06/23/2011 12:08 EDT | Updated 08/23/2011 05:12 EDT

Collection Of Princess Diana's Dresses Up For Auction In Toronto

CP/AP,Ronald Reagan Library

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- TORONTO - Potential bidders will be vying for a unique piece of royal memorabilia as designer gowns once worn by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, head to the auction block in Toronto.

The group of 14 evening dresses are up for sale Thursday night at auction house Waddington's.

The collection is currently owned by American Maureen Rorech Dunkel, who is scheduled to attend the auction. The Tampa Bay, Fla., resident originally purchased 12 of the gowns anonymously at a Christie's auction in New York eight weeks before Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris at age 36. Two additional dresses were later donated to the collection.

Dunkel says she paid US$870,000 for some of the late princess's most well-known evening gowns, several of which were worn for state visits and dinners.

The collection includes creations from noted British talents like Bruce Oldfield and Zandra Rhodes, as well as the late Catherine Walker, arguably Diana's favourite designer. The Frenchwoman, who died last year, created more than 1,000 designs worn by the princess.

Walker is credited as designer of 10 of the 14 dresses up for auction. They include a burgundy crushed velvet dinner dress with a low V-back worn to the 1985 film premiere of "Back to the Future," and a dress with a black velvet bodice and full tartan skirt worn in Scotland.

Likely the most instantly recognizable dress up for auction is a midnight-blue silk velvet dress with off-shoulder straps designed by Victor Edelstein. Diana wore the Edwardian-inspired gown while famously taking a spin on the dance floor with actor John Travolta during a 1985 White House state dinner.

The dresses are each expected to fetch from $175,000 up to $1 million for the Edelstein "Travolta'' dress.

A pair of gowns worn by Diana sold last month for a combined US$276,000 at a celebrity auction held by Julien's Auctions in Beverly Hills, Calif. The dresses were reportedly auctioned to a prominent yet unnamed museum.

The 14 dresses being featured in the Toronto auction are among 79 gowns hand-picked and auctioned for charity by Diana, who at the time had expressed a desire to see the garments used to help others who were less fortunate.

Diana had lent her voice and presence in championing numerous humanitarian and charitable causes during her life, including individuals living with HIV-AIDS, afflicted by leprosy and affected by landmines. The auction netted $5 million in proceeds to benefit select charities.

Prior to the auction, the dresses were featured in "The Life of a Royal Icon" exhibit at the Design Exchange in Toronto. The exhibit followed an international tour which included a previous stop in Toronto, as well as visits to Vancouver, New Zealand, several U.S. cities, and a decade-long stay at Kensington Palace in London, where Diana lived until her death on Aug. 31, 1997.

Dunkel, founder of The People's Princess Charitable Foundation, Inc., said she felt a responsibility to do something meaningful with the collection, which is how the concept of the charity tour originated, raising more than US$1 million in its first four years.

But Dunkel said in a recent interview that after 14 years she was ready to move on to pursue other goals and interests.

"I felt that with the wedding of (Prince) William and Catherine and the royal fever that is pretty much around the globe it was just a really good time,'' she said last month.

Dunkel also said that her preference would be to have a single individual, institution or foundation keep the dresses together, perhaps for use as a business fundraising tool or to simply enjoy it as a collection.

Waddington's is donating a portion of its commission from the sale to Canada's National Ballet School as a tribute to the princess's passion for both children and ballet. Diana was a supporter and patron of the English National Ballet and the City Ballet of London.

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