Published: May 10, 2016
Review And Onsite Photos By Jill Fenichell
NEW YORK CITY — Historic costume and textile auctions reveal much about two different streams of thought — one, having to do with the cyclical nature of fashion, may reveal where leading couture and fashion houses may take fashion next, and the other what collectors treasure most of our past. The two streams are not exclusive in any way, but what couturiers sometimes buy to deconstruct and remake for ready-to-wear lines, costumiers may use as a period dress for a theatrical presentation and historians may want as they seek clues as to why or how garments were made and used.
Augusta Auctions’ April 20 auction of 425 lots did well because all three types of buyers were excited by the diversity of material presented.
Gustav Beer is not a name familiar to most households, but in the early years of the Twentieth Century, his success as a couturier was international. He had houses in Paris, Monte Carlo, Nice and London. This auction included a great example of Beer’s work, a circa 1902, three-piece celery-green silk gown, including a simpler day bodice, a lacier evening bodice and a fine skirt, as well as the production number and original label. This is precisely the kind of outfit worn by heroines of Henry James and Edith Wharton novels and it is a look considered the height of romance by collectors and curators alike. The outfit, estimated at $400/600, was the top lot of the auction when it sold for $9,225 to an online bidder.
An extraordinary lamé evening coat embroidery allover with large images of colorful fruit was the top lot of the 1920s section of the auction. With kimono sleeves on the black silk ground structure, the dress had just the kind of exciting imagery that collectors and fashionistas seek from 1920s historic garb. The coat surpassed its $1/1,500 estimate to realize $8,610. After the auction, Karen Augusta, one of the principals of Augusta Auctions, found out from one of the two impassioned bidders that the fabric was designed by Raoul Dufy, the Fauve artist.
Another success of Twentieth Century historic dress met with equivalent success. A rare “Franklin’s Key to Electricity” flapper-style silk dress, dated 1929, sold for $4,305. It was printed in dark colors from the early Twentieth Century American silk manufacturer HR Mallinson & Company’s “American Scenes” series, including images of industry, cranes, trains and Ben Franklin raising a key to the skies. The dress was estimated to bring a few hundred dollars and zoomed upward via phone and Internet bidding, as well as competition from the room. A prominent museum was the triumphant winner of the rare garment.
The postwar period included an interesting group of couture and ready-to-wear garments. An Adrian dress, designed as a chic reiteration of a Mexican peasant dress, made in 1948, led this category. Printed on a natural white silk ground with horizontal bands of bright red, green and black continuous “paper doll” figures, it sold for $6,150. The fabric was designed by Native American artist Tom Two-Arrows, one of two designs by Two-Arrows for Adrian. Very few examples of the dress are known to exist in such good condition, which is why the $600/800 estimate was quickly exceeded by enthusiastic bidders; the lot was won by a museum’s historic costume department.
Christian Dior’s vibrant three-piece suite from autumn-winter 1958, consisting of a black velveteen shell and black printed red ribbed-silk bell-shaped skirt and tie-front jacket, led the earlier couture section of the auction, selling for $4,305, more than double its high estimate.
The market for historic costume and textile, encompassing tribal and fashion wear, continues to show strength in the very periods where furniture and other decorative objects show weakness. For one reason alone, the depth of bidding in the Regency period, for instance, showed great vigor, and that is because few items of clothing from the Eighteenth–Nineteenth Century survive in sellable, let alone very good, condition, and of these, many costume and fashion designers find inspiration among the combinations of fabrics and techniques that have gone into their construction.
A cobalt blue silk evening gown of the 1820s is surely a rare survivor not only because its condition as a garment is very good, but also because the vivid blue coloration of the fabric retained its original intensity. Estimated in the $400/600 range, the dress attained $5,842. From the men and boys’ side of the aisle, a scarce boy’s linen/nankeen tail coat in mustard brown, circa 1815–20, did quite well, selling for $3,690. It had been in the Kochan-Troiani collections, which helped it overcome its condition deficits.
After the auction, Karen Augusta said that she was very pleased with the sale, which did very well despite having a small number of Victorian garments and textiles, both of which have been doing quite well on the marketplace overall. “But everyday clothing from the Regency period — well, anytime you can find something of a humble fabric that was used, rather than for fancy dress, that is really sellable today.”
Augusta’s next auction is in May, in Sturbridge, Mass., and timed to coincide with Brimfield. The auction is a two-day combination cataloged and non-cataloged, box-lot sale. “You never know what people will find in the boxes; we’ll have lots of Victorian, lots of Victorian white dresses, large group lots of bags and accessories, jewelry and everything else; you have to be at the auction to bid and to buy and that’s where more real finds can pop up,” said Augusta.
All prices reported include the buyer.
For additional information, www.augusta-auction.com or 802-463-3333.
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