Collecting JACKIE – the estate auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Collecting JACKIE – the estate auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Anastasia Toufexis

It’s been three years since the frantic auction where even worn pillows and old footstools sold for tens of thousands of dollars. How do successful bidders regard their treasures now and how do they live with them day to day?

They went, they saw, they bought. So much so that towards the end of the frenzied auction that quickly became known as “the garage sale of the century,” an astounded observer jokingly wondered what would happen if the estate offered up a No. 2 pencil.

What drove so many people to pay fortunes for items which often had little historical significance or even intrinsic value, only that they once belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?

She was, of course, famous, which these days is its own appeal. “It may have to do with how anonymous we all feel, but we have a hunger for connection with fame,” says Richard Gottlieb, M.D., of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “And it almost doesn’t matter why a celebrity is famous.” Nor how humble his or her possession. Like the holy relics of saints, “things that famous others have touched are enlivened by contagious magic,” avers Russell Belk, Ph.D., professor of business at the University of Utah.

But listening to successful bidders talk, one quickly recognizes that Jackie was more than a pop icon. During her 64 years, she was cast in a multiplicity of roles that resonate on a deeply personal level with many Americans: Queen of Camelot, noble widow, protective mother, victim, exile, survivor. “She was an amalgam of a very attractive, youthful person who became at the moment of the assassination a madre dolorosa, a mother of pain, for the nation,” observes psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger, Ph.D., author of Collecting: An Unruly Passion (Harcourt Brace, 1994). Fate has made Jackie at once human and vulnerable, mythic and mysterious.

No wonder, then, the desire to retain some piece of her. “At heart, collecting has to do with the prevention of loss, which is a universal and painful part of the human condition,” Gottlieb observes. “It’s an effort to stop time in its tracks, to hold on to things and the people that they symbolically represent, to make us feel less stricken and alone.”

Here are some of the stories of buyers at the auction.

E. LAVERNE JOHNSON

Johnson had her heart set on one object–a sketch of a bird in a cage with an open door–and she got it. “That particular item reminded me of Jackie’s life,” says Johnson, who paid $25,000 for the tiny drawing that now rests in a locked cabinet in her living room (and another $25,000 for 50 of Jackie’s books). “Later I learned that Aristotle Onassis had called Jackie `a little bird that needsits freedom and its security.’ We watched her through the years saying she did not want to live the life we forced her to live, but yet she could have left and didn’t.” Johnson wonders about the picture which carries Jackie’s name. Where did it come from: did Onassis give it to her, did she paint it of herself?

Johnson, president and CEO of the New York City-based International Institute for Learning, feels a special affinity with Jackie: “She was a single parent raising two children; I was raising two children by myself. She came back to New York City; I moved to New York City. I run my own company now; she wanted to work every day.”

“She wanted to find meaning in her life,” concludes Johnson, “and you don’t find meaning in money. She was an inspiration.”

RICHARD GASPARI

Gaspari got a shock when he began examining one of the 40 books he bought, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, a 24-hour chronicle of Kennedy’s activities just a month before the assassination, and came across a handwritten dedication from author Jim Bishop. Says Gaspari: “It’s dated February of 1964 to JFK, Jr. It says, `To be read when you’re tall and memories are dim.'”

The book is Gaspari’s prize from the auction. His other purchases: a Louis XV white-painted bedside table and an oval tray-top table painted bizarre colors. Total spent: $50,000. “I’m sure my dad didn’t make in a year what I paid for that oval table alone,” says Gaspari, president and CEO of the Richard Michael Group, a Chicago-based temp agency. “But my wife Ellen admired Jackie Onassis, primarily for the way she raised her children; I was more into what the election of a Catholic to President meant.”

The family doesn’t treat the items as holy relics: “They’re part of us now,” declares Gaspari. “We don’t lock them up.” The oval tray table–“one of the ugliest things you’ve seen in your life,” says Gaspari, who even suggested having it refinished–was thrown in the garage for six months and now sits in the family room, where it gets knocked around regularly. “1 caught my son one day using it as a bat,” he says, laughing. The Bishop book gets more care. Gaspari believes it truly belongs elsewhere. “I think JFK Jr. should have this book. If he wants it, he should call me.”

HARRY WILKS

An antiquities collector who frequently attends auctions, Wilks wound up at the sale not because he was a particular fan of Jackie’s–“I admired her until she roamed Onassis. I was vets; very disappointed.”–but because Sotheby’s sent him the tickets.

He is, however, a fan and buyer of the works of one of Jackie’s friends, photographer and sculptor Alexander Liberman, the legendary former editorial director of media giant Conde Nast. So when a book on Greece by Liberman came up for bidding, Wilks plunged right in. The author’s reaction to the $4000 auction price: “Quite frankly, Mr. Wilks, you probably could have purchased it for $10 at any used bookstore.” Still, Wilks, a retired lawyer who lives in Hamilton, Ohio, is pleased. And particularly so after examining the obviously well-read book and finding between the pages a piece of paper with some inspirational words on coping with illness. “I think it was something to pep her up when she was ill,” says Wilks.

Wilks also purchased for $37,000 a pair of gold earrings that Jackie was photographed wearing frequently. “I didn’t buy jewelry,” Wilks declares. “I bought history.” Even so, he keeps the earrings in a drawer, not a safe, and lets his girlfriend and daughters wear them. “They’re not art,” he says.

DR. JULES LANE

Dr. Lane has a problem. Hanging over the fireplace in his bedroom for almost three years is the charcoal sketch of JFK by Elaine de Kooning that he purchased at the auction. It’s the first thing he sees when he wakes up in the morning and the last thing before he goes to sleep. But, says Dr. Lane of Hicksville, New York, “I’m a Republican. If it was Eisenhower, I would feel better. But my wife wanted it, more than me, and I usually try to get her anything she wants.”

What’s more, the charcoal sketch reminds him of years ago when he lived in the same Park Avenue building as Joseph Kennedy, and regularly ferried the patriarch of the clan, his wife and JFK uptown.

“It’s a piece of history,” says Lane, noting that the sketch was done the year Kennedy was killed and is likely a preliminary drawing for a painting. “I’d like to leave this to my kids.”

Lane has absolutely no regrets about the $100,000-plus purchase: “I enjoy it and I’ve grown to like it more in the three years. In a way, it’s like anything you own. Familiarity breeds hatred or endearment. I’m happy.”

NORMA MOYES

Joe Faso’s mother attended the auction with her son, thinking she was there just to keep him company. So when, after buying a carved jade pin for $12,000, he turned to her and announced, “That’s for you. Happy birthday,” “I almost died,” says Moyes. “I never thought I’d own something that belonged to somebody that famous. I feel quite honored.”

Moyes was a fan of the President and First Lady: “I just thought they were a great couple. And after Kennedy died, my heart went out to her. I thought she was a great lady.”

Moyes converted the jade, which she doubts was actually a pin (it had a smooth back), into a pendant that she wears on special occasions, like birthdays or Christmas. She’s nervous, though, about losing or misplacing her treasure. “That’s why I don’t wear it that often and when I go into the safe, I usually look to make sure it’s still there. I check on it all the time.”

JOE FASO

“I was more interested in John Kennedy than in Jackie,” says Faso, who lives in Stockton, California. “The first time I ever voted was for him. I liked him and I felt safe when he was president.” Faso, who owns a chain of auto-wrecking facilities in three states, fancied three items belonging to JFK–humidor, golf clubs and rocking chair–but he realized prices were going to go out of sight when two handfuls of seashells went for $2000 to $4000.

Then he remembered another item that had caught his eye: a foot-long lighter that also doubles as a measuring stick. “I thought it was pretty cool because it was so unique,” he says. “It’s engraved `To J and J. Thanks for the immeasurable summer’ and it lists a whole bunch of countries and cities around the Mediterranean. I don’t know who gave it to them.” The winning bid: $23,000.

Faso placed the lighter in his bedroom in a locked curio–“My grandmother had this old curved glass cabinet and it’s in there with a statue of John Kennedy and a picture of John and Jackie.”–and it hasn’t been out until recently, when Faso found the key. “I couldn’t remember where I put it,” he observes. “I looked at the lighter like it was somebody else’s.” The lighter will go to his children.

NORMAN PATTIZ

Pattiz calls himself “a child of the 60s” and remembers being glued to the television set for a charismatic Kennedy’s performances at press conferences. That’s why he was overjoyed when he nabbed a publisher’s copy of Profiles in Courage. “The idea that it was Jackie Kennedy’s personal copy certainly played a part in wanting it,” says Pattiz of Los Angeles, the chairman of Westwood One, a radio group. “But had it been her personal copy of Little Women, I wouldn’t have been all that interested.”

Pattiz paid $60,000 for the book, which is on prominent display in the library, and around $49,000 for a 19th-century marble-topped mahogany pier table: “This was something that sat in the White House. It now sits in our dining room. We see it every day. And we use it as a buffet to serve off of at dinners about once a month.”

Second thoughts? “Not for a second,” declares Pattiz. “These items probably mean more to us after three years simply because as things become more a part of your life, they tend to mean more. They are certainly things I would never consider parting with. It’s really a gift to live with things that have historical significance.”

SUSAN LUCCI

For actress Lucci, the star of TV’s All My Children, the Jackie sale was her first auction ever and it was a “baptism by fire.” She went, she says, thinking to take home golf clubs for her son, but the bids quickly put an end to that notion. Then a small pencil study of a leopard was put up. “It jogged my memory that Jacqueline Kennedy had a taste for things exotic, that she traveled to India. And when we got it, I was exhilarated.”

The leopard (around $12,000) is intended for her daughter, and Lucci also wanted something for her son. “My husband’s European,” she says, “and we love to travel, so when a framed collection of lapel pins from 29 countries came up, it seemed appropriate. I remembered Kennedy’s `Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech and that Jacqueline Kennedy had been the toast of Paris, and I assumed that there would be a pin from Germany and one from France.” She got the pins (for about $8,500). “But in fact,” says Lucci, laughing, “those two countries are not represented.”

As for the leopard sketch, artist unknown, “the truth is, it’s not that weft done. It’s matted in such a way that the leopard’s tail goes under the mat and I think there was some erasing that went on,” Lucci notes. “But we still love it. The fact that there are these mistakes, it’s kind of charming.”

And what made Lucci want a memory of Jackie? “I admired her very much, particularly in raising two children in the public eye and the way she maintained their privacy.”

ELIZABETH VAN ELLA

Like Richard Gaspari, Van Ella made a startling discovery when she received the six looks on Greece that she had won for $6000. One volume is a collection of Constantin Cavafy’s poetry that includes Ithaka, which was read at Jackie’s funeral.

Van Ella bid on the books, which are kept in a bedroom desk drawer, because “I’m a classics major and I was curious about this Greek period in Jackie’s life, when she decided to leave America.” The volumes have proved revealing,

“This period was very introspective,” says Van Ella, who heads the Chicago-based security firm James E. Van Ella & Associates. “She was reinventing her life. A lot of these books talk about loss and grief, about people rising from the pyre and moving on in their life. And my husband died and I’ve sort of reinvented my life.”

The books reflect Jackie in another way. “People thought of her as a woman of style, a blue blood,” observes Van Ella. “But in the end, what was she? A book editor.”

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group