She almost had a ball Bidding: Staying aloof at the JFK auction was no longer possible when one special item appeared on the block.

March 20, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Day Two of the JFK auction dawns and, with the incessant rain, the seriously underpopulated hall and the endless parade of jottings and letters to long-forgotten legislators, I'm ready to write another gloom-and-doom story about the disappointing sale.

But then, up comes Lot 304A. I cast aside my pen, my notebook and my reporter's snotty attitude. I become ... a bidder.

Bidder 206, my paddle says.

I've spent a couple of days secretly sneering at the bidders in the Seventh Regiment Armory, noting the big-haired blond from Queens, the ascot-wearer who thinks he's at Sotheby's, the pathetic bottom feeders who bid for the cheesy souvenirs from foreign trips and the wedding presents that even the Kennedys discarded.

I'm not entirely immune to all this -- I'm an old Kennedy devotee. You can't be a Catholic baby boomer whose family subscribed to Life magazine and not carry a little bit of a torch for that moment in time. But really: A yellowed telegram from North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges? A memo to American Legion Commander Bacon? This is hardly the cream of Camelot.

What makes sales like this work is magic: a sense that you're not buying, say, a chipped vase, but your own piece of something bigger and more meaningful. The Jackie auction at Sotheby's in 1996 set the standard.

"Objects with real value sold for 20, 30 percent up from what they might sell for ordinarily at an anonymous sale," Bruce Wolmer, editor of Art and Auction magazine, told me about Jackie's sale. "On the other had, with objects of no or little value other than their association with her, you had more of a geometric quotient -- 40 to 150 percent more than what they're really worth.

"This," he concluded, "is pure desire."

Lot 304A has my name all over it. It is the baseball JFK threw out on Opening Day 1963. The Washington Senators vs. -- oh my -- the Baltimore Orioles. And dem O's won, hon!

It gets better. As much as I love baseball, I've never collected memorabilia. Scuffed-up balls, indecipherable autographs, baseball cards you're not even allowed to touch -- no magic for me. But this ball has been decorated from seam to seam with the drawings of George H. Sosnhk, a folk artist. Hey -- I live a couple of blocks from the Visionary Arts Museum, home of folksy art! Mine, this ball is mine!

Sosnhk has recorded every player's name, the pitching summary and all sorts of stats on top of a drawing of the playing field. It's like scrimshaw on a bigger scale, or like those artists who can reproduce Guernica on a grain of rice. But here's the sweet part: a drawing of JFK about to throw out the first pitch -- and wearing a full baseball uniform. On the front of the jersey, unlike the uniforms now worn by Brady and Cal, and in that wonderful baseball-y script: "Baltimore."

So can you blame me? I'm dutifully recording all the dumb bids on dumb items. I'm interviewing the guy from Chevy Chase who paid $3,000 for JFK's long johns. I'm at the front desk asking, "Uh, how do you establish credit so you can buy stuff?"

The woman takes my driver's license, my gold Visa and tells me to sign away my financial well-being. Actually, I just have to write down my spending limit. Hmmm. $7,000, I decide. Oh, no, for that much you need a letter of credit or a certified check, she says. But this is spur-of-the-moment. This is "pure desire." This is group hysteria. This is associational value. She stares and makes me put down $2,000.

Even with the sluggish bidding here, that wouldn't buy me even one 30-year-old cigar. I head for my seat with thoughts of defiance.

Back in the hall, everything has changed. My heart is beating faster, the items on the block seem more attractive, and the tension in the room is centered right above my head. It's getting harder and harder to sit still with the paddle safely between the pages of my catalog. I'm sure I'm going to have to break the suffocating miasma around my seat by shooting the paddle into the air for something, anything, and suddenly find myself the accidental owner of a PT-109 charm bracelet or the hideous plaid donkey doll from the Women's Suburban Democratic Club of Montgomery County, Md.

Lot 282 comes up: secretary Evelyn Lincoln's note to JFK and his jottings about his picks in the office baseball pool. No one wants it initially, even when the auctioneer starts at $500 for an item with a $3,000 to $5,000 estimate. I can afford that. It's within my limit. It's baseball. I almost suffer the embarassment of premature bidding, before someone else gets it for $800.

Finally, "my" lot. Daily News reporters are asking me about some previous bids when I blurt, "Wait, I gotta bid on this."

"You're bidding?"

They can't believe it. They're still reporters. I've crossed the line.

The bidding starts at $2,000 or $2,500. I can't really tell; the blood is pounding in my ears. I shoot my paddle up.

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