Sale of the Century

April 25, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT



ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The appetite for bits and pieces of the life of Jackie Kennedy Onassis has proven to be voracious.

WOMAN: Better put that down. We’ll own that stool.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That stool was used by Caroline Kennedy in the White House. It was valued at $100. It sold for just over $33,000. And her rocking horse went for $85,000. But that was peanuts compared to President Kennedy’s oak rocking chair, which was valued at $5,000.

AUCTIONEER: Sold for $400,000.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Many items, particularly the more personal ones, sold for hundreds of times their estimated price. One of the highest amounts paid for a piece of the legend went for a fancy cigar box, a gift from comedian Milton Berle. It sold for nearly $575,000 to the editor of “Cigar Aficionado” Magazine.

SPOKESMAN: He was a great American president and a cigar aficionado; It’s very simple. But $1/2 million? Is that what it went for?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The single most costly item to date, a 40-carat diamond engagement ring from second husband Aristotle Onassis brought $2.5 million, four times its estimated price.

JOHN BLOCK, Sotheby’s: Mrs. Onassis was an icon, especially to us in our generation, and, and it just means so much to people, even to see it, even if they don’t intend to bid. It’s been really rather emotional for all of us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By the end of yesterday, the second of four days, sales totaled $20.8 million, four times what Sotheby’s had estimated the entire auction would bring in.

AUCTIONEER: Sold for $4500.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now we turn to two people who knew Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. George Plimpton is editor of the “Paris Review.” He attended the auction earlier this week. Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of our regular historians, has written about the Kennedy family. I talked with them earlier today. Thank you both for being with us. George Plimpton, you were there. What was it like? What was the mood?

GEORGE PLIMPTON, The Paris Review: (New York) Well, I’ve never been to anything quite like this before. The place was packed. The audience was I guess people mostly in their 30’s and 40’s and 50’s very well dressed, very quiet. It got quieter, it seemed to me, as the time went on, when people began to realize that this really rather extraordinary thing was happening, that the estimates were being gone over by these enormous sums, it was sort of set at the very beginning when a pair of paintings of sea shells, I think the value was something like $300, and they went for $6,000, $7,000.

And all of a sudden, there we were on this sort of curious roller coaster. Sometimes I guess at auctions when there are enormous bids, there’s applause, I can only remember a couple of round of applause while I was there. One was the stool that you mentioned in the beginning that Caroline used to crawl up on the window sills, on the window sills with, and that went for the astonishing figure–I’ve forgotten now what it was–well over–$30,000 I think, a round of applause. I think people were somewhat bewildered too. There are people around me that kept saying, I don’t believe what’s going on here. None of us really could.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you ask anybody why they were paying these fabulous prices?

GEORGE PLIMPTON: Well, later on, I sat next to a woman who had bought the piano. The piano amazed me because I remember the piano well. It was a Miller piano from Boston, a fame I don’t know anything about, but certainly not Baldwin or Steinway, and it was usually out of tune, and this thing was–I think the estimate was $2,000, and it went for $150,000.

And I met the woman afterwards who bought this piano, and she said her husband was in the Midwest. She came from the Midwest, and her husband had–I don’t think the husband knew. I said, “Does your husband know that you bought this piano for $150,000, that’s worth a couple of thousand?”, and she said, “No, but he will.” And I said, “What are you going to do with it? Do you play?”

And she didn’t answer that, so I had the sense she didn’t even play the piano, but they have a place in Palm Beach, apparently, and I guess it’ll sit down there, and I suppose they’ll put a little plaque on it. Doris, what do you think they’re going to do with all these things in their homes that have no immediate identification unless the person says, you know, this candlestick–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think, Doris?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: (Boston) Well, I think George is right. I think it’ll be put with plaques, wherever they are seated, in the living room or in the dining room. Maybe they’ll carry these items with them to just show. The weird thing is that I think at the moment of the auction they’re part of an event, it’s a frenzy, there’s an excitement.

As George said, there’s applause, so you feel like you’ve won something. But I wonder how many of these people when they go home will wake up the next morning and say, what have I done, since the face value of what these things are worth, I can’t imagine that 10 years from now they’ll be able to turn around and sell them to anybody else.

It was the hands of Jackie and President Kennedy having touched these items that gave it the magic, the history, the glamor. It’s not the items, themselves, so I just hope they’re happy with their plaques and invite all their friends in to see these gorgeous items that they presumably have bought.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, do you find anything about this surprising?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, a couple of things are surprising to me. On the one hand, obviously, this woman who was such a, a protector of her own privacy, it seems to me would be astonished at the public auction of some of them private items of her life, and my first thought was why are these kids doing it? I mean, on the one hand, I can’t imagine that they need the money.

There’s this wonderful story that after Jackie had to deal with her husband’s death when President Kennedy died, she went to the Kennedy family lawyers and said, “Well, what’s my financial situation,” and they said to her, “Well, Mrs. Kennedy, you are a woman of modest means, but you have two very rich children,” because all of the Kennedy money came down to the bloodlines of the family, plus the Onassis money has come to the kids.

So I thought, why are they doing this? But I think part of the explanation is that two trailers full went to the Kennedy Library a year ago. I think there was just so much stuff.

The Kennedy family by tradition saves everything. I know when I was working on my book and had access to the Kennedy family papers, they saved every report card, every dance card, every movie stub, every check, so my guess is this is just a small piece of what they own, and the other guess might be that Jackie told the kids, “Look, a part of our family has lived with museum-quality houses for too long.” You go into those Kennedy houses.

There’s so many pictures from the past, so many items from the past. Maybe she felt it would hinder them from getting on with their future lives. So some of the excess stuff, get rid of it. I don’t think anyone would have guessed it would become the frenzy that it became.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: George Plimpton, why do you think that she decided or, I gather that Jackie Kennedy Onassis wanted it to happen this way?

GEORGE PLIMPTON: Well, I’m not sure what else they could have done with all this stuff. I mean, the only other thing that you could have done, I suppose, would have been to take one of the houses in Far Hills, New Jersey, for an example, and turn it into a museum and have all these things sitting around and have a curator and have, and charge, I suppose, to come into it.

As a matter of fact, I met a couple of curators from the Kennedy Library and they said because of all of this excitement about her, her objects and items and goods being sold, that they were going to expand the library up there to do something about this, because there’s obviously a huge public interest not only in the President but in her. But I didn’t–I don’t see what else they could have done with all this stuff.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you weren’t surprised?

GEORGE PLIMPTON: And I think–I rather disagree with Doris. I think this stuff will–you know, dealing with baseball cards for an example, their value stays the same, I mean, a little piece of paper with Mickey Mantle’s picture on it from his rookie years, worth what, $45,000, and that will increase in value. I suspect oddly these things, except for the ashtrays and things like that, will probably hold some sort of value, wouldn’t you think?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what do you think about that?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I don’t know. I mean, I think the baseball card example shows because there are collectors of baseball who are passionate about cards, and it’s a little trade in a certain sense, the same way as you have coin collectors or stamp collectors or comic book collectors.

What people are collecting here is a moment in history, and that moment in history has a special meaning for those of us who are still alive today because many of us remember Camelot, remember Jackie Kennedy. She only died a year ago. I don’t know whether 50 years from now having a moment of some President who lived in 1960 is going to matter the same as it does to us.

I think part of the magic and the glamour is the memories of people for whom that period was special. That’s why it’s going to be interesting to figure out once we do what are the ages of these people who are buying it. Are they buying it because they remember this and this is part of their youth, or is it just that they’re so rich and they want to be part of this event?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, do you think this closes the book in some way on Camelot, or is this just another chapter ending?

GEORGE PLIMPTON: I’m sorry, I missed the first part of that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m asking Doris if she thinks this closes the book somehow on Camelot. Is this some, some closing point, or is it just the end of another chapter?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, it’s funny. I remember being asked that same question after Jackie Kennedy died. Does this close the book on Camelot, and I think somehow it’s a never-ending story. There is such a sense of magic and mystery that’s still attached to this moment in time, to the assassination of the President, to Jackie Kennedy’s glamour and mystique and style and privacy, I think it’ll go on for a while longer. I don’t imagine it’s going to last for thousands of years, but who knows, they surprise me every time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think, George Plimpton?

GEORGE PLIMPTON: I would certainly agree with that. I don’t think the book ever gets closed on, on Camelot, and I’m not sure it has–I don’t know how you increase the, the Camelot mystique, but I think in a way this auction has. I mean, it has startled everybody to think there is such an interest in Camelot and the relics from Camelot. So I would guess that this has increased the mystique of it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you both very much.