Diana sheds her sartorial past in a frenzy of bidding

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There is only one sale and last night it wasn't Harrods - the auction of Diana, the Princess of Wales's evening gowns got off to a brisk start with more than pounds 1m spent on the first 20 dresses.

The first, a three-quarter length sari-inspired silk chiffon evening dress, sold for pounds 50,000. The asking price was a mere pounds 3,000.

It was the start of the nearly-new sale of the century, with 79 dresses owned by the most famous woman in the world up for sale to benefit both English and American Aids and cancer research charities.

More than 1,100 people crowded into the auction room on fashionable Park Avenue and there were gasps from the audience as the furious bidding got underway.

Bidders flew in from all over the country and one man with Diana dolls hanging from his shoulders described himself as a "Diana fanatic, she's fabulous".

Purchase of the deluxe catalogue, a limited signed edition costing $2,000 (pounds 1200), granted automatic entry to the sale. Other seats were distributed by lottery among purchasers of the lesser priced catalogues. A hard cover that sold for $265 each and a $60 paperback, which glamourised in photos and sketches the life of these dresses.

Bids were not only taken from people in the auction room but by absentee bidders, who sealed their bid in an envelope before the sale, and from a bank of telephone lines in the room.

The editor of Vogue, Anna Wintour, and Harpers Bazaar's Liz Tilberis were among those present at the auction but are not thought to have placed a bid.

No reserves were placed on any of the gowns, most of which date from 1981 to 1996 and everything was sold by Christie's on a non-profit basis.

A black cocktail dress that she wore in 1995, the night her ex-husband went on television to reveal he had had an affair with Camilla Parker- Bowles, sold for more than pounds 42,000. It was the only off-the-peg dress in the sale. Photographs of the princess wearing the dress appeared in all the papers the following day.

Designers featured in the sale included Catherine Walker, the Emmanuels, who designed the infamous creased wedding dress in 1981, and Bruce Oldfield.

The British charities which will benefit from the sale are the Aids Crisis Trust and the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund. But in a gesture to the American hosts of the sale, some proceeds will go to US charities - the Aids Care Centre at New York Hospital and Cornell Medical Centre among others.

Diana has said that she hopes whoever buys the dresses will get as much pleasure from them as she did, but few will fail to remark that many of the gowns must bring back painful memories of the difficult times in her life.

"I hope that people will enjoy this, that they'll buy the dresses to wear, to have fun in them," Christie's International chairman Charles Hindlip said in announcing the auction earlier this year.

"Diana, Princess of Wales, has got superb taste, and I think many people will want to emulate it."