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Jackie's World on Sotheby's Block: History Goes on Sale

Auction: Her estate, drenched in the Kennedy magic, could bring $50 million during bidding this week.


NEW YORK — Several months before she died in May of 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis met with her lawyer, Alexander D. Forger, to talk about an auction.

Her 15-room Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park was filled to overflowing with possessions. So were several homes she owned. She also had goods packed into a warehouse. Now, at 64, she was dying of cancer, and she was well aware of what she possessed. She knew the value of provenance--that objects owned by famous people could fetch far higher prices than the same items belonging to nonentities. So one of the world's most private people made the decision to permit one of the most public of events--an auction of her personal effects after her death.

"Obviously, she wanted the children to preserve private papers and the like," Forger said. "For tangibles, for furniture, tables, rugs, pictures, it was simply another element of property that had served its purpose and now could serve another purpose."

As the silver-haired lawyer and his client talked in her comfortably decorated apartment, the outline emerged for what has become one of the most highly publicized auctions in history. Onassis decided to leave the precise selection of what to sell, retain or donate to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston to her children, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.

Starting Tuesday, Sotheby's will sell 1,195 lots from Onassis' estate--including such items as Caroline's rocking horse and John Jr.'s highchair, which were in the White House nursery; their mother's French textbook (with her girlish doodles of an evening gown and a woman's suit); her riding saddles; the Louis XVI table on which the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty was signed; and JFK's golf clubs.

In a climate where the white suit John Travolta wore in "Saturday Night Fever" sold for $145,500 and Vivien Leigh's "Gone with the Wind" Oscar went for $563,500, Sotheby's officials eagerly await the Kennedy sale.

Some Sotheby's executives believe that total returns from the five-day sale could eclipse the $25 million raised when Andy Warhol's personal effects were auctioned in 1987 or even the more than $50 million the Duchess of Windsor's jewels and other goods brought the same year.

"We say again and again this is unprecedented, but indeed it is," said David Redden, a division head at Sotheby's who will be one of the auctioneers.

"It [the Windsor auction] was one of the most remarkable sales Sotheby's has ever had," Redden said. "It was a sale in which the provenance of the material proved to be of supreme importance. . . . The extremely modest items became icons, in a sense. Anything with the Prince of Wales' feathers on them became exceedingly valuable."

As Sotheby's prepares to hold what Time magazine tartly labeled the Camelot garage sale, the auction house's marketing machine is working overtime.

For the first time, Sotheby's hired a telemarketing firm and set up a special 800 number to handle phone sales of the catalog. At latest count, 75,000 catalogs ($90 for hardcover and $45 for paperback) have been sold--a record for Sotheby's. One hundred thousand were printed.

More than 300 requests have been received from reporters from 40 countries to cover the auction.

Diana D. Brooks, Sotheby's president, who will conduct the first night's auction, appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live," promoting some of the jewelry up for bid.

"This is very interesting," she said as she held up a necklace of costume pearls for a TV close-up, "because when you look back in the catalog . . . we have a picture of Mrs. Kennedy meeting Charles de Gaulle and wearing this particular necklace. So it has a wonderful story."

"Wow!" exclaimed King. "And you value this at only $200 to $300?"

"Well," replied Brooks, "if you went and bought this, it would probably be about $10--so we put $200 to $300."

"What do you think this might go for really?" King asked.

"I would say it would go over $1,000," Brooks predicted.

Unlike most exhibitions, where potential buyers can handle the merchandise, Sotheby's has set up Onassis' property like a museum--with security rivaling that of the White House.

The 40,000 people expected to view the lots up for sale must pass through metal detectors at a special white-tented entrance to the auction house on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Many of the items are arranged in room-like settings behind velvet ropes, with poster-size photographs of Onassis wearing some of the objects to be sold.

Brooks said that 40,000 absentee bids--a record--have already been received, with more pouring in daily.

Not only is the auction significant to the Kennedy children, who will be using some of the proceeds to pay estate taxes, it is also important to Sotheby's in its constant quest for new business. Over the years, auction houses have moved to diversify, selling everything from Disney animated art to Soviet spacecraft. High-profile auctions are a key ingredient in the marketing mix.

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