The Cult of Jackie Auction: Her dedicated following can see and perhaps own things that have added value because Mrs. Onassis owned them.

April 20, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK CITY -- Some of her earrings are missing their mates, but she kept the single ones anyway. She doodled in her childhood French textbook and folded down pages and jotted notes in another volume. Her piano has scuffed corners, her sofa's upholstery is faded and her enamel candlesticks are chipped.

And yet, such wear and tear actually make these items more valuable and likely to draw record prices in a coming auction -- because the person behind the wearing and tearing was Jackie.

Elusive and aloof from the masses that she nonetheless captivated throughout much of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in death has become the most public of commodities. Yesterday, Sotheby's began a public exhibition of more than 4,000 of her possessions -- jewelry, furniture, books, art, china and even her riding saddles -- to be sold to the highest bidders in an auction that opens Tuesday.

"This stuff is important only because she owned it. It literally is Jackie that is being sold," says Wayne Koestenbaum, a Yale professor and author of "Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon," which was published last year. "It's the first time Jackie's been on the marketplace -- she always claimed original status. It is odd now that a price is going to be set for her."

Odd, indeed, but then, hers was a life full of paradox. She was one of the most famous women in the world, yet she was intensely private and self-cloistered. Except for a tight, loyal set of intimates, few could claim to know her, yet many felt they could refer to her simply and familiarly as Jackie.

And so her stuff proves irresistibly alluring: She may have been personally elusive, and yet here are tangible things that can be seen and touched and, for what surely will be highly inflated prices, bought. So many want to do just that that Sotheby's had to enact extraordinary crowd-control measures. Even this so-called public exhibition was by ticket only; you had to either buy a catalog ($90 hardback, $45 softcover) to enter the lottery for the tickets or be, as Jackie was, a regular at Sotheby's.

Some 40,000 people are expected to attend the exhibition, which runs through Tuesday when the auction itself starts. Even before the first going-going-gone is heard, though, the auction is already breaking records: 75,000 catalogs sold (45,000 more than Andy Warhol's auction), 40,000 advance bids from more than 40 countries.

Only 1,800 people will be allowed into the auction at Sotheby's headquarters, although 90 phones have been installed to accept phone bids, and satellite locations in Los Angeles and Chicago will help turn the Tuesday through Friday auction into a sort of Jackie Shopping Network.

A blockbuster

The start of the exhibition yesterday was like a blockbuster art exhibit -- people had timed tickets that allowed them in at a specific time for a single hour, and yet they lined up anyway, snaking around 72nd and York where white party tents had been erected around the auction house itself. Once inside, they passed through metal detectors and, finally, were allowed into the showrooms, where the lots were divided up into various eras -- White House years, country homes, etc. -- each with a large picture of Jackie herself, who, with her fresh good looks and sporting manner and simple yet perfect clothes looks like the original J Crew model.

"I knew I would make it, no matter what," breathed Ellen Schuerger of Long Island, her left leg wrapped in a long brace after tearing ligaments last week. It was worth hobbling through the exhibit on crutches, she said.

"It wasn't like you were just looking at things. They had pictures too, so it brought you back 20, 25 years," she said. "I loved her. When she died, I mourned her like I mourned someone in my family."

The show was quite a spectacle: Items like the Lesotho III diamond, while impressive in the catalog, were mind-blowing in person. The 40.42 carat iceberg of a diamond ring, an engagement present from Aristotle Onassis, is expected to draw the highest single price in the auction, $500,000 to $600,000.

Gawk and buy

Mr. Koestenbaum, the author, will be there, "first to gawk, and then to buy." He is particularly covetous of two items: Lot 364, a black enamel cigarette lighter with a gold initial "J" on it, and Lot 166, the schoolgirl's doodled-upon textbook of French verbs.

"I want the cigarette lighter because Jackie's smoking is her secret sin," he says of how she never let herself be photographed smoking. "It's a document of the sinful Jackie. And also the eternal flame. It's a metaphor of Jackie's own flame-light attributes. It's representative of Jackie's evanescence."

He holds out little hope, though, that he'll be able to possess these desirable possessions, since the bidding is expected to be competitive. But being there, he says, will be enough. "I feel enhanced enough by her," Mr. Koestenbaum says.

"I think she's incredibly, incredibly full of magic and aura, and we can't hear enough about her."

Enduring fascination

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