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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estate Auction Shows the Spell Jackie Still Casts

NEW YORK -- Move over, Andy Warhol. Grab a seat with the commoners, Duchess of Windsor. In the firmament of celebrity estate auctions, these past stars are being eclipsed by a name that has always radiated its own ethereal light: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.


Still weeks away, the auction of the late first lady's estate has already created a fever pitch of interest from both the public and the media. Sotheby's auction house in Manhattan, which will hold the sale over a four-day period beginning April 23, has been flooded with calls from Beverly Hills to Buenos Aires. Anticipating record requests, it has ordered 100,000 copies of the tony auction catalog -- selling at $90 hard-bound, $45 soft cover -- making this the company's largest catalog printing ever.


It's ironic, of course, that Jacqueline Onassis, in life the most private of people, should have occasioned this sort of frenzy nearly two years after her death in May 1994. But the folks at Sotheby's -- who shepherded both the $25.3 million Warhol sale and the $50.3 million Windsor auction to their highly successful conclusions -- admit that they have never seen the like of the presale interest in the Onassis auction.


Though Jackie stepped out of the public limelight more than 30 years ago, she retained her star quality; to the last, heads swiveled and forks froze in midair when she entered a room. It seems as if everyone who knew her -- and millions who didn't -- kept a memory of her gracious elegance from the Camelot years, a memory never marred by the revisionist revelations that may have eventually sullied our image of Camelot itself.


"She was a beautiful young woman, very impressive,'' recalls New York theatrical producer Arthur Cantor. A Harvard classmate of John F. Kennedy's, Cantor met the youthful first lady during a White House dinner in 1962. "All I can say is, if she had been English, it would have been Buckingham Palace. She had that regal quality.''


And now, the availability of some royal treasures, or even royal cast-offs, has sparked this outpouring of international interest. Early on, the auction house announced that it would use a lottery method to decide who will get to attend the five-day presale exhibition that starts April 19 and ends at noon on April 23, the day of the first evening sale session.


To keep the presale crowds to a manageable total of 30,000 visitors, only those who ordered an Onassis auction catalog by March 1 qualify to enter the lottery; each of the 15,000 people randomly selected from the lottery will be given two tickets to the exhibition. And even they will be limited to a specific day and time.


And then it gets really exclusive: Only 1,500 people will get to attend each auction session (nine sessions will be spread over the four sale days), with preference being given to long-term Sotheby's clients. But not to worry if you're not among the select: Absentee bid forms, available in the catalogs and from Sotheby's, will allow even the most humble to grab a chance for a Jackie memento.


And just what sort of items will be on the auction block? There are some 1,200 lots, or groupings, totaling upward of 6,000 individual items. Among the furniture, you'll find everything from a Louis XVI mahogany desk to a faded yellow couch you might want to place discreetly in a back room. If this proves initially surprising, a touching (and copyrighted) catalog essay by Jackie's childhood friend and White House social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman, sets us straight: "Essentially, there was nothing grand or ostentatious about her apartment,'' Tuckerman writes about Onassis' Fifth Avenue digs. "It was inviting and comfortable, with a pleasing, lived-in feel to it. She was not in the habit of changing or rearranging furniture. Once everything was in place, she kept it that way, replacing worn upholstery or slipcovers with identical materials.''


Moving right along, you'll find jewelry ranging from a 40.42-carat diamond that was a gift from Jackie's second husband, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, to batches of costume jewelry; art that includes some valuable paintings and watercolors (including a splendidly fierce "Head of an Arab'' by John Singer Sargent), but also lots of little engravings, stage designs, architectural studies and caricatures; Hellenistic antiquities and contemporary hunting saddles; a group of "miscellaneous woven baskets'' from who-knows-where; and yes, a couple of JFK's rocking chairs.


What will all this cost? The point of an auction, of course, is that no one really knows in advance. Sotheby's has come up with a comparatively conservative presale estimate of around $5 million for the entire auction. (Proceeds from the catalog sales will be donated to charity.) But, acknowledges senior press spokesman Diana Phillips, "it is impossible to quantify provenance in a sale like this.''


So everything in the sale could go for any price, perhaps many multiples of the demurely low estimates. Still, taking those presale estimates as a gauge, you could say that the auction as a whole is most notable for what it isn't: It isn't just a series of high-falutin', high-priced objets d'art. Sure, you'll likely have to part with an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 for that mega-diamond from Ari, which is the most expensive item in the sale. And that Louis XVI mahogany writing desk should sell for $20,000 to $30,000.


But for that, you also get a piece of history: The desk is the one on which President Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. And history, or at least the tangential reminders of history, can come a good deal cheaper, too. For an estimated $700 to $900, there's a set of golf clubs in a black leather bag inscribed "J.F.K. Washington, D.C.''


Still, what you may not get from the sale -- not for any price -- is a sense of just who Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis really was. The sale is, after all, what is left of the estate, primarily from Jackie's Fifth Avenue apartment, after the Kennedy children have taken what they wanted for themselves and donated thousands of historical items to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston.


In the end, the Irish ballad that was used for the title of a 1970 memoir of JFK -- "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye'' -- could serve, too, for his widow: Jackie, we hardly knew ye. That's how it was, and probably how it should have been. So what we ultimately get out of those nearly 1,200 lots may be exactly what we put into them: our memories, still cherished after all these years.