Next week, three gowns belonging to the late Diana, Princess of Wales will head to the auction block for a second time. We’ve got all the details on the sale—and a look at the way that Diana accessorized the dresses.
Three gowns from Diana’s collection—two by Catherine Walker and one by Bruce Oldfield—will be sold by Julien’s Auctions in their “Hollywood: Legends & Royalty” sale on Friday. Here, Martin Nolan, the auction house’s co-founder, poses with two of the dresses in Beverly Hills last week.
All three of the gowns were part of the sale of Diana’s dresses at Christie’s in the summer of 1997. She hand-selected 79 gowns from her closet to sell at auction to benefit AIDS and cancer charities. The sale of the gowns (and the exhibition catalogue) raised more than $5 million USD for the selected charities.
The three gowns being sold this September in Beverly Hills were all purchased at the Christie’s auction by Ellen Louise Petho, an interior designer from Michigan. Her daughter, Katherine, was a collector of Diana-related memorabilia, and Ellen purchased five dresses at the Christie’s auction with her in mind.
The five dresses that Petho purchased are pictured above. From left to right, we’ve got the red chiffon Bruce Oldfield, the black and jade Catherine Walker, the black and white Catherine Walker, the beaded peach silk Catherine Walker, and the emerald green silk georgette Catherine Walker. Petho paid a total of $175,000 for the five dresses, including commissions and sales tax.
For the next decade, Petho allowed the dresses to be displayed in various exhibitions both at home in Michigan and across the world, always stipulating that the ticket sales should benefit charitable causes. In 1998, she told her local paper, the Port Huron Times Herald, “When I bought the dresses, I always believed they were an investment and could make money for charities. I really think they are doing more good working than sitting in storage.”
In December 2014, after owning the gowns for more than a decade, Petho sold two of them at auction: the beaded peach silk dress and the emerald green silk georgette dress, both by Catherine Walker. (The black and white striped dress was also originally intended to be included in the sale, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Julien’s Auctions handled the sale, including the dresses in their “Icons and Idols” sale on December 5, 2014. The peach gown sold for $75,000 USD, while the green dress brought $81,250 USD. Both represented significant investment returns for Petho, who had paid $21,850 and $24,150 for the dresses respectively in 1997.
Sadly, Ellen Petho passed away in January 2023 at the age of 82, just a few months after celebrating her 60th wedding anniversary. Now, the final three dresses from her collection will be auctioned. The New York Post, writing about the upcoming sale, noted that Petho’s “estate is selling the dresses, with some proceeds going to charity—an act that would have gotten a nod of approval from Diana.”
Let’s take a closer look at the three dresses being sold by Julien’s later this week. First, we’ve got the sole Bruce Oldfield dress from Petho’s collection. The lot notes from the upcoming auction describe the dress as a “scarlet metallic jacquard chiffon gown” worn on several different occasions by Diana in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The lot notes continue, “Oldfield’s design is light as well as tailored with its loose hand-gathered bust, sloped ruched shoulders, and fitted ruched bodice from under the bust to below the hips. The horizontal folds fan out from the center seam and extend to the back closure. The bodice hugs past the hips going into an open skirt; the hem floats delicately to the floor.” Petho purchased the dress for $34,500 at Christie’s in 1997, and its auction estimate for this week’s sale is set at $200,000-$400,000. (We’ll see. It also comes with a book of Diana paper dolls featuring dresses from the original auction, to sweeten the deal.)
Though it is more associated with glamorous movie premieres, Diana made her debut in the gown for a low-key public event: the annual fundraising dinner for the Royal Academy of Music at the Waldorf Hotel in London on July 10, 1989. Diana, who was the president of the academy, also wore the diamond and pearl earrings that had been given to her as a wedding present by the Emir of Qatar in 1981, plus a gold bracelet.
A far more glittering moment for the dress took place a few weeks later, when Diana wore it for a banquet at Claridge’s on July 20, 1989. The event was the return dinner hosted by Sheikh Zayed, ruler of the United Arab Emirates, during his state visit to London. For the banquet, Diana accessorized with the Spencer Tiara, the Qatari Pearl Drop Earrings, and a diamond necklace with Queen Alexandra’s Three Feathers Pendant (now worn by the current Princess of Wales). She also wore a gold bracelet on her right wrist.
In November 1989, Diana wore the dress again, this time for a glamorous film event. She attended the premiere of When Harry Met Sally at the Odeon in Leicester Square, wearing the red gown once again with the Qatari Pearl Earrings. This time, though, she also added more pearls She wore the three-row Nigel Milne Pearl Bracelet (now worn by Kate) on her left wrist, and a gold bangle on her right.
The most prominent appearance made by Diana in the Oldfield gown, though, took place two years later, on November 18, 1991. That evening, she wore the dress for the premiere of the film Hot Shots, again at the Odeon in Leicester Square. Charles and Diana were accompanied by a pair of foreign friends, President Árpád Göncz of Hungary and his wife, Szusza. (Charles called at the last minute to make sure that the presidential couple could be accommodated at the premiere, and seating charts were quickly changed.) The two couples had struck up a warm friendship during Charles and Diana’s tour of Hungary in 1990.
For the Hot Shots premiere, Diana changed up her jewelry with the Oldfield gown. She wore her seed pearl choker necklace, with its diamond and ruby spacers, and reached for a pair of diamond and ruby earrings with pearl drops. (The pearl drops are now worn by Kate.)
Diana also wore a gold bracelet on her right wrist. I’m intrigued by this piece—and I’ve almost convinced myself that the stones could be opals.
On to the next one: the dramatic black and green Catherine Walker dress worn by Diana and later purchased by Petho. The gown is described by Julien’s as having “a structured black faille bodice that sits elegantly off-the-shoulders going into an asymmetrical waist and draped jade silk-crepe skirt. The asymmetric waistline dips at the left hip where the rich jade skirt is gathered and drapes effortlessly into a floor-length hemline.”
The lot notes add, “The fringe sash adds texture to the design to create a complementary contrast to the structured bodice. The back of the skirt features a slit past the knee at the left leg, exposing an emerald green satin lining, a subtle glimmer to the gown’s matte exterior.” The dress was purchased by Petho for $24,150 in June 1997, and Julien’s has set an estimate of $100,000-$200,000 for this week’s sale.
Diana wore this dress, I believe, just once, for a dinner during a royal tour of Canada. She arrived at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto in the gown for a dinner on October 26, 1991. The event was a charity gala hosted by the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific and ABC Canada.
Diana picked up the green color of the dress’s skirt, wearing diamonds and emeralds with the ensemble. She selected the Spencer Tiara, pairing it with the diamond and emerald earrings given to her by Charles as birthday present in July 1983. She also wore Queen Alexandra’s Three Feathers Pendant on a diamond necklace (and, this time, she also added the pendant’s emerald drop). She finished off the look with the diamond and emerald bracelet that Charles gave her as a wedding present in July 1981, plus a toi et moi-style emerald and diamond ring in place of her usual sapphire engagement ring.
And now for the third, and in many ways the most intriguing, dress being sold this week. The black-and-white striped strapless evening gown was made by Catherine Walker. The lot notes describe the dress as a “fitted-strapless-hourglass gown of ivory silk crepe with black silk velvet at the bust and waistline. The hem is asymmetric, lifted at the front then goes into a short train at the back. The godet pleat at the back allows for more freedom and movement, a subtle contrast to the fitted bodice and hips.”
Diana owned the dress, but there are no photographs of her wearing it. That’s because she wore the gown for a private function. (Interestingly, her daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Sussex, recently wore a similar striped, strapless dress for a dinner in California.) Perhaps because Diana was never pictured wearing it, the expected selling price of this dress is lower than the other two. Petho bought the gown in June 1997 for $25,300, and its auction estimate at Julien’s is set at $60,000-$80,000.
An interesting side note: when Petho sold two of her Diana dresses at Julien’s back in December 2014, the black-and-white gown was originally advertised as part of the sale. It was featured in media previews and press photographs. But when the auction took place, it wasn’t included. I can only imagine that, for whatever reason, the dress was withdrawn from the sale at the last minute. Nevertheless, it’s being sold now.
The Julian’s auction this week also includes numerous other pieces of royal-related memorabilia, everything from Christmas cards and coronation programs to an actual gift bag given to guests at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. From a jewelry perspective, probably the most interesting of these is a preparatory sketch made by the artist Israel Zohar as he painted a portrait of Diana in the early 1990s. He visited the princess at Kensington Palace in May 1990 to complete various sketches and studies ahead of painting the portrait, which was commissioned by the 13th/18th Regiment of the Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own). Diana was the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief.
Diana sat for Zohar wearing her famous midnight blue velvet Victor Edelstein dress, which she had worn for her dance with John Travolta at the White House in 1985, among other outings. She accessorized with her diamond and sapphire cluster earrings (now worn by Kate) and the regiment’s badge, set with diamonds.
Here’s the final painting. The sketch study has been made available at auction more than once over the years. It was apparently first sold through Christie’s, and then in 2018 it was offered for sale at the Gotta Have Rock & Roll auction house in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. It doesn’t appear to have met the $50,000 minimum bid for that auction, with a prospective buyer offering $15,000. This time around, Julien’s expects the sketch to sell for $1,000-$2,000.
I’ve written before about the totally fascinating phenomenon of Diana-as-commodity, with objects like her dresses and even her jewelry serving as a central part of her associated memorabilia. (PS: that planned Swan Lake Suite auction still hasn’t happened.) How much will buyers shell out for Diana’s dresses this time around? Where will they end up—back at Kensington Palace with Historic Royal Palaces’s growing collection, perhaps, or maybe at the (currently shuttered) Museo de la Moda in Santiago?