If you're visiting the UK and happen to be flicking around the BBC during the daytime, anyone would think that we're a nation of people who love finding out how much our pre-owned crap is worth at auction. I can't deny it. My lips do indeed moisten at the thought of something surpassing its expected value and I'm gripped by the sound of the auctioneer's tap of his/her gavel (that small hammer thingy). There was a shameful time when I had Bargain Hunt, Flog It! and Cash in the Attic all favourites in my TV guide.
The auctions on TV don't do it for me anymore. I've decided to do it for realz. That's where Kerry Taylor Auctions plays its part. Taylor became one of Sotheby's youngest auctioneers and ended up establishing their Costume and Textiles sales. In 2003, she left to start up Kerry Taylor Auctions where she could indulge in her love of costumes and textiles. Her auction house has since handled the sales of garments belonging to Audrey Hepburn, Lady Diana, Jerry Hall and Kate Middleton.
Taylor's knowledge is vast and whilst any mere conversation with her would be fascinating in itself, my main goal was to experience a Kerry Taylor auction for myself with a paddle in hand (that's the plaque with your bidder number on it), to see whether auction is an alternative way of buying those special pieces.
I've stalked a Kerry Taylor auction listing online many times but have never actually made the effort to get to the auction itself. It's hard to doubt the quality of a Kerry Taylor auction. Practically every sale spans the centuries from 18th century robes with wide pannier sides to Victorian gentleman's frock coats to exquisite 1920s flapper beaded dresses. Then it offers up all of the more recognisable names of the 20th century – Chanel, Lanvin, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler, Comme des Garcons and Alexander McQueen for instance all featured in the sale I attended. I also love that Kerry Taylor auctions always have a good representation of British designers with the likes of Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. The auction also has memorabilia such as old Yves Saint Laurent catalogues and Cecil Beaton sketches, which are definitely all worth bidding on. Whilst the obvious talking points of most Kerry Taylor auctions are the pieces that have celebrity value attached to them, for me it's the overall breadth, scope and quality of the lots that is impressive.
Furthermore, seeing as I didn't have a hope in hell of say acquiring a Balenciaga couture evening gown once worn by Ava Gardner, I was more interested in finding out whether one could feasibly "shop" at an auction as an alternative to London's saturated vintage scene where prices have been soaring for years or even my beloved eBay, where bargains have also become scarcer.
Sure enough, when I arrived at the auction at Kerry Taylor's new venue in Bermondsey last week, immediately I spotted a few vintage store owners, such as the guys from Rellik. Were they there to bid for their own personal collections or out to grab a bargain, to then make a mark-up for retail in their stores? That actually gave me hope that I might strike lucky as I sat there with my paddle 254.
The number of in-person bidders wasn't huge but then again Kerry Taylor of course also takes internet and telephone bids, where a lot of the action was taking place. There were however a few characters that looked like they were Kerry Taylor auction pros. This Italian lady here* ended up coming away with at least five or six things, all decadent, collectible and highly unusual, much like her personal style.
*As pointed out by a reader, the lady's name is Cecilia Matteucci Lavarini. I knew the name of this somewhat famous couture collector but not what she looked like. That would explain why she was buying up… erm… everything?
We started proceedings with the predictable hot sale items of the designer bags. Kerry Taylor auctions always feature a good lot of Chanel and Herm√®s and though I'm not an expert on the prices, I thought a lot of the bags sold for under market value. Vintage designer bag hags should keep an eye on these auctions. I did find it hilarious that an Asian girl was there with her boyfriend and she was egging him on to bid on a bag for her and as soon as the price hit ¬£1,000, he gave a firm shake of the head.
Some pieces which I thought were going to go through the roof such as this sprightly green tartan suit worn by the Duke of Windsor, a man known for his dapper style didn't reach the reserve and was left unsold.
At the viewing, I ogled at these museum quality 17th century carved wooden shoes which went way above the estimate for ¬£8,000.
Dries Van Noten's A/W 12-3 collection has reinvigorated my interest in all things Qing dynasty and this late 19th century fur-lined jacket was something I vaguely had my eye on. Sadly, the bid started at an astronomical ¬£1,400 (the estimate was ¬£400) and so I had to give it a miss.
This Madame Gr√®s gown from the 60s, whilst being uncharacteristic of Gr√®s's fluid pleats and minimal design, also caught my fancy. It's basically a psychedelic shiny balloon dress. Again, I was priced out of the water. At this point in the auction, I was thinking I may just slink off because I'm not the moneybags vintage collector that this room was clearly made up of.
Still it was fascinating to see the what lots were getting the bidders excited and what was falling by the wayside. My predictions about any Yves Saint Laurent pieces going for a fortune was partly right although there was a lovely lip-print dress that didn't go for over ¬£1k which to me was surprising (following YSL's name change to Saint Laurent Paris, I was thinking people would go mental for ALL YSL pieces).
At the auction, I bumped into Andrew Bunney, designer of Bunney and British Remains and he was after a few pieces from the Sex and Seditionaries and Vivienne Westwood lots. This parachute top was estimated to go for ¬£500 or so. It reached ¬£5,500, much to Bunney's shock.
After Bunney left, I finally got to wave my paddle around as I was the one and only bidder for a Zandra Rhodes ensemble from her "Ayers Rock" collection in 1974. At the viewing, I actually only saw the satin jacket with its lovely quilted green satin collar but the lot actually included an ivory chiffon top as well as a matching pair of chiffon harem trousers. Like the dork that I am, I shook my fists and yelped "Yay!" when Kerry hit her hammer. You may get an exclamation mark announcing you as the winner of an auction on eBay but at Kerry Taylor's, you get a hammer sound. Music to my auction adrenaline-rushed ears.
Then came the Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons lots – a lot of it going for quite reasonable prices. The one Comme piece I was after though was this embroidered tulle gown from the late 80s, which almost looks like a 1920s flapper dress. However, the guy from Rellik pretty much had the monopoly on all the Comme and this dress also went his way.
The finale start pieces were undoubtedly this group of Alexander McQueen pieces with one dress from the Plato's Atlantis collection and two pieces from his finale A/W 10 collection, where handicraft played a huge part. The final sale prices weren't as ballistic as I thought they were going to be but obviously there are a select group of people who can lay down five figures for such unique collector pieces like these. I felt lucky enough just to view the pieces at close proximity.
Actively participating at a Kerry Taylor Auctions ain't for the faint-hearted. The prices aren't as dizzying as they are at Christy's but they would seem inexpensive to the trained eye. If I was a hardcore collector rather than a fair-weather consumer, the prices would seem relatively fair, taking into consideration the aesthetics and historical value and the REAL worth of the type of garments that go through a Kerry Taylor Auction. Bidders there know that a truly special dress can't be priced by numbers. For instance, a couple were there to bid on an early Edwardian silk bridal gown as the lady was getting married and had her heart set upon the dress. ¬£650 suddenly seems like a downright bargain. Becoming more selective with my vintage buys goes hand in hand with attending auctions such as Kerry Taylor's and I'd definitely recommend anyone with a steely eye and a steady hand to go along as well.
My first pieces of Zandra Rhodes comes from the famed "Ayers Rock" spring/summer 1974 collection, which according to this excerpt is also one of Rhodes' favourite collection and Jackie Onassis owned bit of "Ayers Rock". The graphics were based on drawings Rhodes did in the Australian Outback: visions of Ayers Rock at sunrise and sunset and bushes of spinifex grass.
I'm likely to wear the jacket all by itself like I did today rather than don the whole ensemble but I'm hoping there'll be days when wafting around in satin-banded chiffon harem trousers are acceptable. Port Eliot is coming up. That's surely the occasion.