Money: Frills and spills

Collect to invest: John Windsor on whether to buy a Di

Thinking of bidding for one of Princess Di's old dresses? You must be mad, or at least prone to hysteria - the communal disease that grips audiences at celebrity cast-off sales.

Remember the Jackie Onassis sale at Sotheby's New York last spring? It fetched pounds 22.8m, nearly eight times' estimate. So thoroughly did people, and money, get carried away that Sotheby's, in a shrewd public relations move, agreed to release from contract buyers who had bid silly prices, then woken up screaming the morning after. And prices were silly: Jackie's fake pearls, with a pre-sale estimate of $500-$700, went for a dizzy $211,500.

Bidders may get steamed up as they compete against one another but auctioneers remain coldly calculating. They know the value of provenance - that is, the added value that lies not in the object itself but in its vendor - whether it is on Old Master that has been cared for by the same duke's family for seven generations or a pair of pink ballet slippers worn by Rudolf Nureyev: pounds 12,075 at Christie's, London 1995. As the hammer fell, sobs were heard from an unsuccessful woman bidder.

The fact is, the big auctioneers have never - well, almost never - had a celeb cast-off sale that has flopped. The Onassis, Nureyev, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Joan Sutherland and Michael Caine sales have all been sprinkled with stardust. So the publicity hype goes on. But post-sale, in the cold light of day, the stardust loses its glitter. Speculators beware: you are unlikely to profit from celeb sales, at least in this lifetime.

Only the Britt Ekland collection (Christie's South Kensington last December) - although it sold 92 per cent of its lots, raising pounds 89,631, more than double the published pre-sale estimate - failed to achieve the lift-off into hysteria that is the auctioneer's dream. Typical of the bidding: a modest pounds 632, just within pounds 600-pounds 800 estimate, for Ekland's Zandra Rhodes smock and trousers, a little short on glitter.

Well, how popular is Britt Ekland? How many remember her? That does matter to an auctioneer trying to warm up a saleroom full of hesitant first-time bidders. Come to that, how popular is a cast-off Royal among either Brits or the Americans who will be joining the bidding? Celeb sales are barometers of popularity. Fans demonstrate their devotion by throwing money. Is Princess Di's Celeb Quotient worth pounds 3m, pounds 1m, or pounds 10m, in exchange for 65 chic confections of fabric? And would the wives and mistresses of the American rich really feel like a million dollars in her second-hand, out-of-date kit at a charity ball - especially if the dress were one of Bruce Oldfield's asymmetrical early Eighties efforts?

Fortunately for Princess Di, auctioneers have ways of making you bid. Apart from cooping you up in conditions resembling a laboratory experiment on aggression in rats, they lace the bait with silly expectations in the form of ridiculously low pre-sale estimates, published in the auction catalogue.

Such as the estimate on those paste pearls in the Onassis sale: did the auctioneers really expect them to raise as little as $500? Of course not.

But they understand the greed and aggression that such "come-on" estimates provoke. A handful of greedy bidders, having failed to carry off the lot for a song, will angrily turn on one another, bidding the price through the roof.

Even smaller auctioneers are up to the silly estimates trick. In the sale of the late Peter Cushing's belongings at Phillips in July, the actor's famous Failsworth green herring-bone deerstalker hat, worn in the role of Sherlock Holmes, was estimated at a piddling pounds 30-pounds 50.

"We're not really sure how strong his following is," said a Phillips auctioneer, all innocence. On the night, Cushing fans flocked and the deerstalker fetched pounds 1,380.

The fact is, without a realistic upper estimate to hint at restraint, silly bidders can go on bidding like hungry rats compulsively pushing a lever. Even Old Master prices are cranked up this way - especially at country house sales, where gullible bargain hunters abound. A Van Dyck portrait with a copper-bottomed attribution but a silly estimate of pounds 4,000- pounds 6,000 fetched pounds 133,500 at a Sotheby's country house sale in Suffolk in June - more than double its true value.

So when Christie's publishes its catalogue of Princess Di's dresses with estimates not much higher than their price new - pounds 8,000-pounds 12,000 - you will know what you are expected to do. Think twice before you do it.

If you must collect Royal costumes of a more intimate nature, why not go for a nice pair of Queen Victoria's knickers? She used to give them to her ladies of the bedchamber as perks (Victorian celeb value).

With their authentic VR monogram and crown, they crop up from time to time at auction, fetching pounds 600 or so. Having met the six people who collect them, I can assure you that they bear no visible signs of hysteria.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Love but not marriage: property is one area where cohabiting couples are in danger of losing out

How couples can protect their financial interests when cohabiting

People who simply live together cannot assume they have the same rights to each other's assets as spouses or civil partners. Michelle McGagh sees how they can protect their financial interests

India could be jewel in the crown for investors

With a new government and an ambitious prime minister, the country offers the prospect of strong returns. But there may be hiccups ahead, warns Simon Read

Child Maintenance Service to replace Child Support Agency - but is it better?

Reforms to the vexed question of child support payments by absent parents mean extra charges for both sides. Neasa Macerlean reports

Barclays's new life insurance heralds a revolution on the high street

The new product marks a shift towards 'clear, straightforward and standardised' banking products, says Simon Read

How to protect your assets if the stock markets begin to head south again

Are you worried about your portfolio? Nick Paler asks fund managers and investment insiders for advice
Fuel poverty campaigners united in criticising the delays in helping those in fuel poverty

Plans to tackle fuel poverty are slammed by campaigners

Charities and action groups believe that the Government's proposals are woefully inadequate
Sell it with flowers: competition is 'intense' for homes with outside spaces

Gardens add a tenth to the value of your home

A London estate agent yesterday put a price on having a garden. David Pollock of Greene & Co reckons it can increase a property's value by a tenth.

Spectators at the Isle of Wight music festival watch the World Cup on the big screen. Betting promotions were a feature of the tournament
Lenders have been accused of persuading vulnerable people to borrow expensive credit

Payday loan firms accused of bombarding vulnerable people with nuisance phone calls

Payday loan firms have been accused of bombarding financially vulnerable people with nuisance phone calls, after a debt charity reported that a third of its clients were plagued by the messages.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Business Anaylst

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

    Senior Project Manager

    £60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

    Associate CXL Consultant

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

    Oil & Energy Business Anaylst

    £45000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Harrington Sta...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment