Believer in selling power of a `magic family' name

Sotheby's: Celebrated 1996 sale taught veteran auctioneer that the public will pay dearly for anything Kennedy.

February 09, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - "Shall we go sit on some Kennedy furniture?"

David Redden, a Sotheby's auctioneer, knows how to make an enticing offer.

He folds himself onto a chintz couch on which any number of Kennedys no doubt sat during its lifetime in Hyannis Port. Sotheby's has placed a $1,500 estimate on the well-worn sofa, but Redden, who will lead next week's auction of property from five Kennedy homes, knows its connection to the family will send the price far higher.

Redden knows that any sign of the Kennedy touch holds value. An ink stain on the seat takes on new significance. (Whose pen was it?) A frayed edge, a broken-in cushion, a worn pattern - each defect makes a mythic family all the more real. Redden, who also led the celebrated 1996 sale of hundreds of items belonging to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is today no less a believer in the selling power of the Kennedy name.

"They're still," he says, "a magic family."

This morning, the public will get its first glimpse of the items for sale, assembled on a floor of Sotheby's to look like rooms from the family homes. Redden expects big crowds, understanding that bidders won't only be vying for the 691 objects but also for a piece of iconic Americana.

"This is going to be an interesting exercise in crowd control," Redden says as he sits amid the Camelot chic and frets about long lines of visitors. "We're a little concerned there will be just too many people ... things could disappear."

The last auction tallied $34.5 million in sales - the catalog alone sold enough copies that it would have made The New York Times' best-seller list had it qualified - and taught Redden that the public will pay dearly for anything Kennedy.

"It was so exciting - at the end of the '96 sale there was a sort of desperation buying," he recalls. "People were sort of, `The sale's going to finish, and I haven't bought anything!'"

Art of the bidding war

Adding to the drama, no doubt, was Redden himself. For the past three decades at Sotheby's, he has studied the art of the bidding war. He has overseen the sale of a 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence, the world's most expensive coin, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton and even a conceptual piece of the moon (specifically, a remote-control lunar research vehicle that sold for $68,000 but will never come down to its owner).

What began as a love of antiques so intense he would wander the darkened rooms of Sotheby's alone at night - he memorized where all the light switches were - has turned Redden into the house's longest-serving auctioneer. Though he has overseen bidding wars between customers such as the Louvre and the Getty museums, his quick laugh and impatience with pretentiousness make him accessible in a world of exclusivity.

But Redden, a meticulously groomed New Yorker with an English accent left over from his upbringing abroad, also fits well into the world of big spenders that the Kennedy family hopes to tap. For three days beginning Tuesday, the 56-year-old auctioneer will wield the hammer over hundreds of lots of paintings, china sets, furniture - a high-end yard sale organized by Caroline Kennedy, who in the auction catalog says that after the death of her mother and brother she simply had too many home furnishings to keep.

The contents of the auction lack the blockbuster quality of the 1996 sale - there is no $2.4 million diamond ring this time - and instead includes ephemera from Kennedy homes in Hyannis Port, Martha's Vineyard, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. Redden, who has visited Kennedy homes in years past, is immersed in the family's style and sensibility.

Gauzy images

In the exhibit space, images of the Kennedy family are featured on scrims - gauzy images that seem to underscore the nation's fleeting brush with that first family. John F. Kennedy Jr. was alive for the 1996 auction, but now his absence adds to the emotional pull. An Aaron Shikler rendering of Jacqueline Kennedy with her children, a young John-John looking on adoringly, practically vibrates with nostalgia, as does Camelot, a watercolor of a fairytale castle inscribed by the artist Oliver Phelps Smith, "For John John, Merry Christmas."

Redden has gotten off the Kennedy couch - "I'm sure we won't be allowed to do that later" - and walks by stacks of books that sat in the Kennedy homes; not limited editions, but popular fiction by authors including John Updike, S.J. Perelman and Tom Wolfe. He passes Onassis' drafting table - "I remember seeing that next to a window in her sitting room, a sort of unusual thing to find there" - and predicts that the piece, along with a small 18th-century Chinese porcelain mug holding her old paintbrushes, will capture bidders' imaginations.

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