkel photography gallery on the contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar. All these initiatives demonstrate the singer’s desire to make his mark on the world of culture in a different way.


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