LONDON -- Before she died in January, Dorothea Allen destroyed family papers and letters, and tore the date and place of birth from her passport. She left more than $2.8 million in cash, no traceable next of kin, no will, no birth certificate, no marriage certificate and a growing list of claimants to her fortune.
So far, 31 people have come forward, claiming to be heirs of the woman known in British newspapers as "the vanishing lady."
By law, claimants have 12 years to prove they are blood relatives. If they fail, the fortune goes to the state treasury.
Treasury lawyers ordered the sale of her effects, including mink coats, a 1972 Rolls-Royce Corniche and a 1964 Daimler, jewelry, paintings, furniture, silver and other trappings from a glamorous past that by some accounts included a trip across the dance floor with Fred Astaire.
The sale, conducted Tuesday by Sotheby's at her 300-year-old home, added $1.1 million cash to the estate. The home itself, in the village of Sutton-Under-Brailes, 90 miles northwest of London, is expected to fetch $1.3 million more when it is sold.
According to Sotheby's, the latest claimant to come forward is Wilfried Kluber from Baden-Baden, West Germany, who says his grandmother was Allen's sister.
Kluber told Sotheby's that his grandmother's maiden name was Farquharson and that Allen was born in 1901. His letter has been passed along to the treasury, Sotheby's said.
The Times of London said another claimant is Merilyn Horton of Cleveland. It reported that Horton says her great-grandfather was a Scottish immigrant named Farquharson.
Chris Proudlove of Sotheby's said that after a crash in her chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce in the early 1980s, Allen became a recluse in her home, Sutton Brailes Manor.
Her husband, Eric Allen, died in 1965. News reports said the fortune came from a corset factory they set up in 1927 in nearby Banbury.
"I think she was of lowly birth, married into money but had a business head on her shoulders. I think she wanted to be remembered as the rich lady of the manor," Proudlove said.
The Times said other reported theories were that she was a half-Belgian ex-nun, an American cabaret dancer or even Eric Allen's sister. But the Independent said former employees and neighbors scoffed at rumors of an incestuous marriage.
"She destroyed her past so successfully I don't think anybody will ever discover the real truth," said Leslie Stratford, 82, who was her accountant.