On a hot evening in a crowded auction room at Christie’s in New York in June 1997, the mood reached fever pitch as some of Princess Diana’s most iconic dresses went up for auction.
While the black velvet Victor Edelstein dress Diana wore to the White House in 1985 – famous for the occasion she danced with John Travolta – fetched six figures, and dresses like the encrusted ‘Elvis’ dress of Catherine Walker pearls were purchased, it was clear that this was a charity auction like no other.
Among the bidders was Ellen Petho, a mother and grandmother, who had landed a coveted ticket. Mesmerized, she sat on the edge of her seat as a scarlet metallic jacquard chiffon dress, designed by Bruce Oldfield and worn by the Princess of Wales on several occasions, hit the auction block.
“Someone in the entertainment industry was also interested in the dress, and Ellen was determined not to be outbid,” Louis, Ellen’s husband, tells me today. “There was a battle, but Ellen was fearless and kept going until the dress was hers. »
By the end of the auction, the self-made businesswoman – who, ironically, often shopped at discount clothing stores – was the proud owner of five of Diana’s outfits. In total, they would cost her $150,000 (£120,000) – money the shrewd Ellen had saved up to spend on a property.
On Friday, three of the dresses she bought (two sold a few years ago) will be up for auction again — this time at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, California, after Ellen passed away in January, at the age of 82.
ESTIMATED AUCTION PRICE $200,000-$400,000: Princess Diana in Bruce Oldfield’s iconic dress and (right) Ellen Petho in the gown
The memory of the evening when she bought them is still fresh in her husband’s memory. Incredibly, Ellen hadn’t told Louis she was bidding on the dresses.
“It was late at night when she called me and said, ‘Hey, let me tell you what I just did,’ Louis laughs, about his wife’s shopping.
“I was surprised, but Ellen always had good reasons for doing what she was doing, so I was sure she knew what she was doing.
“She didn’t want to sue the advertising business she founded and she knew Diana’s passion for helping children. She bought the dresses to continue that legacy — and, of course, it turned out to be a wonderful thing.
It certainly is. Because rather than just showing them off at fancy dinner parties, Ellen and her husband spent the next ten years traveling the United States to and fro in the royal robes, raising over a million pounds for worthy causes. heart to Diana. including special needs and AIDS charities.
In doing so, the couple had experiences they could only dream of, including becoming good friends with David Emanuel, who co-designed Diana’s wedding dress, and meeting two of Diana’s favorite designers, Bruce Oldfield and Catherine. Walker.
Perhaps their greatest adventure was being invited to an afternoon tea with Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, in Althorp in 2007. Diana’s brother. But we did and he was very nice.
Her reverence for dresses was such that Ellen never touched them without gloves, even building a special temperature-controlled safe in her home to store them.
On sale this week is a two-tone Catherine Walker dress worn by Princess Diana at a gala dinner in 1991 in Toronto, Canada, with sales estimated at $100,000-$200,000 (£79,000-£159,000 ), while another Catherine Walker dress, an ivory and black number worn to a private function, has a sales estimate of $60,000-80,000 (£48,000-£63,000).
ESTIMATED BID PRICE: $100,000-$200,000: Diana in Catherine Walker dress arriving at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto
Not forgetting that scarlet dress by Bruce Oldfield which so captivated Ellen all those years ago and which the princess wore on several occasions, notably at the London premiere of the film Hot Shots in 1991, and whose sales are estimated between $200,000 and $400,000 (£159,000). -£318,000).
Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, says these are “conservative estimates” and could go further. “A lot of people remember seeing Diana in some of those dresses,” he says. “These are beautiful creations and works of art, but more than anything, they are a connection to Diana, whose life was cut short and who we still miss. »
More than anything, Ellen’s family hopes the buyer sees dresses like Ellen: as vehicles for good deeds.
Certainly, one can’t help but compare Ellen’s philanthropic use of dresses to the fate of another iconic dress: that of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” – the most expensive dress ever. auctioned off after selling for $4.81million – and which was, controversially, worn by Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala in 2022.
Martin Nolan, who also oversaw the auction of this Monroe dress in 2016, said: “When Ellen bought these dresses she had no idea Diana was going to leave so soon – but she decided after her death that they were going to have a meaning. and she made it possible.
Ellen’s remarkable involvement in Diana’s dresses came about by chance. She and Louis, who met as teenagers and were married for 60 years, raised their three daughters, Karrie, Christine and Katherine, in Michigan.
Ellen, a stay-at-home mom, returned to college as a mature student in 1988, earning a degree in advertising and design before starting her own interior design business and advertising company.
Ellen and her daughters were fans of the princess, but it was her youngest daughter Katherine, then 12, who was most captivated when Charles and Diana announced their engagement.
Over the years, mother and daughter have collected royal memorabilia as they follow the twists and turns of Diana’s life. When Diana’s sale of 79 dresses was announced 26 years ago, Ellen bought a $250 catalog from Christie’s as a gift for Katherine to ‘complete her collection’ and was delighted to find two tickets for the front -first of the auction in the book. .
ESTIMATED AUCTION PRICE $60,000 to $80,000: Catherine Walker dress worn at a private function
But Katherine, then a 28-year-old teacher, couldn’t take time off work, so Ellen brought a friend to the premiere. Ellen was thrilled to find she was one of 600 people allowed to attend the auction – and began hatching a plan to use the $150,000 she had saved for as many Diana dresses as possible, instead of the real estate investment she had originally planned.
“When our mother received the catalogue, she had read the inscription inside that Prince William was telling his mother that the dresses should not be left in his closet; that they should be out in the world and doing good things for different communities,” says Karrie, Ellen’s eldest daughter, now 60. “I think that’s what inspired her. »
Karrie and her two sisters talk to me on the phone from Karrie’s kitchen near the town where they grew up. Were they surprised when their mother told them what she had done? ‘Yes!’ they exclaim. “Our mother was an adventurer,” adds Christine fondly.
Two months after the sale, the terrible news of Diana’s death in a car accident stunned the whole world, including the Petho family. “She was stunned when Diana died; devastated – like everyone else,” Karrie says. “I think it was even more important that she do this work and raise money for the causes supported by Diana. »
Ellen had mannequins made for the five dresses, along with custom-designed linen carry bags, each embroidered with a red rose, one of Diana’s favorite flowers.
Surely she must have been tempted to try them? “She never tried them – it would have destroyed the magic,” says Louis. “She treated them with respect.”
Ellen’s daughters never asked to try them. “Our mother felt like the custodian of those dresses and we respected that,” Karrie acknowledges. Instead, Ellen displayed the dresses at charity events across the United States. “I often saw people come to exhibitions and they would start crying. It was the emotion of losing Diana and the memories,” her husband said.
Ellen answered numerous calls from charities. “One day she got a call from a lady in Florida who had a mobile dental office on a converted bus that went to poor neighborhoods and treated children whose parents had no money for appointments. you to the dentist,” says Louis.
“She asked if Ellen could help raise money to keep the service going, and Ellen found a place, shipped the dresses, went to Florida and raised $30,000 in a few days, all because people loved see these dresses,” says Louis. . “She also raised a lot of money for camps for children with AIDS, because she knew it was a cause close to Diana’s heart. »
Ellen and her husband made several trips to London, meeting some of the designers who made clothes for Diana. “David Emanuel became a close friend of ours and Bruce Oldfield was extremely kind when he found out Ellen had the red dress,” Louis, 83, recalled.
“We went to Catherine Walker’s studio. She was ill at the time (French designer Catherine Walker, who worked with Diana for 16 years, died of cancer in 2010) and we were having a lovely chat with her husband when she walked in.
“She told us that one of the dresses, an ivory and white dress, was made for a private function, probably a dinner party at someone’s house, and that’s why there are no official photographs of Diana. wearing it. »
Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, invited the couple to his home. “We walked around the house and gardens and then were taken to Earl Spencer’s office where he was waiting and where we were served tea,” says Louis.
Ellen continued her charity work until her health deteriorated due to congestive heart failure. The family plans to use some of the money from the sale of the dresses to create an art and design scholarship for adult students.
Interest in these items is intense because Diana’s dresses are so rare on the market, according to auctioneer Martin Nolan, who has managed sales for many notable collections, including those of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, among others. Mr. Nolan says: “Here in California, there is someone who lives not far from the auction house and who is very interested. This is going to be an exciting sale.