Camelot. . . Going, Going, Gone

THE MOST EAGERLY ANTICIPATED publishing event of 1996 is not a book at all but an auction catalog. Nearly a month before its publication in early March, Sotheby's, with orders for 15,000 copies, has already printed 100,000. At $90 for the hardcover and $45 for the paperback, that publishing schedule might seem wildly optimistic. But consider the title: "The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis." Pretty catchy, eh?

Never mind that Mrs. Onassis's children have already taken what they want from the estate and donated thousands of historical items to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Long before the auction's April 23-26 dates were announced last December, Sotheby's was deluged with queries. There were even calls from people "not known to Sotheby's," in the words of Sotheby's spokesperson Diana Phillips. "They wanted to know, "What does one have to do to attend an auction?' "

That's easy. First, you buy the catalog. That puts your name in a lottery, from which 30,000 names will be picked--to preview the collection. Another, much smaller lottery will select those few who can attend the auction, but most actually privileged to listen to the auctioneer's cry (auction lingo for spiel) will be, you may be sure, known to Sotheby's.

What do you get to see for the price of a catalog? The highlights begin with lot 453, the 40.42-carat diamond Aristotle Onassis gave her (the most expensive bauble in the 1,195 lots, estimated to bring $500,000 to $600,000). Then there are a couple of JFK's rocking chairs ($3,000 to $5,000), a traveling case owned by Marie Antoinette ($25,000 to $35,000) and two John Singer Sargent watercolors ($100,000 to $125,000 and $70,000 to $90,000).

Yet tellingly, with few exceptions (the closet smoker's cigarette case, her grade-school French grammar book), the items say little about the world's most famous private person. These leftover furnishings hint that her Fifth Avenue apartment (which will be pictured in the catalog) looked like a lot of other homes inhabited by people of her class and background: comfortable, tasteful and a little dull. If you didn't know who had owned the equestrian paintings or the chintz-covered chair, you'd never give them a second glance, much less a bid. As David Redden of Sotheby's, who helped appraise the collection, admits, "We don't normally sell overstuffed furniture." There is a slightly picked-over quality to the collection. It includes a variety of expensive trinkets from Aristotle Onassis, which the Kennedy children presumably do not cherish.

Nonetheless, the whole lot is likely to sell for much more than the relatively low estimates (a black beaded necklace she wore with her sheath dresses is listed for only $200 to $300; three wire baskets the maid might have left behind sell for $30 to $50). What's really being sold here is not art or even taste but celebrity, a fact that makes the Sotheby's people slightly uncomfortable. But it's classic Jackie: celebrity doled out, in careful measure, on her own terms.