The Stuff of Legend JFK: A beloved briefcase's sad lot a journey around the world at a president's side, then to the auction block.

March 19, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Once it was shiny and new, the fine, black alligator briefcase that a father bought for his son to symbolize the launch of a promising career.

The son and the briefcase fulfilled those dreams of ambition: Together they went, through the halls of Congress, to the Senate and, triumphantly, to the White House. Along the way, the handle had to be repaired and the edges frayed a bit, but the owner would not replace the trusty carrier.

How the briefcase of John F. Kennedy ended here, on an auction block in New York -- even though JFK's children had staked their own claim to this particular piece of Camelot -- is an emblematic tale of the '90s.

The Hermes briefcase was one of hundreds of JFK's belongings that went the way of most celebrity memorabilia these days. Like the belongings of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sold by Sotheby's in 1996 for $34.5 million, the remnants of JFK's brief but storied life inevitably would find their way to auction. Yesterday afternoon, in the cavernous Seventh Regiment Armory the Upper East Side, an auctioneer for Guernsey's began two days of bidding.

But somehow, the script changed in the years between Kennedy auctions: Controversy rather than celebration surrounded this event. Perhaps as a result, the selling began with more media than bidders. Less than 200 potential buyers barely filled the huge hall, and the playing of the soundtrack to "Camelot" made the atmosphere even more piteous.

Just hours before, Robert L. White, the beleaguered Catonsville collector who contributed half the 600 items in the sale, had finally settled a dispute with the Kennedy children. They had publicly called on him to return a number of items scheduled for sale.

The upshot: White gave up two handwritten journals that JFK kept while traveling through Europe in the 1950s, expected to bring in big bids, as well as a wall clock from the Oval Office. He also relinquished the St. Christopher's medal money clip Jackie Kennedy gave her husband as a present and a letter from Mrs. Kennedy to her husband's secretary, neither of which were in the auction.

White gave up the journals, in particular, to ensure that one item remain in the auction: the briefcase.

But when bidding began on what was left, more trouble was in store. The first item, a photo of JFK giving a state of the union address, sold for $600, half the expected amount. Some items drew no bids at all.

The anemic bidding continued even for some of the sale's best gems. Joann Grant, the auctioneer, began bidding on a Tiffany calendar JFK had made for aides to commemorate the tense Cuban Missile Crisis at $300,000, but was forced to drop the asking price. When she couldn't get even $100,000, the calendar was pulled from the sale.

"I'm elated," said White, who in some ways would be happy if nothing sold so he could keep it all. He refused to say, though, whether he thought the ownership dispute with the Kennedys and with government archivists, to whom he had also been forced to return items, affected the low turnout and equally subdued bidding.

'Beginning and an end'

What most appealed to the crowd, apparently, were the very personal items and the historic ones: JFK's plastic pocket comb sold for $1,100, more than twice its estimate. A rose from one of his birthday cakes drew $550. A custom-tailored suit drew $5,000. Cigar boxes captured the mid-four figures. Photographs did well: A beautiful set of Kennedy smoking a cigar went for $16,000.

A line JFK scrawled for his inauguration speech, "An inaugural is a beginning and an end," sold for $35,000 to Don Scheer, a retired civil servant who lives in Boynton Beach, Fla. "I worked for the federal government when Kennedy took over," Scheer said. "I thought the line was a very eerie prophecy, that perhaps predicted his death while in office."

Chilling. And even more so: The final scribbles JFK made en route to Dallas went for $10,000.

Because these auctions are events as much as sales, the mediagenic briefcase was scheduled to be sold as the last item on the first day.

How had it made the long journey from White House to auction house?

JFK's longtime secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, visited the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1990 for the showing of a rare collection of photographs taken of John and Jackie during the spring of 1954. And she regaled Anne Garside, director of public information at the institute, with tales of the briefcase's beginnings.

Touring the exhibit, Lincoln saw the young couple captured in casual moments: there in their first house on Dent Place in Georgetown, gardening, painting, playing softball on a sidestreet with Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

As she studied the images, Lincoln revisited her past -- and became emotional only once: at the sight of the young senator being dropped off at work, waving to Jackie with one hand while carrying his briefcase in the other.

"She almost broke into tears," Garside says of the president's loyal secretary.

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