Going, going, gone... Diana's dresses raise pounds 3.5m

There was not a drag queen in sight as more than 1,000 people jammed Christie's Park Avenue salerooms at the auction of Diana, Princess of Wales's wardrobe of 79 dresses and ball gowns worn primarily on state occasions from 1981 to 1996.

Instead, ladies from deepest Georgia and Tennessee, dripping drawls and golly-gosh enthusiasms, came for a piece of Diana, their Judith Krantz heroine come to life.

The Princess, back in England at the time of the sale, successfully emerged from this divestiture of royal relics as the protagonist of a new drama: that of patron saint of the very good cause.

In all, the sale of Diana's cast offs raised $5.7m (pounds 3.5m ) to fight Aids and breast cancer, a record for a charity event says Lord "Charlie" Hindlip, Christie's international chairman and the evening's auctioneer. Almost pounds 2m came from the dresses. Another pounds 1.1m was earned by the sale of coffee-table catalogues and additional monies were raised by fund-raisers in New York and London.

As anticipated by Christie's, the sale drew a new kind of buyer, often a novice bidder enticed by the catalogue and the lack of a reserve bid. The bridal designer Pat Kerr, of Memphis, Tennessee, bought four dresses to add to her collection of 10,000 pieces of royal memorabilia dating from 1700. Wearing T-shirts and tuxes and looking unlike most audiences who come to this elite saleroom, the crowd featured a self-described "Diana fanatic" with Diana dolls strung from his shoulders, and a collector of celebrity memorabilia eager to add to his stash of shirts worn by Elvis and Donna Reed's earrings from It's a wonderful Life.

No doubt out of deference to the Princess of Wales, the newly casual and modern magazine cover girl, the editors of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar were in attendance. The takings will benefit the Aids Crisis Trust and the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund in Britain and the Aids Care Centre at New York Hospital, the Harvard Aids Institute and the Evelyn H Laudler Breast Center and Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in the United States.

While pre-sale hype had projected earnings of $7m (pounds 4.2m), Lord Hindlip admitted: "$1.6m would have been my guess. We're thrilled. I was a mite frightened that the sale had been talked up too much."

Sale prices dropped and then rose dramatically at the sale's end with the record amount ever earned by a costume: pounds 120,301 for the "John Travolta dress", an ink-blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein in which the Princess danced with the film star at the Reagan White House in 1985. The bidder was an anonymous American. The lowest bid was pounds 13,143 for a Walker tunic dress.

"These are the holy relics of the great Cinderella story of our time," remarked Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Material girl's garments - a cut above the rest and with a price to match

No 1 (pounds 120,301): Ink-blue silk velvet gown by Victor Edelstein in which Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House during a state banquet given by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

No 2 (pounds 81,203): Catherine Walker's strapless evening dress and jacket with high collar, in white crepe silk, which Diana wore for the 1989 British Fashion Awards in London.

No 3 (pounds 48,120): Again by Edelstein, an embroidered dinner dress and bolero in oyster duchesse satin, featured on the cover of the auction catalogue.

No 4 (pounds 45,113): A white sari-style silk chiffon gown by Gina Fratini for Hartnell.

No 5 (pounds 40,902): Walker's short, draped cocktail dress in grey silk, which Diana wore to the Serpentine Gallery, London.

No 6 (pounds 39,699): By Hachi, a long, embroidered dinner dress in cream silk chiffon, which Diana wore on several occasions, including an official visit to Japan.

No 7 (pounds 39,098): Christina Stambolian's off-the-peg black cocktail dress which Diana wore at the Serpentine the night her estranged husband, interviewed on prime-time television, admitted adultery.

Joint No 8 (pounds 37,293): A halter-necked evening dress in midnight-blue silk crepe, by Edelstein, and Walker's pale-blue chiffon evening dress, worn by Diana at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, and to the London opening of Miss Saigon in 1989.

No 10 (pounds 34,887): Walker's midnight-blue and white satin cocktail dress, which Diana wore during an official visit to Japan in 1986.

r Walker had 50 dresses in the sale and Edelstein 10. Fratini, Hachi and Stambolian scored hits with their only entries in the auction.

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