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Memories of Soraya: the belongings of the exotic Princess Soraya, former Empress of Iran, were sold at the Paris-based auction house of Drouot-Montaigne recently. (Mosaic).

In the grand salon of the Parisian auction house of Drouot-Montaigne, a well-heeled crowd jostled to get a better view of the precious gems on display. An elegant French woman opened her catalogue and patiently explained to an elderly couple how the late Shah of Iran had lavished his ex-wife with expensive gifts and honours.

The sweet scent of jasmine and roses filled the corridors of the auction house. "Soraya loved flowers," 79-year-old former Iranian diplomat Nasser Amini explained. "These were sent by her florist to evoke the scents of a Persian garden." We passed beneath an arch of flowers, down the marble staircase, making our way towards a crowded room draped in thick, red velvet.

When Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiary died on 25 October 2001 aged 69, she took with her the memory of the man she had so dearly loved in Tehran. In her opulent Avenue Montaigne flat in Paris she left an impressive collection of souvenirs and gifts, cherished reminders of her past and the vanished years of happiness.

Over 1,000 objects, not all displayed at the exhibition, spoke volumes about the life of one of the most popular and media-hunted royals of the second half of the 20th century. Her good looks and unhappy fairy-tale life continued to cast a spell.

Meticulously assembled and catalogued by Cyrille Boulay, the items for sale included an impressive selection of jewellery, silverware, watches, gold cases, furniture, silk carpets, furs and evening dresses, rare photos, a backgammon set and a red Silver Spur Rolls Royce.

The auction was scheduled to run over a three day period from 29-31 May 2002 but the curiosity it generated forced the organisers to stage a special exhibition for the public. According to Eric Beaussant, one of the auctioneers, great care had been taken to promote a dignified atmosphere fit for a princess.

"We wanted to pay homage to Soraya," he said. "After all, she was among the most glamorous women in the world and married to the Shah of Iran; her mystery, beauty and grace were legendary."

Nasser Amini, who had known Soraya during his years as a diplomat in the service of the late Shah and, later, in exile, agreed. "She had the most captivating eyes," he said nostalgically. "They were deep green resembling two precious emeralds."

For Iranians old enough to remember, the exhibition brought back many memories of a bygone era. The sentimental value of the objects far exceeded their material worth, although one superstitious woman was overheard to whisper that she would never buy any of Soraya's jewellery, fearing it would bring her bad luck.

"What a pity that all these wonderful items must go under the hammer," Nasser Amini said as he examined a silk carpet. "It would have been better had they been donated to a museum in her name. They are part of our country's heritage."

Soraya was born on 22 June 1932, the daughter of a Russian-born German mother and a Persian father from the proud Bakhtiary clan. Brought up between Europe and Persia, she kept fond memories of her idyllic childhood in Isfahan.

At 18 she was taken from her carefree student life in London to the chilly splendour of the Persian court, a world of family intrigues and solemn-faced courtiers.

At the Marble Palace the Shah was looking for a second wife after having recently divorced Egyptian princess Fawzieh. He is reputed to have fallen in love with Soraya's fabulous green eyes. On their engagement he gave her a 22.37 carat diamond ring. Soraya's marriage to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, on 12 February 1951, grabbed world headlines. Every item in the Paris auction room evoked the sad tale of the lonely princess but none more than her splendid Christian Dior wedding dress, enhanced by six thousand small diamonds.

"My parents used to tell me how beautiful she was," said Farhad Ostavani, a Paris-based Iranian artist, gazing at one of her pictures. Hundreds of unpublished photos bound in leather albums bore testimony to Soraya's all too fabulous life.

Studio portraits by Harcourt, Sako, Kessel, and Davis do more than flatter her eyes, lips and dark hair, they serve to immortalise her, as do the carefully annotated photos of her State visits to Europe, Russia and America. Among the expensive silver frames were a few tender scenes: horse riding along the Caspian Sea, laughing with the Shah on a picnic and on the ski slopes of Tehran, playing the piano, climbing down from an elephant after a tiger shoot on a safari trip in India.

The gifts recalled the glorious times when Soraya still reigned over the emperor's heart. A gold cigarette case bearing the Pahlavi Crown, an Asprey toilette service, a Boucheron lady's diamond watch, a ruby and emerald bird brooch given to Soraya on her honeymoon in Ramsar, and necklaces by Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Bulgari. Clearly the Shah adored and spoilt his young wife. But it all ended in tears. When she failed to produce children the Shah divorced her. After packing her souvenirs and burning all her personal papers, Soraya took leave of Iran on 13 February 1958. She never saw her country again.

The Shah, who later remarried, granted Soraya the title of princess and the predicate of Imperial Highness, as a mark of his love and respect. Heart-broken Soraya settled in Rome where, eventually, she fell in love with the film director Franco Indovini, who was later tragically killed in an aeroplane crash.

In Paris Soraya bought a six-bedroom flat and plunged herself into worldly pleasures: receptions, grand balls and forced gaiety. In 1991 she published her famous autobiography, Palace of Solitude.

The wardrobe collection in the auction room salon bore testament to her glamorous lifestyle. It included a white mink cape worn by the princess on her wedding day and other furs by Dior, dresses by Azzaro, Montana, Valentino and Escada, scarves by Hermes and shoes and bags by Chanel.

On a small marble table, next to her leather-bound wedding album, was a small statue, a souvenir of her only trip to Egypt where, in 1988, she visited the tomb of Mohammed Reza; a last rendezvous with the man she had once so dearly loved.

Leaving the auction rooms of Drouot-Montaigne, I headed for the Plaza Athenee for a drink. This legendary hotel, popular with royalty, honeymooners, old aristocracy and new designers, was Soraya's favourite refuge.

Luigi Colombetti, the chief barman, spoke freely about Princess Soraya. "We used to chat together in Italian," he explained. "I knew her since the 1970s when she rented a suite here at the Plaza before she bought her apartment. She was a stunning lady."

When her looks began to fade Soraya continued to fill her empty life with endless partying. "Eventually she burned herself out like a candle," Luigi said. "I still can't believe she's gone. We all miss her."

On the last two days of the sale, Iranian exiles wanting a souvenir linked to their former empress snatched many of the Persian rugs. The 1985 Rolls Royce Silver Spur went for over $59,000, four times its catalogue price. Piece by piece over three days, what remained of Soraya's private life was auctioned away, raising more than $6 million to be divided between her three favourite charities. At the end all that was left was the smell of jasmine.
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Comment:Memories of Soraya: the belongings of the exotic Princess Soraya, former Empress of Iran, were sold at the Paris-based auction house of Drouot-Montaigne recently. (Mosaic).
Author:Kadivar, Cyrus
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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