Buying Vintage at Auction: the Lisa Ho Collection

On Sunday I made a snap decision and flew to Sydney for the day, to bid on an amazing collection of ’20s and ’30s from the archives of fashion designer Lisa Ho.

It was a hard decision to make because right now, having just moved and still sorting out my enormous quantities of stock, I need more like a hole in the head – but this was an incredible collection, the like of which I’ve never seen in my 32 years of collecting. Pieces of this quality are rare in Australia and the auction hadn’t been widely promoted so I felt that there might be an opportunity to pick up some items for good prices. I was right.

There are good and bad things about buying vintage at auction: firstly, there are only a small number of auctions held each year by a few specialist auction houses. You can sometimes find older pieces included in general antique auctions or sometimes a collection will be sold, as was the case with the collection of Chris Jacovides in 1989 (one of the best weekends of my life, so much fun!) or the Banana Room in 2005. Auctions can be exhilarating and exciting – but you need to keep a rein on your budget.

Personally, I find the combination of being in a room with like-minded people, and possibly friends, sharing a passion and bidding against each other to be a wonderful experience. Auction houses are generally very professional and restrained and you’ll need your best poker face to get the best buys: show too much enthusiasm and others will wonder what makes it special too. Dealers in particular, are prone to buying out of their comfort zone if you give them cause to think that something is worth more than they do.

If you have friends in the room, you probably won’t want to bid against each other – and that can be tricky, although I once made a good friend after winning one lot of shoes and afterwards we discovered that I wanted the ’30s heels and she wanted the ’70s platforms: splitting the lot enabled us both to get what we wanted and reduced the costs.

It’s a good idea to inspect the lots carefully beforehand – especially with clothing, condition is a big part of their value, and catalogues are often light on detail. For example, on Sunday, I found an ’80s Thierry Mugler dress mixed in with a lot of ’30s dresses. Often catalogues won’t even give you eras or labels so investigation is required. Two of the best pieces in the Lisa Ho auction had major condition issues that weren’t evident in the photos, so it’s no surprise that in both cases they went to absentee bidders, who perhaps weren’t aware of the damage.

Another thing is that you should read the terms and conditions carefully – in this case I was dismayed to find that I had to wait until the next day for the invoice, and I was back home in Melbourne by then – and they had to post my winning bids, which was going to take two weeks or more (!) so I ended up hounding the auctioneer so that I could pick them up. Had I known, I would have stayed in Sydney an extra day.

On Sunday I was so excited to be in the room that I took a series of walks, firstly past the room, doing a big circle – then into the room but just sweeping past the racks so I could work out where to start. Then I took a third walk by, looking in a little more depth – it was the fourth walk where I started to look at individual garments – that’s how excited I was, I needed to relax and take it in gently, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do my job properly!

In the end, I ran out of time and just gave the racks of ’30s petticoats and nightgowns and wedding gowns a cursory look – my time with the 200 plus lots took almost two hours. My loss, as it meant that I couldn’t effectively bid on those lots.

Vintage wedding gowns.

1930s lingerie: petticoats and nightgowns.

For this auction, I expected the usual suspects to attract the highest bids: beaded ’20s dresses frequently go for $1,000 plus – and there were lots of them. Other expected big ticket items were the incredible ’20s lame’ coats, cloaks and jackets. These are popular because the fabrics are incredible and they’re usually sized generously.

Beaded ’20s silk dresses – so pleased to see them lying flat on tables, rather than hanging although there were other ones on hangers.

But I was after the ’30s floral dresses and the ’30s evening wear and the ’30s jackets and coats – can you sense a theme? I’m currently loving this decade, especially the wild florals. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one – and so missed all these lots despite bidding often, my budget just wouldn’t get me where it needed to be.

I can hardly complain though, as the ’20s went for lower prices than I expected. My final haul was six dresses from the ’30s, two pairs of shoes, three beaded ’20s dresses and a ’20s lame’ jacket. The lovely auction people are posting them to me and I can’t wait for my new treasures to arrive.

1930s floral dresses.

I didn’t want the viewing to end and the beauties to be split up. Lisa Ho is a lady with superb taste and I hope she’s not too sad for her collection to be dispersed like this, at least she can be reassured that the pieces I bought will be treasured and restored.

Thank you, Lisa – I’ll be using some in my talks and so can share them with other vintage lovers! Here are some links for auction houses that sell vintage clothing on occasion:

Lawson’s – Sydney
Leonard Joel’s – Melbourne
The Collector – Melbourne

The most unlikely auction house can feature though, so best to check the listings in Saturday’s newspapers.

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10 comments

  1. Fantastic account of the article and I LOVE the textile swatches – those shots really capture the diversity of what was represented in the auction!

  2. Sounds like a fabulous day!
    Good on you for following your instincts and jumping on that plane.
    Beauties like these deserve to be in the hands of those that will preserve and cherish them.
    D

  3. Thanks Inger! It pleases me to report that although I took those snaps before the auction, I’ve managed to include close ups from at least four or your new pieces and two of mine.

  4. That auction looks like the one I dream about! Thank you for sharing with us, and congratulations on your fabulous buys.

  5. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience. I’ve never seen so much in one place (since the 30s, and I wasn’t aware of how much more I’d appreciate these in later years!) I recall the Oyster satin of my mother’s nightdresses, and search in vain among the horrible nightwear available now! Loved the pattern swatches too.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing these with us! I’m not sure if you know..but the fourth swatch down (of the ladies hands) has recently been sampled to blended withg florals to make a dress in the Dita Von Teese range. xx

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