Princess Diana gown, Lebron James jersey and ornate Bronze Age disc lead Sotheby’s latest cross-category auction experiment

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Boundaries between auction house departments became more porous with the onset of Covid-19, but even by the new standards of cross-boundary sales, “The One” auction at Sotheby’s New York on Friday (27 January) was a head-spinning mashup. It opened with the Miami Heat jersey worn by basketball great Lebron James in the championship-clinching seventh game of the 2013 NBA finals, followed by an ornate set of Edo-era armour from 19th-century Japan, and later included a pair of 15th-century icon paintings, an Egyptian bust from the 6th century BCE and a ticket to the Madison Square Garden celebration for then-US President John F. Kennedy at which Marilyn Monroe famously sang, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”

George Wachter, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Old Master paintings Worldwide, wrote in the sale catalogue that he felt the firm had “missed an opportunity” by not holding a sale similar to its cross-category “Treasures” auction held in London, an oversight he set out to correct during this week’s marquee Old Masters sales. “I wanted to try and create a sale to go alongside these other auctions that would highlight anything and everything else, just not paintings.”

That “anything and everything” approach was reflected across the 19-lot auction—a 20th lot, a 16th-century marble sculpture of Christ the Redeemer by Simone Bianco and his workshop, was withdrawn before the sale. Lots were grouped into thematic categories including “Divine”, “Status Symbols” and “Suiting up: Clothing as Armor and Beyond”. In all the sale brought in a total of $6.7m ($8.4m with fees), just shy of its pre-sale estimate range of $7.6m to $9.8m. Four lots failed to sell, making for a 79% sell-through rate by lot. James’s jersey had the sale’s highest expectations and quickly hammered for its low estimate of $3m ($3.6m with fees).

A daimyo oyoroi armour, Japan, Edo period, 19th century Courtesy Sotheby’s

The Edo armour elicited similarly minimal bidding, selling below its $200,000 low estimate for a hammer price of $120,000 ($151,200 with fees), though the buyer may be exactly the sort of eclectic collector Wachter had in mind for this type of sale. The same client later won a Los Angeles Lakers uniform worn by Kobe Bryant in a famous 2015 game when, after the right-handed player injured his right shoulder, he played the rest of the match left-handed. It sold for $180,000 ($226,800 with fees) against a pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. The same bidder returned for the sale’s penultimate lot, an ornate Rococo table the cabinetmaker Pietro Piffetti created for the Marchese D’Ormea in the 1730s, taking it home with a bid of $175,000 ($214,200 with fees).

The sale’s biggest lot after the James jersey was a Bronze Age disc with ornate abstract patterns from Denmark, dated to between the 15th and 13th centuries BCE, which came from the estate of collector Robin Bradley Martin. Fierce bidding in the York Avenue saleroom, online and by clients phoning in pushed it to more than double its $300,000 high estimate. An online bidder eventually clinched it for $650,000 ($819,000 with fees).

Head of an apostle, France, Upper Rhine, Strasbourg, around 1220-30 Courtesy Sotheby’s

Several bidders lost their heads for a sandstone sculpture of the head of an apostle from the Upper Rhine region, near Strasbourg, dated to the early 13th century. A bidding war quickly pushed it toward its high estimate of $600,000, and it ultimately sold to a phone bidder for $580,000 ($730,800 with fees).

Two lots later, an elegant strapless gown in deep purple silk velvet designed by Victor Edelstein and worn by Princess Diana set off another spirited contest and sent it well past its $100,000 high estimate. A client bidding online ultimately prevailed, winning the gown with a bid of $480,000 ($604,800)—a record result for a Diana dress at auction. Time will tell if the bidder was Kim Kardashian, who recently bought a similarly-hued amethyst cross worn by Diana from an online sale at Sotheby’s—though her treatment of historic dresses has caused some uproar in the past.

The sale, perhaps owing to its jarring mix of offerings, was an on-again-off-again affair, with momentum building around a few lots then abruptly dying down. Interest slackened perceptibly after the Diana gown, and half of the final six lots failed to sell, suggesting there are still some improvements to be made to Sotheby’s “anything and everything else” approach to such multi-category auctions.

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