CHOOSE THE GREEK analogy, Sisyphus or Hercules. The first spent eternity pushing a mighty rock uphill, only to watch it tumble down for another day’s torture. The second, in one of his 12 labors, fought an eight-headed hydra, who would sprout two heads where one had been lopped off.
Either one applies to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund’s legal pinpricks to the bloated, million-dollar industry of unauthorized Diana merchandise. The fund has filed suit against Franklin Mint and others to stop a relentless onslaught of T-shirts, dolls, plates and silver coins. The items approved by the fund include a candleholder, candle, stamps, compact disc tribute, enamel boxes, a Beanie Baby bear and a margarine tub (available only in Britain and subject to much derision). The fund has raised $132.8 million from fees from sales of authorized Diana merchandise.
In turn, the fund must play defendant against manufacturers like the Illinois-based Bradford Exchange, which claims the fund has no right to Diana’s likeness. Furthermore, Britain’s Patent Office has objected to the fund’s application to copyright the princess’s image because it’s not directly linked to products on which it might be used.
In any event, Diana continues to be a worldwide commodity. “As popular as Diana was alive, the outpouring since her death has been mind-boggling, ” says Jay Coleman, president and chief executive at EMCI, a company in Stamford, Conn., that specializes in entertainment and celebrity marketing campaigns. “There’s a whole industry out there, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see an ongoing Diana presence.”
By one estimate, sales of products inspired by Dianamania are running at $200 million annually. That is already equal to the yearly sales of licensed merchandise associated with Marilyn Monroe, another blonde whose sudden demise at age 36 drew international attention.
In the East Bay, though, the fervor seems to have cooled off. Random calls to gift shops, department stores and shopping malls unearthed little Diana merchandise. In the Sunvalley mall at Concord, Franklin Mint currently sells the memorial plate ($29.95) and the doll ($195).
In Orinda, Phair’s carries a $50 commemorative Stuart crystal votive that bears an etching of a rose and the words “Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997, England’s Rose.” About 50 percent of the proceeds go to the fund but, said owner Tom Phair, who bought a dozen not long after the princess’s death, “People just haven’t been very receptive.”
“I don’t think we’ve sold half a dozen, ” says Phair, who has no explanation for the tepid responsive to the votive. “I thought it was a nice piece.” Phair, who had decided against items such as dolls because he found them unappealing, now avoids Diana products.
Stores such as David M. Brian in Walnut Creek sell Princess, the purple Beanie Baby bear made in memory of Diana. When the bear first came out, the store held two raffles and raised about $25,000 for Children’s Hospital Oakland. Owner David McCaulou says it’s their most popular Beanie Baby. The new ones, at $5.95, last for minutes on the shelves, and customers who don’t want to wait buy the bears on the secondary market for $40.
Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney both carry the $25 “Diana” rose-scented candle and glass jar by Slatkin & Co. Beauty consultant Adriana Montoya, who works at the J.C. Penney at Richmond’s Hilltop mall, says sales have been slow, with about five sold since the May shipment.
“I just think people aren’t noticing it, ” Montoya says. She believes customers would be more inclined to buy it if they knew more of its history; for example, that Diana’s sons selected the design.
The most consistent sellers have been the biographies. The Walnut Creek branch of Barnes and Noble carries several accounts, with “Death of a Princess: The Investigation” (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, $6.99) leading the pack of nonfiction sales, followed by “Diana: Portrait of a Princess” (Simon Schuster Editions, $35), a glossy coffee table book published by the royal photographer Jayne Fincher. Even a handful of copies of a dress designer’s autobiography, with Diana’s picture on the cover, have sold.
Demand, though, doesn’t compare with last year. “People were looking for anything at that point, ” store manager Dennis McCaffrey recalls. Antioch’s Books & Books, which sells used titles, cleaned out its stock immediately after her death. While the August release of “Death of a Princess” prompted a few phone calls, the bookstore didn’t experience the same frenzy.
Diana memorabilia have been the stuff of collector’s periodicals, antique shops and Web sites. Commemorative stamps tend to be the most common, such as the ones sold through www.rosendale-stamps.demon.co.uk. Buyers can get a single stamp for $3.40, $68.25 for a set of 100.
One formidable collection up for bid can be seen at www.geocities.com/Wellesley/6417. You’ll find puzzles, masks, tea towels, dolls, thermoses and more bearing images of the royal wedding, princely births and the princess’s charity works. While an asking price isn’t stated, the estimated cost will probably be around $10,000.
The New York Times contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times