Camelot frenzy Stunning prices: Estate sale reflects Kennedy mystique and clamor for a piece of history.

April 27, 1996

IT RANKS AS the celebrity auction of the century. Collectors were stunned by the frenzy to purchase something -- at any price -- from the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Bids soared into orbit, unrelated to an item's intrinsic value: Over $1 million for golf clubs and bags; $211,000 for a triple strand of fake pearls; $574,000 for a walnut cigar humidor; $442,000 for one of many rocking chairs owned by John F. Kennedy; $90,000 for a $500 saddle; $85,000 for JFK Jr.'s rocking horse; $65,000 for a $300 putter; $9,200 for two wicker baskets; $2,000 for a $30 reproduced etching.

Unreal. Even the few quality items brought astounding bids: $2.59 million for a 40-carat diamond engagement ring; $1.43 million for a desk used to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. The final tally Friday rivals the $50 million estate sale of the Duchess of Windsor's jewels.

The Kennedy mystique lives on. John and Jacqueline Kennedy were as close as this country has come to a royal couple; people were madly scrambling to own a piece of the American Camelot. We may have become jaded since the Kennedy years, but the craving for hero-worship survives. Large numbers of bidders, for instance, were too young to have been around during the Kennedy administration. Yet they, too, wanted desperately to buy some small -- but expensive -- sliver of that history.

Mrs. Onassis was a much-admired celebrity, first in the White House and then as the president's widow and as wife of one of the world's richest men. That celebrity status helps explain the 90,000 absentee bids Sotheby's received by mail for the bric-a-brac auctioned off this week. The two Kennedy children selected what they wanted to keep and sent the really historic items to libraries; the rest, according to Mrs. Onassis' will, was to be auctioned off. It will cover the enormous estate-tax bill.

The world loves a celebrity, especially one cloaked in mystery and a mythical past. Thus, news organizations from 40 countries attended the four-day event and many of the big bids came from overseas. The auction marked a final chance to take home a part of Jackie O's life. For a brief, shining moment, Camelot lived again. When the auction ends today, that part of the legend will be gone forever.

Pub Date: 4/27/96

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