July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

NO ONE CAN SAY THAT KRISTEN Kelch, PEOPLE’S New York bureau chief, lets others do her bidding. On June 25, paddle No. 219 in hand, she braved thickets of Di devotees at Christie’s auction house in Manhattan to bag one of the Princess of Wales’s gowns for some serious longtime fans—us. “Obviously she’s been a big part of the magazine for years,” says Kelch. “After all that Di has done for us, this was a chance to give something back.” Proceeds from the auction, catalog sales and benefit parties—a grand total of $5.76 million—went to various cancer and AIDS charities in Great Britain and the U.S.

Armed with a spending limit of $30,000 and a somewhat uncharacteristic giddiness, the usually hard-bitten reporter first set her sights on an elegant blue-flowered Catherine Walker gown. That dress rocketed past her bid ceiling, eventually fetching $50,600. Retrenching, Kelch “bid like a maniac” on an exquisite blue-and-black, beaded number by Jacques Azagury. Considering that the priciest gown went for $222,500, Kelch got PEOPLE a bargain at $26,450. (One discovery: Among the labels inside, much like those in any other dress, was one that read “100% Rayon.”)

This isn’t the first auction that Kelch, who joined PEOPLE in September 1995, has handled for the magazine: Last spring she organized our reporting on the high-end tag sale of the late Jacqueline Onassis’s possessions. Before taking charge of our New York bureau, the Pittsburgh native and Michigan State University graduate had been an editor at New York Newsday. Kelch, who lives in Brooklyn with husband Frank Spain, budget director for a nonprofit children’s service agency, and 6-year-old daughter Elizabeth, says the nicest surprise of her latest auction experience was how much she enjoyed herself, “once I got over the intimidation of dealing with all this money.” And what will happen to the dress now? For a while it will probably reside in a glass case near our reception area. After that, who knows? We just may find a way to auction it off, yet again, for charity.

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