February 1972 Attending a sale at Christie’s – Katherine B Brett
‘Attending a costume sale at Christie’s is an exhilarating experience especially if one is familiar with auction sales in Toronto. The pace is so much faster that if you are not sitting on the edge of your seat, and paying close attention, a bargain can fly by before you have caught your breath and made a note of the item just before it.
I attended my first sale in the spring of 1968. The two days before the sale were set aside for public viewing. The viewing was held in very confined quarters where there were racks of dresses and other garments around the walls of a room too small to hold them. On the floor, and on old pieces of furniture, there were boxes and bundles of miscellaneous articles. I had received the catalogue in advance and had made notes of the various pieces which, from the descriptions sounded interesting. The problem was to find them in the mad crush which closely resembled the Symphony Rummage Sale. Some were readily recognisable, others were a far cry from the descriptions. There were also those which sounded uninspiring in the catalogue, but turned out to be pieces of interest for our collection. This sort of thing, of course, often happens at auction sales. Having returned to my hotel, after much pushing and shoving and waiting for a chance to get at a box or near a rack, I quietly considered what I wanted to bid on and what I was prepared to pay – another routine auction sale procedure.
On the day of the sale I arrived at the sale room early, to get a seat at the back with a good view of the whole procedure. At all the sales I have been to nearly the whole of the first part of the morning is devoted to dolls or fans. There are many avid collectors of dolls who are prepared to pay what seems to me quite astronomical prices but since the Royal Ontario Museum does not collect dolls, I am not knowledgeable in this field and perhaps people were getting bargains.
Nevertheless, it was an invaluable opportunity to adjust to the speed with which articles are put up, bid for, and knocked down at a Christie’s sale. No time was wasted by the auctioneer describing or “selling” the article. A description such as “grey silk dress with cape” was all that was said. Things were something held up on hangers, but often just bunched up in the hand. Everyone was supposed to know from their own examination, all details concerning the article. In this way about 130 articles were auctioned off between 10 and 12:30 in the morning. The tense moments were those when rarities came up. From my vantage point I could observe museum curators, dealers and collectors bidding briskly against each other, as well as collectors who one knew who were bidding for American museums. When it was all over the atmosphere relaxed and as we dispersed there were many congratulations and condolences.
I have now attended three or four sales at Christie’s and the most notable feature has been the rise in prices. At the first I got the articles I wanted for less than I was prepared to bid. That did not happen very often in following sales and rapid, on the spot adjustments, on bidding limits had to be made.
The most exasperating thing for the bidder on a budget is the auctioneer’s policy of putting rare things, which are going to go for high prices, near the end of the sale. One saves one’s pennies on the chance of getting a rarity and has to let bargains go by. I came home with money in my pocket after the last sale because the rarities went too high for our budget and little of interest came up after that.
I have also sent in bids to other sales and have been remarkably lucky. Our most exciting, recent purchase was a dress described as “embroidered bleached cotton, about 1780”. We have no embroidered dresses of this period and so we sent in a modest bid since it sounded like a simple little garment. It turned out to be an overdress of beautiful chain stitch embroidery in coloured silks, worked in India for the European market. The ground is cotton and a little discoloured with age and this would have given the cataloguer the impression that it was unbleached. It is now on display in the Costume Gallery, the gift of the Fashion Group Inc. Toronto Branch.’ [The last sentence