On Elsa Schiaparelli’s Auction: Classically Tragic or The Greatest Posthumous Gift Ever?

December 10, 2013 • Fashion


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Isn’t there something terribly sad about auctions? Not art auctions, of course, where two big boys, dressed in aprons and gloves like they’ve arrived to hack the hooves off a hog, wheel out a big work of art, and a beautifully tailored man conducts an improvised song. An art auction is the only place in the world where everyone in the room thinks everything ought to get more expensive. An art auction is a tremendously exciting performance.

But then there is the kind where you auction off all your possessions. A pompous sense of tragedy hangs around it. It implies you want nothing to do with what you are (or with the person who gave you the stuff). Or you need money, which is equal in its baroque mopiness. To auction off everything you own is the ultimate new start. Yet it’s also very nostalgic: to auction off one’s possessions sounds like the sad beginning to a Dickens novel or the funny ending to an Austen one, the missing chapter from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. At the very latest, it’s an anecdote from a mid-’80s threnody to the last great days of the Colony Club, in which the granddaughter of a Capote swan pawns off a record 1200 fur coats at Christie’s.

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Even though it may seem in some way tragic, then, the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli, is auctioning off Elsa’s possessions at Christie’s in Paris come January, there is something marvelously Schiaparelli about it. This was a woman who wrote of herself in the foreward of her memoir, Shocking Life, “Sorrow and loss she readily accepts, but she does not know how to deal with happiness.” Perhaps the auction will help her deal, cosmically of course, with the fact that just a few weeks later falls the magnificently anticipated revival of the brand at Paris Fashion Week under former Rochas designer Marco Zanini.

Prior to the January auction, selections are on view at Christie’s in New York. I went there on Saturday, braving a midtown crowd that moved like an alligator traveling through a python’s digestive tract. As it turned out, there are just four of Schiaparelli’s boleros on view, though they are displayed in a grandiose arrangement in a big open foyer hugged by stairs that curve like two crab legs. (It also gave me the opportunity to see the most glorious hair on a head in the antiquity section–thick curling cords that wound like some obsolete variety of pasta.) There is a beaded pink wool bolero, a beaded silk crepe blue bolero, a beaded velvet turquoise bolero, and a beaded violet silk blouse from her 1939 Astrologie collection. The estimates are in the $16,000-27,000 range, though the Astrologie blouse is estimated at $34,000-41,000, in case you’re in the market.

Of the 180 lots, there are many more of her beaded pieces and the oriental robes she loved, as well as a number of her personal effects. There is a lavender French Second Empire style sofa (est. $810-1100), in which two seats face each other, sharing an arm as if perpetually mid-do-si-do. Perhaps the most thrilling lot is a bronze Alberto Giacometti-designed floor lamp modelled with the head of a young woman that is at once Surrealist and Greek Classical (est. $81,000-110,000). Furniture is the most affecting category in the “selling all my belongings” auction, because it seems a more private way of enriching one’s existence. Clothing, after all, is designed to leave the house.

But in the context of the house’s upcoming revival, it’s fun to think her possessions are being redistributed as the drum roll to her second act. Chanel’s rival was, until the exhibition at the Met a few years ago, forgotten by or unknown to many. Now fragments of her will end up in houses all over the world. “In spite of success, glamour, and despair,” she writes, again in Shocking Pink, “the only escape is in oneself, and nobody can take that away.”

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