Fund battles to ban the tat

The US makers of Diana memorabilia are under attack, reports Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
THEY HAVE been accused of targeting the lowest common denominator of heirloom kitsch. But last week saw the first moves to bring the bandwagon of companies marketing unauthorised merchandise connected with Diana, Princess of Wales, to a juddering halt.

The late princess's memorial fund submitted a lawsuit in Los Angeles alleging misuse of Diana's intellectual property rights and identity by Franklin Mint, purveyors of porcelain memorabilia, and accusing it of acting "like vultures feeding on the dead".

This was not the first time that the fund and the Franklin Mint have crossed swords. They clashed a few months ago when the fund, which holds exclusive copyright on all Diana merchandising, rejected a request by Franklin Mint to produce approved Diana merchandise. The fund were not impressed when the company offered it an "absolutely pitiful" sum of money in return for being granted a licence. "They weren't prepared to have each item approved by the fund and Diana's estate, and they haven't handed over a portion of the proceeds," said a source at the fund. "They weren't prepared to work with the fund in the way other people have done."

Franklin Mint has pledged "a minimum of one million pounds sterling worldwide to charity" from its sales of Diana memorabilia and, while it does not stipulate who will receive the money, it says it has "committed" pounds 1m of proceeds from its Diana collection to Great Ormond Street Hospital. A hospital spokeswoman said it had received pounds 250,000 from the firm in proceeds from sales of a Diana commemorative plate, and it was expecting a further sum. However, she said that the hospital had declined an offer from Franklin Mint to be associated with the production of Diana dolls.

Following Diana's death, Franklin Mint moved swiftly to produce a series of Diana products. Among a series of plates was the Angel of Hope, depicting her with a child from the developing world. Then there was the Princess of Wales Rose, a sculpted plate depicting a white rose "flanked by two perfect buds" to mark, according to the catalogue text, the "precious legacy she left behind - her two sons". But the item that really raised eyebrows was a 17in-tall porcelain doll of Diana - complete with tiara and handbag - dressed in a replica of her hand-beaded designer gown that was sold at last July's Christie's auction. The doll is a snip at pounds 145; for pounds 60 you can pick up a Diana doll sporting the outfit she wore during her landmines trip to Angola. The 15in-tall toy is known as "The People's Princess Doll".

"This organisation is one of the biggest and most visible and vigorous misusers of Diana's intellectual property rights," said a spokesman for the fund.

Franklin Mint, set up in the United States in 1939, has cornered the international market in instant-heirloom-kitsch collectibles. It is owned by husband and wife team Lynda Rae and Stewart Resnick, enjoys sales of around pounds 500m worldwide and has 50 stores in the United States as well as a vast mail-order business. Other items available through catalogues in Britain are a singing musical plate of Frank Sinatra, manufactured while he was alive, which plays an excerpt from "New York, New York" when touched; a silver-plated version of Monopoly; John Wayne plates; and a vast array of other collectible plates of native Americans, cows, country cottages, eggs and heirloom dolls.

The Diana dolls are not the only royal products to be made by the firm. In 1987, it bought the Duchess of Windsor's panther bracelet at auction for pounds 50,000 and "recreated it as fine jewellery" for around pounds 2,500 a pop.

As the source at the memorial fund said: "Cultures are very different. Things we may not like in Britain they would be queuing round the block for in the United States. Just because I don't have ducks on my wall at home doesn't mean everyone feels the same."