A Carroll County man's collection of President John F. Kennedy memorabilia, including a gold watch, one of his rocking chairs and flags from his presidential limousine, is among thousands of personal items from a number of collectors that are scheduled to be sold in a three-day auction that begins today in New York City.
Robert L. White, a retired cleaning-supply salesman whose collection of 350,000 items relates to the life of the 35th president, spent more than 40 years gathering Kennedy material. His collection, the largest in private hands, is rivaled only by that of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
White, who lived in Woodbine, died two years ago. He was 54.
White's collection began in his youth when he wrote to Kennedy, requesting an autograph. After Kennedy's assassination, he traveled to Washington to attend the funeral.
What became a lifelong obsession was given a significant boost when White befriended Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's personal secretary and presidential pack rat, who filled her Chevy Chase apartment with steamer trunks and filing cabinets containing material relating to the late president.
In the decades after Kennedy's assassination, White, who continued to hunt for additional material, was further assisted in his collecting by Kennedy family members, acquaintances and Cabinet members, who came forward to sell items to him.
"Not all Kennedys are rich," White told a reporter several years ago.
At Lincoln's death in 1995, she bequeathed her Kennedy material to White, who for years housed his growing collection in the basement of his mother's home on a quiet side street in Catonsville.
White, who was eager to share his collection with others, made it available on an appointment-only basis.
A friend described White as a "tactile historian," who easily handed over to visitors Kennedy's wallet, glasses or other items. He always urged them to sit in the presidential rocker - the backrest cushion of which was creased from Kennedy's back brace - so they could experience history firsthand.
"He believed once it was in your hands, it was vibrant and alive," Allan E. Burt, a longtime friend and business associate, told The Sun at White's death.
After being thwarted in his efforts to have a Kennedy museum built in Annapolis, White moved the collection in 1998 to the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, where it remained until returning to Maryland shortly before his death.
About a decade ago, White clashed with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., over some items in the collection. A 1998 auction of Kennedy items from White's collection at Guernsey's, a New York auction house, that included a Seth-Thomas mahogany wall clock that had been in the Oval Office, several journals Kennedy had written during a 1951 tour of Europe and a mahogany drop-leaf writing table that had been used by the president in the White House - 21 items in all - were returned to the president's children after they objected to the sale.
In a statement at the time, they said, "It is now clear that Mrs. Lincoln took advantage of her position as our father's secretary, and later as the custodian of objects intended for the [John F. Kennedy] Library, by taking home with her countless documents and objects that had belonged to our father and to the United States government."
After an occasionally bitter, decade-long dispute, thousands of documents and other artifacts from the White collection - including a priceless map used by Kennedy in Cabinet meetings during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis - were returned in 2005 to the presidential library in Boston after the National Archives and Records Administration reached an agreement with White's estate and his widow, Jacquelyn White.
At the same time, White was allowed to keep thousands of items - these remarkably singular historic artifacts - the flotsam and jetsam from the days of "Camelot" that make up the 1,800 lots of material being auctioned today by Guernsey's at the 7th Regiment Armory in New York City.
The $50, full-color, 320-page illustrated catalog that weighs 4 pounds describes in detail the artifacts in the no-minimum-bid auction that is expected to bring in $5 million to $10 million.
"It is a well-known collection, and you don't have to be a Kennedy fan to know the name of Robert White. He was a passionate and unique collector, and it is with a great source of pride that we were chosen to represent it. It is a fascinating, joyful and not insensitive collection," said Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, who is no stranger to celebrity and high-profile auctions.
Ettinger has auctioned items once owned by Elvis Presley and Jerry Garcia, founder of the Grateful Dead, as well as the SS United States, the black Lincoln Continental in which Kennedy was killed.