Mohamed Al-Fayed: The billionaire who sold off the leftovers of a royal love story for £14m

Mohamed Al-Fayed at the Ritz, Paris in December 2016
Mohamed Al-Fayed at The Ritz hotel in Paris in December 2016. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Billionaire businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed has died aged 94, on the 26th anniversary of the death of his son Dodi Fayed, who died alongside his partner Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

As a result of this connection to the Royal Family, the former owner of Harrods and Fulham FC featured heavily in the latest season of The Crown, released in 2022, and his character is due to appear in the last season of the Netflix show when it is released later this year.

The third episode of series five of The Crown is dedicated to the journey of the Egyptian-born entrepreneur, from his life as a young man living with his family in Alexandria, to becoming one of the most recognisable businessmen in Britain.

In 1986, Al-Fayed bought a 50-year lease on 4 Route du Champ d'Entrainement in Paris – the former home of the Duke of Windsor, who had been King Edward VIII for less than a year in 1936 before abdicating the throne, after which he and his wife Wallis were exiled to live outside of the UK.

PARIS, FRANCE:  File picture dated April 1986 showing the villa of the Duke of Windsor in Paris. (Photo credit should read MICHEL CLEMENT/AFP via Getty Images)
Villa Windsor, pictured in 1986, lies in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. (Getty Images)

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived in the property from 1952 until their deaths – Edward in 1974 and Wallis in 1986.

Al-Fayed reportedly spent over three years renovating what he dubbed 'Villa Windsor' at a cost of around £9m.

The top floor was reserved for his family, while the bottom two floors were designated as a private museum. Al-Fayed said at the time that the only guests permitted into the museum would be "historians, members of the British Royal Family, personalities, friends and important guests of the Ritz [the luxury hotel he owned in Paris]".

Watch: The bitter story behind Princess Diana’s ‘revenge dress’ and what The Crown got right

Al-Fayed only met Edward and Wallis once, but their relationship left an impression on him, with the businessman calling it "the romance of the century. Here was a great king of a great empire, saying goodbye to it all for a beloved woman".

"And I had the chance to preserve where he lived," he added. "And all these objects – they're the heritage of Britain, which is my second home."

13th September 1939:  Duke (1894 - 1972) and Duchess (1896 - 1986) of Windsor at their temporary home near Ashdown Forest, Sussex after their return from France at the start of WW II. The first time they have been in England since the Duke's abdication.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Wallis and Edward in Sussex at the start of the Second World War, the first time they had returned to England since the abdication crisis. (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II (2-R), Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (L) and their son Prince Charles meet Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor in Paris on May 18, 1972 during a state visit in France. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prince Charles meet Wallis Simpson outside Villa Windsor in May 1972. (Getty Images)

Prior to Al-Fayed's purchase of the lease and restoration of the property, the contents of the house were set to be auctioned off.

But his initial desire to preserve the home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – and their love story – eventually waned.

Where once Al-Fayed ensured that guests would "find the place exactly as if the Duke and Duchess had just gone out to dinner" – something The New York Times called an "eerily personal atmosphere" – eventually he decided to sell the Windsors' possessions at what was a hugely-anticipated auction.

His spokesperson Michael Cole said the businessman's motivation for selling off the royal personal items was to create more space for Al-Fayed's family in the villa.

What was auctioned at Sotheby's?

In 1997, it was announced that Al-Fayed would auction off 40,000 of the Windsors' possessions at Sotheby's New York.

Expected to fetch around $5-7m, the grand total was more than three times that at $23,355,838 – around £14.2m at the time.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES:  A visitor looks at paintings of pugs belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor during a preview at Sotheby's auction house 09 February in New York. Sotheby's will auction the contents of the Paris home of the late royals on February 19-27 in New York.   AFP PHOTO    Matt Campbell (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images)
A visitor looks at paintings of pugs belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at Sotheby's auction house in New York, February 1998. (Getty Images)

Sotheby's auction data shows that 89% of lots exceeded the initial high estimates of the range that the auction house had set.

From a piece of Wallis and Edward's wedding cake to artworks by Degas, the remnants of what Al-Fayed had called the "romance of the century" were subject to offers from over 30,000 bidders across 50 countries.

Most interestingly, for fans of The Crown, Edward's abdication desk was up for auction and sold for $415,000 (£235,000) to an anonymous telephone bidder, while his red leather dispatch box fetched $65,750 (£40,140).

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES:  Sotheby's employees take telephone bids from Chicago and Los Angeles on the red leather dispatch box of King Edward VIII, seen in photo at top, on the first night of the auction of the contents of the Paris residence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor 19 February. This item brought 57,500 USD, well above its catalog estimate of 10,000 to 15,000 USD.   AFP PHOTO/Henny Ray ABRAMS (Photo credit should read HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
Sotheby's employees take telephone bids from Chicago and Los Angeles on the red leather dispatch box of King Edward VIII, February 1998. (Getty Images)

Al-Fayed was depicted on the Netflix show as returning these items to the Royal Family willingly; however, in reality, he sold them for staggeringly high prices – the proceeds of the auction were reported to go to the Dodi Fayed International Charity Foundation, set up after his death.

It was reported that Queen Elizabeth "instructed agents to make anonymous bids for some of the items being sold".

Dickie Arbiter, who worked for the Royal Collection Trust at the time, was quoted as saying after the auction had taken place in February 1998: "If we do bid, then we always do it anonymously."

Who is Mohamed Al-Fayed?

Al-Fayed's early background was often disputed, earning him the dubious nickname 'Phoney Pharaoh' from Private Eye.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 18:  The Queen With Mohammed Al Fayed, Owner Of Harrods - The Sponsors Of The Royal Windsor Horse Show  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
The Queen with Mohammed Al-Fayed at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in May 1997. (Getty Images)

He reportedly became acquainted with Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who gave him a job in his importing business that is said to have allowed Al-Fayed to build "his circles of influence".

In 1954, he married Khashoggi's sister Samira, and they had son Dodi the following year.

Al-Fayed moved to the UK in 1974, and four years later bought the Hotel Ritz Paris. With his brother, he would go on to buy the House of Fraser group, to which the prestigious London department store Harrods belonged.

In 1997, Dodi died in a car crash alongside Princess Diana, leading Al-Fayed on a years-long campaign during which he publicly blamed the Royal Family for his son's death.

The businessman has applied for British citizenship repeatedly, but the Home Office has rejected his attempts.

Speaking to CNN in 2004, Al-Fayed attributed this to the British "establishment, who are still racist to their core", highlighting that at the time he had employed "8,000 people in this country".