NEW YORK -- The long-anticipated auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' possessions last night featured fierce battles among telephone buyers who were clearly willing to ignore the estimated prices.
A rocking chair that President John F. Kennedy used to ease his back pain fetched $442,500, nearly 90 times the price it was expected to command in an auction of Mrs. Onassis' estate.
The oak chair, which Sotheby's auction house had expected to go for $3,000-$5,000, was sold to a telephone bidder.
The bidding on a stool that Sotheby's had estimated would go for $100 to $150 began at $5,000. Never mind that its satin cover is faded, stained and torn: this was a stool that Caroline Kennedy once stepped on. After a three-way duel between two bidders in Sotheby's sales room and another on the phone, it went for $29,000, not including commission.
An Empire-style desk that originally belonged to Mrs. Onassis' father, and that she took to the White House when she moved there, went to a telephone bidder for $60,000, 30 times its estimated price.
A 19th-century card table went for $95,000, more than twice its estimated price, to a bidder in Los Angeles.
The money from the sale will go to Mrs. Onassis' children, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and John F. Kennedy Jr. The money from the sale of the catalog will go to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston.
The four-day, three-night event began with a potpourri of items from the Kennedys' White House years and a smattering of antiques that Mrs. Onassis collected over the years.
But clearly the irresistible lure for would-be buyers, the dozens who squeezed into Sotheby's windowless sales room last night, and the thousands who filed written bids in advance, was the chance to own tangible, touchable keepsakes that will not fade like memories of the Camelot era.
Or, eventually, like the color photographs in Sotheby's 584-page catalog, which showed everything from Caroline Kennedy's rocking horse to a silver-cased tape measure from Tiffany. It was engraved with the initials Mrs. Onassis' had before her marriage to Aristotle Onassis (JBK, for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy).
The tape measure sold for $42,000, not including commission; Sotheby's had estimated that it would go for $500 to $700.
The rocking horse went for $75,000.
"There's only one of these," the auctioneer, Diana D. Brooks, said when one bidder hesitated.
The crowd, dressed in everything from hot pink mini-dresses to basic New York black with pearls, had to navigate limousine gridlock outside Sotheby's building on York Avenue.
Once inside, some had doubts about whether they would end up owning what they had their eyes on.
Comedian Joan Rivers said she was planning to bid on a painting that "theoretically is going to sell for $8,000 to $12,000" and two Greek horse statues.
"I'm probably not going to get them," she said. "I think some lady from Oshkosh with a lot of money will be the winner."
Security was almost as tight as for a presidential appearance, what with additional metal detectors that were set up after a bomb scare last Friday.
But not all the bidders were inside Sotheby's.
The auction house set up more than 90 telephone lines, more than twice as many as were plugged in for an Impressionist exhibition a couple of years ago.
And the catalog, by the prim standards of the auction world, was a good deal more user-friendly than most.
It had an order form in the back that would-be buyers could fill out and return in advance.
Send them back they did. Sotheby's had more than 70,000 bids in hand when the opening gavel sounded. That was three and a half times as many as Sotheby's previous record, for a 15-day auction of German art in 1995.
The catalog, too, set records. Sotheby's had more than 100,000 copies printed, far more than the 40,000 it distributed for its last high seller, the six-volume set it prepared for the sale of Andy Warhol's memorabilia in 1987.
The warren of little rooms had showcased the 4,000 items in the sale for four days as crowds filed by, oohing and ahhing along the way.
One section contained items from Mrs. Onassis' Fifth Avenue apartment. Another was filled with pieces from her homes in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and Bernardsville, N.J.
By midafternoon yesterday, crews in sweatshirts and executives in expensive suits were working shoulder to shoulder, packing away the Onassis items and knocking down walls that had defined the model rooms.
William Ruprecht, a managing director of Sotheby's, moved the stanchions holding dark velvet ropes that had kept the crowds from being able to touch two striped chairs that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Pub Date: 4/24/96