Princess Diana’s ‘black sheep’ sweater auctioned for $1.1 million

LONDON — It was the black sheep amid rows of white that stood out most prominently on Princess Diana’s bright red sweater in 1981. Decades after her death, the iconic fashion item sold for $1.14 million in New York this week, breaking auction records.

The princess, then Lady Diana Spencer, was widely popular with the general public, but regularly hounded by Britain’s tabloid media during her life. She caused a stir when she first donned the distinctive woolly item ahead of her marriage to Charles — now King Charles III.

The sweater, now known in the British press as the “black sheep jumper,” sold to an unidentified bidder for $1.14 million at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, during its inaugural Fashion Icons auction late Thursday, massively beating pre-auction estimates of $80,000.

The sale established a “new auction record for any article of clothing worn by the late Princess, as well as the most valuable sweater ever sold at auction,” Sotheby’s said in a statement. It ousted the previous record for a sweater — a green cardigan belonging to musician Kurt Cobain, which sold for $334,000 in 2019.

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Diana’s sweater garnered a total of 44 bids from 12 countries, culminating in a final frenzy after a 15-minute bidding battle, the auction house said. It was worn as she attended one of Charles’s polo matches, when she was 19.

The auction lot included two official letters sent from Buckingham Palace in 1981 to the small London design company “Warm & Wonderful,” politely explaining that the jumper had a damaged cuff and requesting a repair or replacement.

The company’s co-founders, Joanna Osborne and Sally Muir, sent a new replacement sweater that Diana wore again in 1983 to another polo match. The damaged original was found by Osborne in a small wine box in an attic this year, Sotheby’s said. They subsequently confirmed it to be the original sheep jumper worn by Princess Diana over 40 years ago and it went to sale.

“Since stumbling upon the sweater in March of this year, we have been reliving the fond memories of Princess Diana,” the co-founders said in a statement, adding that they were “forever indebted to her” for her impact on their small business.

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“We are thrilled that this cherished sweater has now found a new home, carrying with it the enduring legacy of Princess Diana.”

One of Diana’s most “enticing features was her approach to fashion which differed greatly from that of her predecessors and challenged societal expectations,” according to Sotheby’s. Diana did not shy away from making statements with her sartorial choices, of which many interpreted this to be.

“It’s an obvious metaphor for not quite fitting in,” Cynthia Houlton, SVP and Global Head of Fashion and Accessories at Sotheby’s said on the company’s website. “But also, that it’s okay to stand out and be different.”

Diana was known to break royal protocols. She made global headlines when she hugged a child with AIDS in Harlem in 1989, a time when many incorrectly believed the disease could be transmitted by hugging. She also made headlines when she walked across a deadly minefield in Angola to raise awareness about land mines. Her charity work led to her being nicknamed the “People’s Princess.”

Before Diana, royal family protocol was often to dress in “conservative, formal, and traditional attire,” Sotheby’s notes. But the fashion choices of 1980s Britain were given to bold colors, prints and extravagant ideas, with designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Judy Blame taking the fore.

“Diana’s style broke the mold by reflecting the changing social climate and embracing evolving perceptions of femininity. Her style is characterized as sophisticated and relatable,” Sotheby’s said.

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Her outfits were often imitated by fans and admirers with exhibitions about her style and clothing still popular today. David Bowie and Andy Warhol were among those who subsequently bought sheep sweaters, “Warm & Wonderful” designers told Sotheby’s.

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Other memorable fashion items from Diana include the off-shoulder black minidress she wore in 1994, dubbed the “revenge dress” and made by Greek designer Christina Stambolian.

She wore it with high heels and a pearl choker to a gala at London’s Serpentine Gallery on the night her husband admitted his continual adultery on television. It was an instant sensation, with the scene also depicted in the Netflix drama “The Crown.”

Diana’s amethyst and diamond “Attallah Cross” necklace sold at auction in January for $197,453 to reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Her “Infanta” style ball gown also sold at Sotheby’s New York this year for $604,800.

The princess’s black 1985 Ford Escort RS Turbo car, in which she was often photographed driving around London’s Chelsea and Kensington neighborhoods in, was sold last year for $764,000.


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