Selling Camelot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am

At worst, it could be described as a high-class garage sale, at best a sell-off of national treasures. Whatever you call it, the auction of items from the households of former United States president John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is sure to attract the interest of collectors and historians worldwide.

From February 15 to 17, furniture, art, picture frames, plastic trays and chipped cups and saucers will go under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York as the final chapter in the great 'House of Camelot' sell-off draws to a close.

Daughter Caroline Kennedy is spring cleaning the family's former homes in Hyannis Port, Martha's Vineyard, New Jersey, New York and Virginia in preparation for what will probably be the last mass sale of Kennedy memorabilia.

As Caroline Kennedy points out in a note accompanying the 380-page glossy colour catalogue featuring the 691 lots, the sale has not come about because she needs the money; rather because she has too much.

'After my mother died in 1994, my brother and I were faced with the task of deciding what to do with her possessions and, after careful consideration, we sold some of them in 1996. In the intervening years, and with the death of my brother [John], I found myself again with more houses and belongings than I could possibly use or enjoy.'

Among the lots at the low end of the spectrum is No. 227: 27 pieces of damaged 20th-century ceramics with a reserve price of US$75 to US$125; No. 217: two oblong trays and a fibreglass tray with wicker edging reserved at US$100 to US$150; and No. 195: a collection of wicker coasters, baskets and a waste bin with a reserve of US$100 to US$150.

'Like you and I, they had things that everyone else had in their homes,' says Chapin Carson, a senior vice-president at Sotheby's in New York. She has read the references in the press comparing the auction with an upmarket garage sale and 'does not agree with it entirely'.

The items in the sale are reserved at their current market value, but the Kennedy fingerprint is expected to be strong enough to drive up prices sevenfold, she says.

The 1996 auction, which Carson also managed, raised US$34.5 million, including US$2.5 million paid for an engagement ring from the late Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who Jackie married in 1968.

This latest auction may be more modest in its offerings and pricing, but it features many items that are sure to pique the interest of collectors and Kennedy-watchers alike.

Lot No. 53 is described as an oak and wicker 'Kennedy Rocker', which JFK was advised to use because of his back problems. Although its reserve price is US$4,000 to US$6,000, it is expected to fetch much more because of its association with the country's 35th president. Among the collectable items is Lot No. 158, a 19th-century Chinese-school oil painting of an American sailing ship near Hong Kong, which has a reserve price of US$10,000 to US$15,000. Then there is Lot No. 159, a 1910-11 oil painting by Augustus John, Portrait of the Artist's Wife Dorelia Before a Banner, carrying a pre-sale estimate of US$20,000 to US$30,000.

Few families of the modern era, with the possible exception of abdicated British monarch Edward Windsor and American divorcee Wallace Simpson, are able to attract a mixture of romanticism, mystique and tragedy to rival that surrounding the Kennedy clan. While the president may have been the most important man in the United States, his wife carved a niche for herself as one of the most admired and stylish women in the country.

Back in 2001-02, the roving clothes exhibition, Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, was on show at sold-out venues across the nation. The wardrobe of more than 70 dresses, coats and accessories was used to tell the story of her years as first lady: from the outfits she wore to her husband's campaign events to her inaugural ball gown and ethnically-inspired dresses designed for her many diplomatic trips.

Several of the items in the auction reflect Jackie's love of riding, including horse blankets, bits, a bridle and various equestrian artworks. These pieces are sure to fare well against those associated with her husband and his position.

'Americans like to look back very fondly and lots of parents have imparted [Kennedy history] to their children,' explains Chapin. 'We live in a time where there is a great deal of interest [in the past].'

Expectations are high for the upcoming sale, with a percentage of the proceeds going to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and other charities.

However, since the most personal items have been kept within the family, the most significant have already been sold and the most historic have been donated to the Library Foundation, buyers are left with little more than mundane and practical objects, albeit ones that will certainly impress the neighbours, explains Carson. 'I have been to a dinner party in London where we ate off plates from the Windsor sale,' she enthuses.

The auction will take place at Sotheby's New York from February 15-17, 2005. For enquiries, call (212) 894 1399.