Editor-At-Large: I'm sorry, son, but flogging mum's portrait was too much

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The Independent Online

Why didn't they just put the stuff on eBay like the rest of us? When David Linley and Sarah Chatto, the children of Princess Margaret, were faced with £3m death duties, they decided to flog off some of their mother's most intimate possessions. And because they (correctly) worked out that nothing adds more cachet to the humblest string of pearls or unspeakably ugly piece of china than royal provenance, they chose to conduct their upmarket garage sale via Christie's, auctioneers to the rich and famous.

If you or I walked up to the reception desk at their headquarters in St James's, just down the road from Buckingham Palace, and placed a bit of cast iron railing and a pair of well-worn neo-classical pelmets on the counter, we'd probably politely be shown the door. But if you're connected to the Royal Family - even if you spend your whole life pretending to be just a "normal" carpenter who happens to be a viscount, and your mum was the Queen's sister - then suddenly that pelmet becomes an item worth cataloguing, photographing, describing in pretentious prose, and definitely worth holding a cocktail party around, where potential buyers can view your rag bag of stuff in private.

The auction of the contents of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's home in Paris brought ludicrously high bids from royal-hungry Yanks such as the designer Tommy Hilfiger. People fought to buy fading needlepoint cushions embroidered with ugly pugs, as well as stylish costume jewellery. Even that event was not without controversy - the Duchess's underwear was withdrawn from sale at the last minute.

This time the ructions started well before the actual auction, when quite a few things were removed from Princess Margaret's former home in Kensington Palace shortly after her death in 2002. It costs £11.50 to visit her apartment, but you might wonder what exactly is left to look at, and whether you are really getting value for money. Then there's the question of flogging presents, no matter how useless and unloved, which were given to the princess when she was carrying out royal functions. And what about all her birthday presents, given by loyal staff who stumped up donations from their pitifully low salaries over the years? After a fuss, we were told that the proceeds from these lots would be going to charity. But the PR damage had already been done. Some interviewers have pointed out that David Linley's business has been going through a tough patch, and profits are down. He certainly was a dutiful son, loyally moving into Kensington Palace to be near his mother during her long illness. Sarah and her actor husband are not wealthy either.

But flogging off a portrait of Mum (no matter how lightweight and unimportant we might think the work is) by Annigoni, which had hung on public display in the National Museum of Wales, was a bad idea. Surely it would have been far better to have donated the painting to the nation? But the sale raised the staggering sum of nearly £14m, five times the original estimate - and turned out to be an unmitigated PR disaster for royalty.

The Annigoni went for £680,000 - over three times the estimate and certainly way over what it is worth. The Queen is rumoured to have bought it, perhaps to give to Sarah - there are plenty of rumours that the two siblings no longer speak. The Queen is a wealthy woman, someone who charges us to visit the palaces we actually own. A woman who is extremely secretive about her fabulous art collection, who rarely lends to public museums, and who only displays a tiny fraction of her collection (which we have to pay to view) at any one time. You could argue that she should have stepped in months ago and paid the piddling sum of £3m herself, to avoid the distasteful flogathon conducted by Christie's.

Then, using the anonymity of eBay, HRH could have disposed of anything surplus to requirements, made loads of donations of gifts and cash to charity, and everyone would have been happy. As it is, the royals have shot themselves in the foot and poured millions of pounds of commission straight into the coffers of Christie's. Now the hapless brother and sister could face further tax demands on their profits. But I don't suppose any loyal subjects will be having a whip-round for them.

When my mother died, I managed to fill about 30 bags with unworn cardigans and nighties from Marks & Spencer and donate them to several charity shops in Llandudno. Somehow I didn't think that Christie's would be interested in the fruits of Mum's compulsive shopping.

Further proof that the auction house is more or less prepared to flog anything connected with celebrity comes with the news that it is going to sell a wig worn by Andy Warhol this Thursday. This rather repellent little item has a pre-sale estimate of £3,200 to £4,800. How on earth does anyone seriously come up with those figures? And how do we know it is authentic? Presumably it comes with a name tag and a full DNA report. I can't see it looking that attractive in my living room - but I'm sure there will be plenty of bidders, such is the power of fame.

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