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Auction Serves Romantic Piece of Windsor History

Royalty: Morsel of duke and duchess' wedding cake from 1937 sells at Sotheby's for $29,900 in estate sale.

February 20, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Proving that history has a sweet tooth, a tiny piece of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's wedding cake sold for $29,900 in spirited bidding Thursday night at Sotheby's.

"It represents the epitome of a great romance--truly romantic and elegant like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," said the cake's buyer, Benjamin Yim, a 31-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur, who said he was going to preserve the sentimental morsel packed in a white silk-covered cardboard box inscribed in ink by the duke and duchess.

"We intend to keep it. We're sure not going to eat it," he joked.

The 61-year-old piece of cake, undoubtedly stale, from the 1937 wedding of Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson, for whom he gave up the British throne, was valued at between $500 and $1,000 in the auction catalog, though knowledgeable bidders expected the price to soar much higher.

The most expensive item--a pair of Regency-style tables with ornately carved eagle decorations--was bought by clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger for $134,500.

The same price was paid for a Cecil Beaton brightly colored watercolor portrait of Simpson wearing a ruby and diamond necklace the king had given her on her 40th birthday.

Beaton made several drawings of Simpson on the afternoon of Nov. 20, 1936, less than three weeks before King Edward VIII signed the instrument of abdication.

"She is difficult to draw," Beaton later recalled. "It is not easy to concentrate on the pencil, for it is almost impossible not to talk too much. The afternoon was amusing. She has the capacity for making afternoons amusing."

The auction--the first of a series of Windsor estate sales starting Thursday--was lucrative for Sotheby's even though a ceremonial sword given to Edward in July 1911 to mark his installation as duke failed to find a sufficient bidder. The double-edged sword was valued at up to $55,000. But it was withdrawn when bidding only reached $42,500.

In all, the first night's sale of items--including Prince Edward's christening portrait, photographs, books, the king's red leather dispatch box (it brought $65,750 after an estimate of $15,000)--totaled $1.92 million.

About 40,000 items will be sold during the nine-day auction, which was originally scheduled in September but was postponed because of the death of Dodi Fayed and Diana, the Princess of Wales.

The duchess, who survived her husband, left most of his estate to the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Later, the institute sold it to the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation, headed by Mohammed Fayed, the Egyptian-born millionaire.

"I had hoped to be at Sotheby's tonight to welcome you to the beginning of this historic sale," he said in a statement. "But, as I am sure you can understand, it is too difficult for me."

"This auction signifies the enduring interest in a great romance and royalty," said Diana Phillips, Sotheby's senior vice president for corporate affairs.

When Edward gave up the crown in 1936 to marry Simpson, who was twice divorced, he became the only English king to abdicate. He died in 1972; his wife died 14 years later.

More than 1,000 people attended the opening session Thursday of what will be a marathon series of auctions. And while the bidding was spirited, there was none of the feeding frenzy that marked the sale in 1996 of the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

That auction at Sotheby's totaled more than $34 million, which is more than the Windsor collections are expected to bring.

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