The Hot Bid: Record-setting Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing

NEW YORK – During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases items that have set world auction records.

Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

What you see: A Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing, done in the 1960s while he was working for the House of Tiziani. Palm Beach Modern Auctions sold it in April 2019 for $6,000 (inclusive of buyer’s premium), a record for a Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing.

The expert: Rico Baca, auctioneer for Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

How rare are Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawings? We can start by talking about how rare fashion drawings are, period. Anytime you talk about fashion houses, you have people on staff producing [the drawings]. None are able to retain them for themselves. They belong to the house. It’s even more rare when you find someone signed their name to it. The drawings [Lagerfeld did for] Tiziani weren’t his. Because he worked for Tiziani, they were property of the house.

Are you aware of any other Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawings that he did for other houses? That I don’t know. I don’t have access to that information. But Lagerfeld was quoted as saying he saved none of his sketches. When they [the fashion house] started production, he’d throw them away. He’s been quoted saying that.

How did these Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawings for Tiziani emerge and survive? The consigner inherited them from his partner. The partner had been in a relationship with Tiziani. When it passed to the consigner, I went to the apartment Tiziani owned. He had saved several boxes of sketches. There were sketches Lagerfeld signed and he hadn’t signed.

How could you tell which unsigned drawings were by Lagerfeld? The style. Karl Lagerfeld would finish [them]. He’d put a face on [the model] with makeup and hair. He would finish the hands sometimes, and he might finish a foot with a shoe. Some had fabric attached to the sketches. It was easy to see which was his.

What’s the difference between the Lagerfeld drawings you sold in 2014 and the ones you sold in 2019? I think there were more sketches in the first group. There was more of a variety of finished product, and some had signatures. The second sale had no [drawings with] signatures. And Lagerfeld knew when we had the first auction. He would tweet as his cat, Choupette, and his cat tweeted, “If you want some of Daddy’s early drawings, they’re at Palm Beach Modern Auctions on Saturday.” If there were any questions about the authenticity of the drawings, Lagerfeld would have [spoken up] then.

Courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

Courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

When did the House of Tiziani close? I know the designer worked until the 1980s. These designers never stop. [Laughs]

Is it possible to know how many of the Lagerfeld drawings for Tiziani went to auction with you? Was it everything? You never know. They haven’t been under lock and key since the 1960s, however Lagerfeld was well known for disposing of his original drawings in quantity and having no apparent personal attachment to them. He even dumped a large number of them into a trash bin during an interview with a reporter and commented, in so many words, that he didn’t like clutter around him. These drawings survived because the owner of the House of Tiziani had the foresight to retain the company’s archive. That archive was passed down through his estate and to two subsequent owners after that.

Do the two sales represent a good chunk of those drawings? It’s hard to know how many sketches are still out there. If you research fashion houses, you get a sense of the volume they do. Today they do even more than they did then, when they had two lines, one for each season. Now they put out lines every three weeks. It’s incomprehensible what they have to produce to maintain the houses.

What was Lagerfeld’s role at Tiziani? Was he the right-hand man? I don’t know, but he had to be high in the food chain. He helped Tiziani design for Elizabeth Taylor, and he helped him when he was working on movies for Elizabeth Taylor. He certainly wasn’t the person who brought in the tassels. He was there.

What do these drawings tell us about Lagerfeld’s skills? These were more than just sketches. They were works of art. And you really get that feeling when you look at the dresses. The reason they became sought-after sketches–look at that dress. It’s a beautiful dress. It’s timeless. This stuff is good. There’s nothing not to like about it. The quality is there.

Do the sketches hint at the career that Lagerfeld had ahead of him? What you see in his sketches is his attention to detail is painstaking. I can’t imagine seeing that attention to detail in other sketches [by other people]. He took his time and gave thought to it. He’s doing a whole look when he’s doing these sketches.

If these drawings couldn’t be attributed to Lagerfeld, would they still be valuable? I wouldn’t go that far. Since then [the first auction], we’ve had James Galanos, who is arguably a greater designer than Lagerfeld. We had eight folders of his sketches, and they only hammered for $2,000. [“Hammered” is the raw final price, without any premiums.] Not everyone reached Lagerfeld’s pinnacle. No one stays relevant to their death. They peak, they wane, they retire. What makes Lagerfeld unique is he was famous and relevant until he died.

What can you tell me about the sketch from the April 2019 sale pictured in lot 101? Do we know why it was commissioned, and for who, and who the model might have been? No. [Laughs] I wish I could give you a story that makes it more interesting. If you look at the sketch, it’s classic, and the colors are right. It’s a great dress.

What is the sketch like in person? It doesn’t really stand out to me from any of the other sketches. It’s just a beautiful dress.

Why did this particular sketch do well enough to set the world auction record for a Lagerfeld fashion sketch? That’s the mystery of an auction. All you need are two people who want the same thing. Who knows? Maybe it was two brides who thought that was the perfect dress. Part of what happened is we knew Lagerfeld had died. [He succumbed to pancreatic cancer in February 2019.] That was our only indication there might be more interest, but you don’t know how much until it happens.

So, before the sale, you would not have singled this one out as a likely record-setter. I wouldn’t have put my money on it. I did speak to a lot of people who bought them as gifts. Mothers bought them for daughters, daughters bought them for mothers, friends bought them for friends. Many bought two or three.

Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

A fabric swatch was attached to this drawing. To what extent, if at all, did its presence drive the bidding? I think it did. Very few of them had cloth swatches.

You were the auctioneer at the sale. What do you recall of the experience? I generally do 60 lots an hour. I thought I’d be at the podium two hours max. Max.I had bronchitis and a cold. I got an inhaler and cough drops and thought, “I can do this.” It ended up going five hours. I opened the bidding up and it kept going and going. The last hour, I kept using the inhaler to get through it. It [the sale results] was good news, but it was a real surprise.

How long did it take you to recover? Quite a few days.

What do you remember of the experience of the sale? It was a pleasant one even though I was ill. [Laughs].

Were you hanging on to the podium for dear life? A little bit, but when the numbers are happening, it’s easy to walk through. It’s showtime. Run up to the podium and do your thing.

How long do you think this record will stand? Do you expect a drawing sold at one of your two auctions to come back eventually and meet or beat the $5,000 sum? The original sale had a number of sketches done on larger-size media. They were really finished pieces and they had signatures. At the same time, maybe Lagerfeld’s relevance will dim. I’m always amazed today about famous peoples’ relevance, and how it really does wane in today’s world. We move on so quickly.

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Palm Beach Modern Auctions is on Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

Auction Central News contributed to this column.

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.