HOUSTON — Former Gov. John B. Connally, watching the possessions of a lifetime go on the auction block to pay creditors, sat somberly Friday night as a bronze plaque bearing his name and the state seal of Texas sold for $4,000 at an auction attended by about 2,000 bidders.
Connally and his wife, Nellie, were greeted with a standing ovation as they arrived for the first of four auctions expected to raise more than $2 million to pay the bankrupt politician's creditors.
'Can't Believe This'
"I can't believe all of this," Nellie Connally said as she and her husband arrived at the Hart Galleries. "It's like we've done something really wonderful instead of lost everything we had."
"An hour from now, we will have seen a great many items that we have treasured for many, many years go across an auctioneer's block, and we'll understand for the first time, really, that they no longer belong to us," Connally said just before the auction began.
Connally filed for personal and corporate bankruptcy in Austin July 31, blaming the collapse of the Texas oil and real estate industries.
Connally laughed and talked with friends as the auction opened but grew quiet as the bronze plaque, which was on the door of his state Capitol office in Austin during his three terms as governor, was sold for $4,000.
Other items sold in the early going were a saddle embossed with the state seal, valued at $4,000 and sold for $10,000; a Chinese porcelain jar Connally acquired in China, which sold for $750, and an oak-and-glass centerpiece that went for $1,700.
Auctioneer Jerry Hart said demand for the $15 tickets to the auction was "just wild."
In addition to Friday night's opening session, other sessions were slated for today, Sunday and Tuesday. Galleries spokesman Clive Watson said 2,000 participants were expected at each session.
The admission fee was imposed to help limit attendance because the auction has attracted considerable publicity and interest by both collectors and the curious, Hart said, adding that some bidders came from Europe.
Connally, governor from 1963 to 1969, also served as secretary of the Treasury in the Richard M. Nixon Administration and ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination in 1980. He was wounded while riding in the car in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
Prospective buyers have browsed the gallery aisles, looking over fine art, jewelry, porcelains, crystal and Oriental rugs. The collection includes both antique and contemporary pieces and an extensive gun collection.
Many browsers said they were impressed by the quality of more than 1,100 items up for sale. Several described the auction as a historic event.
"It looks like something benefiting a Texas governor. I'm interested in seeing the type of people who are going to buy these things," Dean Lawther of Houston said.
He said he planned to attend each of the four auction sessions, adding that he wanted to buy something.
"Hopefully, an insignificant piece of memorabilia," he said when asked which item he might try to buy.
Connally, 70, filed for personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy and for Chapter 7 liquidation of Barnes-Connally Partnerships. He claimed $170 million in debts stemming from failed real estate ventures.
They Want to Return Items
Hart said about 60 people have indicated they want to buy some of the Connallys' particularly treasured items and give them back to the former governor and his wife when the bankruptcy proceedings have ended.
Connally is selling all properties except 200 of the 3,400 acres of the family ranch in Floresville. The law allows him to keep $30,000 in personal possessions.
"I regret the acquisitions of a lifetime must be lost, but I am willing to sacrifice them in an attempt to repay those who had faith and confidence in me," he said before the auction.