For sale: remnants of a royal marriage

Jojo Moyes inspects the contents of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's Paris home, to be auctioned in New York next month
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On the the mahogany desk sits an album containing wedding pictures, a couple of framed photographs and a box in which to store documents. Only one item gives a clue to its significance: a brass plaque announcing: "On this table King Edward VIII signed the instrument of abdication 10.30am on December 10th 1936".

While the eyes of the world are firmly focused on one blossoming royal romance, an intriguing view of another, equally controversial, is on display.

The desk is one of the highlights of an exhibition of contents from the Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to be sold by Sotheby's New York next month. The exhibition, which will be on view in London until Friday, documents the life of Edward VIII and American divorcee Wallis Simpson, for whom he gave up the throne. The auction of more than 40,000 pieces, was described by Sotheby's specialist Joseph Friedman as "the greatest sale of royal possessions we can remember, and certainly for hundreds of years".

There are photographs, letters, clothes, silverware, paintings, ceramics, clocks, coins and medals, books, private papers, and trinkets collected by the couple from childhood to their deaths. The collection is owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, most recently in the news because of another divorce's relationship with a member of the royal family - his son Dodi's romance with the Princess of Wales.

Mr Fayed acquired the collection after the death of the Duchess of Windsor in 1986, and it has since been restored and exhibited at the Windsor residence in Paris.

In comments made before the recent press furore over his son, Mr Fayed said of his decision to sell: "It has been a very hard decision to dispose of the things I love. However I have a young and growing family and ... I now wish to make more use of the Windsor residence."

Highlights of the London preview, which runs until Friday, include the ceremonial sword used in the Duke of Windsor's investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle in 1911 and the couple's wedding album. Personal keepsakes include a private diary of the then Prince of Wales's tour to Australia, New Zealand and colonies in the Atlantic and Pacific in 1920Mr Friedman said: "We tried to focus it on the Duke's career as Prince of Wales and as King."

Two joined portraits of Edward VIII date from the period when his affair with Mrs Simpson had begun to cause rumbles of discontent. Early in 1936, Ernest Simpson was said to want the "unsatisfactory situation" between himself, his wife and the King brought to an end. He met with the King and apparently an arrangement was made whereby Mr Simpson would end his marriage if the King promised to remain faithful to Wallis. The engraved initials WE on the frame illustrate the way the couple subsequently referred to themselves.

But a constitutional storm was growing, and lot 53 is a copy of the official report of Edward VIII's abdication. On hearing of the King's intention to abdicate, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin responded: "No more grave message has ever been received by Parliament and no more difficult, I may say repugnant, task has ever been imposed upon a prime minister". Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition is the George III mahogany "Abdication Desk". Shortly after he signed his abdication upon it, Edward broadcast the famous speech in which he said he had "found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love".

The Duke and Duchess married on 3 June 1937. A wedding album compiled by renowned photographer Cecil Beaton - a distant relative of Mrs Simpson's - forms part of the collection. The day was referred to by Mrs Simpson afterwards as "a supremely happy moment. All I had been through, all the hurts I had suffered, were forgotten". The collection even features a boxed piece of their wedding cake.

The exhibition also has a portrait of Mrs Simpson taken by Beaton shortly afterwards. Beaton's diaries praise her "noble brow and high cheekbones, rugged mouth and excessively bright humorous eyes".

From earlier days a portrait of the young Prince Edward with his great grandmother Queen Victoria is signed in by her: "Gangan and Little David 1896". A Book of Common Prayer from his other grandmother, Queen Alexandra, is inscribed: "For my darling little David (Edward) [sic] on his 7th birthday when he went to Church for the first time from his loving old Granny".

One photograph commemorates Wallis's presentation at court. A letter written by her at the time reveals that she had borrowed the whole outfit and wore imitation jewels - "imitations but effective". She would not be wearing imitations for long. Sotheby's sold her astonishing jewellery collection in 1987, and none are in this sale. But the collection - although not the London exhibition of it - does contain the Duke and Duchess's clothes.

The Duke popularized Fair Isle sweaters, flat tweed caps and invented the Windsor knot, which he considered the most elegant finish to a necktie. "Together they were the most fashionable couple of the 20th century," said Kerry Taylor, Sotheby's London director of costumes and textiles.

When Mr Fayed bought the contents of the Windsors' home for pounds 3m, he outbid several military museums, and pledged that he would strive to keep the collection together. "Britain is my second home. I feel I have a duty to keep together a collection that otherwise would have been dispersed forever," he said at the time. His decision to sell prompts fears that much will be lost to Britain.

All net proceeds of the sale are to go to the Alfayed International Charitable Foundation, and will contribute to causes including medical research into childhood diseases.