London Fashion Umbrella: Spotlight on Auction Catalogs

This week I’ve been sorting through the fashion artifacts I’ll be posting in the coming weeks and discovering new avenues for research into dress history. While I get my research plans together, I thought I’d re-publish this archive post from two years ago that took old auction catalogs as a starting point for dress history research. Enjoy and watch this space for a fresh batch of fashion objects with tales to tell coming soon. 

Second hand shops are irresistible to me. Long before programs like Antiques Roadshow encouraged the populace to consider that the old junk in their houses might be worth a fortune, I had a genetic predisposition to the hunt and rummage of flea markets, garage sales and charity shops. I don’t necessarily go in thinking of what I might find that’s worth heaps of cash – although I have had some lucky finds!

Recently at my local RSPCA Charity Shop in Hackney, East London, I left behind rails of last summer’s H&M dresses and some rather embarrassing 1990s shoes, and spent £3.98 on two hardback Christie’s auction annuals from 1978 and 1981. Auction catalogs are great sources of pictorial information, photographed and printed well, and sometimes become collectible themselves. The catalogs often provide background contextual information about the works, and are in essence curated thematic sales.

The Duchess of Windsor’s Louis Vuitton travel case sold for £48,000 at a Kerry Taylor Auction earlier this year

Auctions of clothing and textiles are presently looming larger in the media.  Recently, the sales of Debbie Reynold’s film costume collection, the Duchess of Windsor’s Louis Vuitton travel case, and Lady Diana Spencer’s engagement dress, among others, made headlines outside the auction room.  These stories are evidence that the value of dress artefacts are being taken note of, and in many cases that museums and private collectors are at the ready to acquire and then exhibit these treasures. But even if you don’t have a spare £40,000 to snap up the intimate possessions of celebrities and royal personages, there is much to be gained from paying attention to auctions, both current and past.

The hardback catalogs I picked up for less than the price of a sandwich, yielded hours of interest and introduced me to the works of some artists and designers I had previously been unfamiliar with. While these catalogs did not feature very many items of dress (evidence of how 30 years ago textiles were not valued and collected as they are today) the paintings, photographs, sculpture and decorative items that fill their pages offer a wealth of information about fashion history. Or, at the very least they invite further research.

One of the few fashion artifacts featured in the 1981 Christie’s catalog

With that in mind, I thought I would share some of the works in these catalogs that most sparked my research urge.


This week, I have posted some pictures and the captions listed in the catalog, and then next week I will share what I can rustle up regarding the fashion history in the image. I will try to find out where these works have ended up since they were sold, and if they are on view somewhere in the world. In some cases I will try to locate fashion artefacts relevant to the works. This sort of research is like a curator’s match game, or an internet hide and seek.

I hope it will inspire you as well – to rescue those old auction catalogs and track down the hidden fashion topics hiding in their pages. Your summer holiday flea market outing just might send you down the road towards an exciting avenue of long term research…now wouldn’t that be a lovely way to start the new academic year?



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  • Ashley July 27, 2011 10.18 am

    This is a great post! When I worked in an auction house I had to research old catalogs and I learned so much. I would even suggest researchers to go to the viewing days for auctions, you get see the items up close and you run into very knowledgeable collectors who often love discussing the pieces.

  • diane-maglio August 15, 2013 08.47 am

    This is a very valuable research tool. I love the WW1 leather jacket. Thanks, Diane

  • Eleanor Keene August 18, 2013 06.07 pm

    Hi, I work in costume/clothing and textile valuing for auctions. Post catalogues are a fantastic source of information on so many levels. Its wonderful to have the paper version at hand to flick through, but its also worth noting that the large auction groups also have their clothing and textile sales online dating back many years now. So you can search a designer, say on the Christies site and you can find what a dress by that designer has made over the past ten years.

    Most auction houses will provide photos of everything online now, but rarely produce a full colour catalogue of a clothing and textile sale, as the overall value is deemed too low.
    Christies is now running some of its fashion related sales purely online!

    I try and keep an eye out internationally on the different auctions, France, US, UK would be my top spots. With the power of the internet, it means you no longer need to pay for international postage on catalogues and its all at your fingertips.

    I worked for a long time in the UK, but am now based in Australia. This is a very global market place.
    There are certain items that sell better in different parts of the world, I recently sent a piece of to London to be sold, as I knew we didn’t have the market in Sydney for the early couture piece.

    As for Ashley’s comment….I totally agree, auction views are an amazing way to see historical pieces up and personal. I constantly sold 18th century dresses, and I loved looking at the crude ways they would often be constructed out of the most opulent textiles. Not all auction set ups are the same, but you can usually request to view the inside of any garment up for sale. Its so interesting to be able to look at a garment from inside to out, which you can’t do in a museum display case.

    Eleanor Keene

    A few of my favourite auction houses to keep a look at include:
    Drouot – Paris, Augusta – America,
    Christies, Bonhams, Kerry Taylor and Brightwells ( in the regions) -England.

    Happy auction hunting!


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