When New Yorkers got their first sight yesterday of the belongings of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the auctioneer Sotheby's described them as "perhaps the greatest treasure house of royal possessions offered at auction".
But there are more ghosts than just those of Wallis Simpson and the former king Edward VIII lurking among the shoes, silk ties and abdication desk put on display in Manhattan. The spectres of Dodi Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales, will also haunt the sale on 20 February. Dodi's father, the Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, has committed the proceeds of the sale to be distributed to the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation and causes dear to the Princess, as a tribute to the couple whose deaths in a Paris car crash in August last year so shook the world.
With 44,000 items on sale, the auction is set to be the biggest of all time. Its proceeds have been estimated at $5m-$7m (pounds 3m-pounds 5m). However these are thought to be conservative figures, for the hyping of the event is expected to lead to something like the frenzy which greeted the sale of the Duchess's jewellery in Geneva in l987.
Using the money from such a sale to benefit causes connected to Dodi and Diana must have seemed entirely apt to the Fayeds, for the Windsor belongings being auctioned off come from the Duke and Duchess's Bois de Boulogne home, which the Princess and her companion visited hours before their death.
Undoubtedly the money will make a difference to the work of the causes which will benefit. But who will be the recipients?
It is difficult to tell from what is known about Dodi Fayed's life just which good causes would receive money from the foundation. Mohamed Fayed bought the Windsor collection for $4.5m from the Institut Pasteur, the sole beneficiary of the Duchess's will after her death in 1986. There is no suggestion that that organisation will receive any money from this sale, but medicine is likely to benefit. Children's charities, too, seem to be contenders, given Diana's commitment to them.
The first tranche of money for the foundation will come from Mr Fayed who says he will provide pounds 5m towards the building of a children's hospital in Diana's name. It unclear where where it will be built.
Despite Mohamed Fayed's readiness to speak on a whole variety of issues - be it Harrods, Tiny Rowland, Tory MPs and the death of Diana - he has remained noticeably silent about the Dodi foundation. It is, for instance, not known who might administer the charity. There is a board of trustees, but so far the Fayed family is not disclosing who they are. Michael Cole, Mr Fayed's press spokesman who is in New York for the sale, said: "The foundation is a comparatively new thing. Mohamed is a trustee, and there are lots of prominent doctors and others on it. All the money will go to good causes. This auction is huge, it is not just the biggest ever royal auction, but the biggest auction ever."
The Dodi fund has no links with the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Mr Fayed's insistence that the Princess had spoken some "last words " after the crash and his seeming concurrence with claims that she gave a "last interview" to Paris Match upset her family. Mr Fayed's executives point out however that there is no question of any conflict between the two funds.
Not everyone is happy about the collection being sold. Mr Fayed had outbid several military museums when he bought it. Now there are fears that a part of British heritage may be lost. Hugo Vickers, author of The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, said it was "odd and disappointing" that Mr Fayed should decide to sell. Mr Fayed's response was that he was doing so "reluctantly". His legacy, he says, apart from the fundraising venture, is to establish an archive of Windsor papers and photographs.