U.S. may stop JFK auction Archives say some items are classified or public property

March 13, 1998|By Michael James and Jean Marbella | Michael James and Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

A headline in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated that the federal government might attempt to halt an auction of John F. Kennedy memorabilia. The government is disputing the sale of certain items at the auction, not the auction itself.

The Sun regrets the error.

Federal officials threatened yesterday to block the sale of items from a 600-piece collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia scheduled to be auctioned next week, saying they belong to the American people or contain classified national security information.

About half of the items in the auction come from Robert L. White, 49, of Catonsville, who has amassed the largest private collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia in the world. The auction was expected to make White millions of dollars, but the National Archives and Records Administration says some of the artifacts may not be his to sell.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The disputed items range from notes Kennedy made during the Cuban missile crisis to a portable stereo with which he traveled all over the world to the final notes he scribbled en route to Dallas. Representatives from the archives inspected these and other items yesterday but will continue negotiations today before determining which, if any, pieces will be removed from the sale.

"We have reason to believe that some of the items listed for auction may contain information that is classified for national security reasons," Christopher M. Runkel, acting general counsel for the archives, said in a strongly worded letter to Guernsey's, the New York auction house that is putting the memorabilia on display today in advance of the sale, which is to begin Wednesday.

White, a former cleaning supplies salesman turned full-time Kennedy hobbyist, was unavailable for comment. But his attorney denounced the last-minute threat to the auction.

"It's nonsense. It's total nonsense," Robert Adler said. "We're not budging. We're not going to pull anything out of the auction."

Archives officials contended that some of White's items -- like the mahogany table on which Kennedy signed documents -- are objects of national heritage that shouldn't be on the auction block. Runkel also requested that some items be removed from the catalog and put into a "government repository under appropriate security" until they can be reviewed for "declassification." Among those items are three memoranda Kennedy wrote to Cabinet members.

The national archives, based in College Park, was drawn into a long-simmering dispute between White and the Kennedy family by the JFK Library in Boston. The library, like all presidential libraries, is part of the archives, although its board is run by Kennedys and their intimates. The Kennedys have contended, in a volley of letters between their attorneys and White's, that some items in his collection should be given to them or the library.

White obtained the bulk of his unusual collection from Kennedy's late secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who saved hundreds of items connected with him.

Adler reacted incredulously to the government suggestion that the items could be, in essence, repossessed by the United States.

"They don't have seizure powers in a case like this. They would have to file a lawsuit," Adler said.

Adler raised suspicions that efforts to thwart the sale of items are mainly intended to thwart White himself. Lawyers for the Kennedy family raised questions about the auction in January, openly questioning whether Lincoln -- and hence White -- had the right to such personal items.

White had acted to appease such concerns earlier this month when he turned over to Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg a love letter written by Jacqueline Kennedy to her husband. He also gave audio tapes of Kennedy's conversations during the Cuban missile crisis to the Kennedy Library.

Adler said the archives has only targeted items in the sale from White and Lincoln's collections. About half of the sale comes from other sources, including Kennedy and Bouvier relatives. Lincoln's niece, Lisa Dale Norton, also consigned about 35 items that her aunt willed her to the sale.

"Where is the letter from the government to her?" Adler challenged. "It looks to me that unfortunately this is getting personalized with Robert White. And he has spent 40 years revering the Kennedy family."

Lawyers for the archives cited deeds of gifts from the Kennedy family and John Kennedy's estate that give his official papers and other materials to the JFK Library and Museum in Boston. But Adler argued that the library isn't entitled to every item Kennedy ever touched.

Some papers and materials were in Lincoln's possession from the start, and therefore the Kennedy family can't give those items to the library.

At least two of the items that the archives said might belong to the United States -- the signing table that Kennedy kept next to his desk and the stereo -- were actually purchased by Lincoln from government surplus where they had landed after the assassination, Adler contended.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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