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Prince's treasure trove goes on sale

gold toilet brush
Gold toilet brushes are just part of the trove at the prince's auction  

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei -- The ornate excesses of a playboy prince are up for sale in one of the world's most bizarre and glittering debtor auctions.

More than 500 bidders from around the world gathered inside a former factory in Brunei Saturday to seek bargains among gilded toilet paper holders, new fire engines, slabs of marble and enough chandeliers and lamps to light any palace.

The factory is for sale, too. Also on offer are simulators for a Comanche attack helicopter, an Airbus A340 and a Formula 1 racing car.

About 10,000 items belonging to Amedeo, the bankrupt development corporation of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, have started going under the hammer in a six-day auction expected to raise as much as $50 million (80 million Brunei dollars).

For decades, the Brunei royals have figured in the lists of the world's richest people.

At a glance: Brunei

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Their coffers were topped up by rich oil and gas reserves in their tiny enclave on Borneo island in the South China Sea.

Profligacy among the royals has been legendary -- from flying in beauty queens for parties on yachts, to snapping up hotels in Singapore, London and Paris to use on frequent trips abroad.

But Saturday, playboy Prince Jefri was selling instead of buying, taking a step toward cleaning up a financial mess that nearly carried the country to bankruptcy.

Amedeo, owned by Jefri, younger brother of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, collapsed under mountains of debts in the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, nearly driving the tiny country to bankruptcy.

Modern infrasctucture

Brunei auction
A bidder makes a call and the six-day event begins  

For years, Amedeo had been the vehicle for Brunei putting in place much of the modern infrastructure it now has -- a sports stadium, international convention center, golf course, marina, hospital, hotels and roads.

The large number of local and international creditors still smarting from fizzled construction projects and dud investments hope to recover at least part of their losses from the auction.

"We expect virtually everything to go," Mark Isaacs, a senior official in Smith Hodgkinson, the British auction group organizing the event, told The Associated Press.

The auction follows a lawsuit brought against Jefri last year for the disappearance of $16 billion (28 billion Brunei dollars) from national coffers.

In an out-of-court settlement, the prince agreed to return money taken from the national investment agency that was once under his charge.

Civil actions

The prince now lives in London and Paris. Creditors have tried, and failed, to serve him with summonses in another multi-million-dollar civil actions.

The auction has triggered debate among Brunei's 300,000 people -- most of whom live on the oil money paid out by the sultan in the form of civil service jobs -- over who is to blame for Amedeo's collapse.

"This sale just makes people angry about how our wealth is wasted away," said taxi driver Lim Ah Kiong. "So expensive, so wasteful," Lim muttered.

The sale opened modestly with a marble bench that fetched $205 (350 Brunei dollars). A pair of bronze cannons went next for $1000 (1,700 Brunei dollars).

Auction officials said that more than 900 packages of furniture and fittings are expected to be sold Saturday, before bidding begins on more expensive items Sunday.

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