It was an auction finale more thrilling to watch than a Hollywood action sequence as bids for Diana, Princess of Wales’s famous sheep jumper rocketed from $200,000 to $1.1 million in the final minutes of its sale at Sotheby’s New York on Thursday afternoon.
It set an astonishing record for any item from the late Princess’s wardrobe after what the auction house called a “frenzied” 44-bid sale. The sale outshines that of any of her couture gowns which have previously been auctioned. The previous record was set in January at Sotheby’s when an aubergine Victor Edelstein gown sold for $604,800 (£488,545). The jumper also becomes the most valuable sweater ever sold at auction.
“We are in complete shock, it’s a bizarre sensation,” said Joanna Osborne, who made the jumper alongside business partner Sally Muir for their label Warm & Wonderful in the early 1980s. Muir and Osborne watched the sale unfold together at Osborne’s home in Brighton, drinking champagne with friends and enjoying a homemade chocolate sheep cake.
The duo decided to sell the jumper after Osborne discovered it packed away in an old wine box in her attic, 40 years after they had last seen it. “It’s the ultimate cash in the attic story,” she said.
The Princess wore the sheep-emblazoned knit to a polo match in June 1981, weeks before her marriage to the then Prince of Wales. She ripped it and Buckingham Palace returned it to the designers, asking if they could repair it. Instead they sent her a new version, which she wore to another polo game in 1983, and they kept the old, damaged one.
“We were panicking earlier in the day that it wouldn’t go above $200,000 as it was quite quiet,” said Muir. “But then things went berserk in those last few minutes, we were tense, ecstatic and hyper all at once,” Osborne added.
The jumper’s record-breaking sale eclipses the original estimate of £50,000-£70,000. “We had no idea it would fetch this much so we haven’t had time to consider what we will do with the money yet,” said Osborne. “We are going on holiday together to the Isle of Harris in Scotland tomorrow, so we will discuss it then,” Muir continued, sounding like the quintessential shocked lottery winner.
Sotheby’s declined to indicate who had bought the jumper. “It would be nice if people could see it again if a museum has bought it,” said Osborne.
“While we are truly blown away by today’s record-breaking result, we were in no doubt that this beloved design and emblem of royal history would ignite interest from a broad spectrum of people across the world from collectors to fashion lovers,” explained Cynthia Houlton, Sotheby’s Global Head of Fashion and Accessories. “The final price is further testament to the power and influence of Princess Diana’s everlasting legacy.”
The appeal of the black sheep jumper was never simply because it was worn by the Princess but also the way it symbolised in clothing form so much about her story. “While the famous item is often associated with her youth, it is also speculated to be reflective of her complex relationship with the Royal family,” said Houlton. “The world felt a particular kinship and connection to ‘the people’s princess’ as she often pushed the boundaries of societal norms at the time. Her beloved looks have been forever memorialised and continue to inspire a new generation of people today.”
“We are more grateful than ever to Diana, we have had a lot of luck with the sheep thing,” said Muir, who believes that the Princess was given the original jumper by Emilie van Cutsem, the mother of Edward van Cutsem, who was one of Charles and Diana’s pageboys.
The Warm & Wonderful brand has been revived in recent years by American entrepreneur Jack Carlson with sheep knitwear now available in an array of colours and styles. Muir and Osborne loaned one of the few remaining original knits to The Crown, where it was worn by Emma Corrin in season four of the Netflix drama.
As Osborne points out, there “is still another sheep jumper out there which was worn by Diana. It’s probably in the care of William or Harry if she kept it, but I think she gave lots of things away too.” Wherever it is, it has just become significantly more valuable.