JFK's things

March 17, 1998

THERE IS A big difference between the disputed items in Robert L. White's collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia, set for auction tomorrow, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' possessions, which brought her children millions at auction. Hers were purely personal items -- pillows, jewelry, drawings. But some of the artifacts Mr. White wants to sell are part of our national heritage.

Material pertaining to the business of government -- even scribbles -- are, by law, U.S. property. But in Kennedy's day, no mechanism existed for determining what items made up the presidential record. Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, helped herself to hundreds of artifacts, many of which she willed to Catonsville's Mr. White, a prodigious JFK collector.

Archivists and the Kennedy family question Mr. White's ownership of intrinsically historical things -- such as the table on which Kennedy signed important papers, memos on the Cuban missile crisis and the last notes he wrote before going to Dallas. They have a point. Lincoln took many items that should have been part of Kennedy's estate. Deeds of trust indicate official materials were intended for the JFK archives.

But the deeds are vague, and it is uncertain whether the National Archives, which has no budget to purchase artifacts, will prevail legally. The best thing that could happen would be for Mr. White voluntarily to relinquish those items of historical value to the nation.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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