THEY ARE ON THEIR WAY NOW, CRATED AND NESTLED in bubble wrap or tucked in Louis Vuitton carry-ons, carrying their little spark of cachet to Grosse Pointe, River Oaks, Malibu and many other places Jackie wouldn't have been caught dead in. Ormolu chenets! Fruitwood commodes! Fauteuils and settees, Audubon prints and oil paintings, baskets and salt shakers. Earrings, pins, necklaces, brooches, rings and bracelets dripping with . . . well, better not to inquire too closely, but please bear in mind that preciousness comes in many guises. Nothing like this has happened in Western civilization since the fourth century, when Saint Helena uncovered the True Cross on Calvary, and proved it by resurrecting a corpse with its touch. In short order, not surprisingly, fragments became the most sought-after relics in all Christendom. Miracles like that don't happen much anymore, but if you could afford anything in the world, would you prefer to be raised from the dead--or walk into your country club in a "simulated diamond bangle bracelet and earclips, the bracelet by Lanvin," and utter the divine words, "Oh, do you like them? They were Jackie's."
Actually, you don't even have to be rich to get the bracelet and earrings, because the New York Daily News bought them and plans to give them away to a reader, in a big promotional contest over the next couple of weeks. "The [London] Daily Mail did that at the Duchess of Windsor auction and it was a fantastic circulation builder," editor Martin Dunn said. If you don't win that, you can still hope to buy knockoffs of Jackie's three-strand faux (French for "fake") pearl necklace from the Franklin Mint, probably for around $200. The giant knickknack retailer bought the original fake for $211,500, and plans to display it in its museum near Philadelphia. "It's the thing that symbolized the beauty of this woman, the dignity of this woman, that she could wear pearls that were not real and everyone thought they were," explained vice chairman Lynda Rae Resnick.
Thus, the four days it took Sotheby's to sell some 1,300 lots from her estate sufficed to undo much of the work of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's lifetime: the cultivation and preservation of a mystique based on refinement, good taste and inaccessibility. If Kathie Lee Gifford's memoirs brought a six-figure advance, would Jackie's not have been worth 12? She made sure we never found out. But her sacred aura of WASP dignity has been tarnished by the suspicion that she was just plotting a more tasteful way to cash in. Her formerly priceless reputation now has a price tag--almost $30 million, the difference between the $4.6 million Sotheby's calculated as the intrinsic value of her belongings and the $34.5 million that they brought from people swept away by the giddy rush that comes from spending large sums of money irresponsibly.
To Sotheby's, of course, this figure merely ratified Jackie's greatness. Diana D. Brooks, Sotheby's ebullient president, who handled the gavel for most of the important lots, declared the results "way beyond our expectations . . . Mrs. Onassis made history." Onassis's children, John and Caroline, were "surprised and delighted," according to Brooks--as who wouldn't be to unload several bundles of old magazines (including copies of Time, Life, NEWSWEEK, Modern Screen and Ladies' Home Journal) for $12,650? The media had to take Brooks's word for their reaction, though, since the children had made themselves almost as inaccessible as their mother; he was in Europe, according to colleagues, selling ads for his magazine, George, and her whereabouts were unknown, although New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams claimed she was seen shopping for T shirts at the Gap.
Regarding Jackie herself, Brooks remarked carefully that "as far as I know, all of the Kennedy family and people on her side of the family approve of the sale, so I like to think she would have as well." Onassis left all her tangible property to John and Caroline, directing them to donate items of historical interest to the John F. Kennedy Library; it got 38,000 pages of documents, thousands of photographs and around 200 artifacts, including Jackie's wedding dress. Of the rest, the children were instructed to keep what they wanted and sell everything else. Among those who knew Jackie, most seemed to think she would have found the spectacle of people bidding $45,000 for her old tape measure hilariously funny. (Admittedly, it was in a monogrammed silver case from Tiffany's; on the other hand, it had markings only down to eighths of an inch. As one man previewing the merchandise remarked, when you're Jackie Onassis you throw away anything smaller.) "One of the qualities Jackie and Jack Kennedy had in common was their ability to stand aside and laugh at the human folly and pomposity with which their lives were so often in contact," remarked Kennedy's close aide Theodore Sorensen. "This is their last laugh, at people paying ridiculous prices for some very ordinary objects."
Those who may have thought it less than amusing mostly kept their opinions to themselves, just in case the era of miraculous resurrections is not entirely in the past. That included most of Jackie's old-money friends in Washington and New York. Reporters could almost hear the teeth clench over the phone when they called. "Isn't it staggering, people paying so much?" remarked a doyenne of the Georgetown scene. "I think it's fascinating. But I'm sorry, I really can't help you. I have nothing to say. I haven't any thoughts."
The successful bidders, of course, pronounced themselves deliriously happy to be bringing home a piece of history, even if it cost $25,300 and took the form of "three cushions"--that's all it said in the catalog, so there's not any guarantee that a Kennedy backside ever even touched one. Marvin Shanken, publisher of the magazine Cigar Aficionado, spent $574,500 on John F. Kennedy's humidor. Among the people he outbid was Kennedy's own nephew Michael, a Boston entrepreneur who was left in the dust by a margin of half a million dollars, and the comedian Milton Berle, who dropped out at $185,000. Berle had given the humidor to Kennedy originally, spending "$800 to $1,000" on it in 1961. Arnold Schwarzenegger, married to Kennedy's niece Maria Shriver, helped secure his position as the world's leading Kennedy manque (French for "wanna-be") by scooping up a set of Kennedy's old golf clubs (for $772,500), a Norman Rockwell portrait of Kennedy ($134,500) and a leather desk set ($189,500). Joan Rivers was so happy with the painting she bought for $13,800 ("A Park View," by an unknown 19th-century painter of the "French school") that she told NEWSWEEK she plans to be buried with it--although, as she explained to Larry King, her preferred method of estate shopping is to skip the auction, call the survivors directly and ask about a favorite object of the deceased, because then sometimes she can get it as a gift.
A man named Al Lippert, chairman emeritus of Weight Watchers, spent the most and was therefore the happiest of all, having purchased Jackie's 40-carat engagement ring (the Lesotho III Diamond) from her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. Lippert was especially happy because it wasn't his money. He was buying the stone for his friend Anthony O'Reilly, the chairman of H.J. Heinz Co., who plans to give it to his wife, the Greek heiress Chryss Goulandris. Friends said he attached great symbolic value to the ring because Goulandris's family had connections to Onassis in Greece. O'Reilly was on the phone to Lippert during the bidding, but it didn't matter that much because his intention was to get the ring at any cost. It took $2,587,500, or approximately four times Sotheby's estimate of what the stone would have been worth if its owner had been, say, Leona Helmsley.
Of course, part of the pleasure of the high bidders lay in the disappointment of those who were not quite rich enough to pay $90,500 for a necklace of "simulated diamond and colored stone" by costume-jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane. (One way to look at this figure--60 to 90 times Sotheby's estimate of its value-- is that it was approximately what it would have been worth if the stones had been real. The necklace it was based on, a Van Cleef & Arpels confection of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, was valued at $75,000 to $100,000--and ended up bringing in $288,500.) Among the frustrated underbidders on various items was the White House, which was backed by private donations in an effort to buy the antique desk Kennedy used to sign the 1963 nuclear-test-ban treaty. The item was sold to an unnamed "European foundation" for $1,432,500. The White House did bid successfully on a drawing, for $14,000. There was also the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum on Cape Cod (not to be confused with the presidential library, in Boston), which commemorates the Kennedy family's vacations. Its bid of $5,000 for Kennedy's Ben Hogan Power Thrust irons--a different set from the MacGregor woods bought by Schwarzenegger--fell short by approximately $380,000. And Bobbe Bramson, a Los Angeles real-estate broker who flew to New York with her husband to bid on something nice for their anniversary. As the bids flew by in $5,000 and $10,000 increments, her husband turned to her and said, "Let's go back to Bergdorf's and get what we saw yesterday."
To the winners, it didn't matter much that the art was mostly "decorative" rather than important, the furniture largely reproductions and a few of the items ("A collection of miscellaneous woven baskets") not far removed from junk. They all sold anyway. The baskets, appraised at $150 to $200, were sold for $9,200, presumably to someone with a lot of fruit. Hopefully, the winning bidders won't need their money back any time soon. "If you think you're going to buy something at the auction that will send your grandchildren to college, I hope they have tuition grants," said Kenneth W. Rendell, a prominent dealer in historical documents. Rendell cited the example of Hollywood lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, who by his own lawyer's account got caught up in the excitement of Sotheby's auction of the Duchess of Windsor's jewels in 1987 and bid a total of $1.2 million, which he didn't have. Sotheby's refused to take the gems back and Mitchelson had to sell them at a loss. The price of an object at auction has three components, Rendell says: its intrinsic value; the "associational" value it derives from its former owners, and the hoopla factor of the auction itself. Hoopla, of course, invariably trumps the other two. The day after the auction, the value of anything sold there drops by half, or even more. Even the lawyer for the Onassis estate, Alexander D. Forger, concedes that many of the items sold for far more than they're worth. In fact, he insists on it. "I have heard that with the duchess's sale, most of the provenance value is now lost," says Forger, who is also a coexecutor, along with Onassis's longtime companion Maurice Tempelsman. "Joe Smith is now selling it. You can't say "I bought this from Joe Smith' and impress anybody."
Forger's interest in the question of how much Onassis's property was really worth is shared by the IRS and New York state. Jackie's tangible goods were appraised for tax purposes "in the $5 million to $7 million range," he told NEWSWEEK. "As in the case of any estate valued at that amount, an agent is assigned, and now he wonders if that's the proper value." If the property's tax appraisal is increased in light of the auction results, John and Caroline would have to pay additional estate taxes--amounting to around 60 percent -- on the difference. But if the appraisal stays the same, the difference between roughly $5 million and $35 million will be treated as a capital gain, which will be taxed at about 34 percent. These questions are usually settled by negotiation, and Forger, of course, intends to argue that the original value was correct. "It should be an interesting dialogue with the government. Because somebody pays $550,000 for a cigar box, is that what it's worth? I hope to sustain the original estimate, but it will be an extraordinary effort to achieve."
Forger added that the estate as a whole was valued at only between $45 million and $50 million, compared with estimates of $200 million in the press. Onassis's cash bequests to John and Caroline were only $250,000 each. Most of the rest went for taxes, expenses and upkeep on her four homes. The will calls for the remainder to go into trust for Onassis's grandchildren--there are three so far, Caroline's daughters Rose and Tatiana and son, John--but, says Forger, "it well may not be created, depending on valuations and taxes." From that perspective, the absurd amounts of money squandered at the auction seem less outrageous. People who scoffed at Steve Forbes's call to abolish inheritance taxes may well decide that losing a few billion dollars in tax revenue would be worth it to keep even one of Jackie's paintings from being buried with Joan Rivers.
On the other hand, doesn't this trickling-down process of charisma serve a legitimate public purpose, providing even rich people with useful role models and an incentive to keep piling up surplus wealth? Is there anything wrong with the human impulse to seek even the ephemeral communion with greatness that comes from eating off the same set of dinner plates? The sale of a pair of ormolu chenets (French for "fireplace andiron") for $18,400 may not actually contribute to the GNP, but who is to gainsay the pleasure they will give Dorothy Leylegian, the wife of a San Francisco investment adviser, when her friends admire them in her living room? She will gaze lovingly at them for a moment, reminded of her long-ago brush with royalty, when she rode down in an elevator from her dentist's office with Jackie, who offered her a lift in her limo because it had started to rain. She will turn to her friends, a faraway look in her eyes, and say confidingly, "Oh, do you like them? They were Jackie's."
These weren't necessarily the most expensive lots sold, but they were the items that fetched the biggest increases by percentage over Sotheby's estimates.
Chart Key A Set of MacGregor wood golf clubs B Photos of Aaron Shikler's portraits of JFK and Jackie C Photo of Aaron Shikler's portrait of Jackie D Ben Hogan Power Thrust iron golf clubs E Black stone bead double-strand necklace F Simulated turquoise, emerald and diamond necklace G Selection of faux diamond and pearl jewelry H Simulated-pearl necklace, triple-strand I Swiss Golf-Sport stroke counter J Three silk cushions Sotheby's Percent estimates Sale price change A $700-900 $772,500 +85,700% B 75-100 68,500 +68,400 C 50-75 41,400 +55,100 D 700-900 387,500 +43,000 E 200-300 101,500 +33,700 F 100-150 48,875 +32,500 G 250-350 112,500 +32,000 H 500-700 211,500 +30,100 I 50-100 28,750 +28,700 J 50-100 25,300 +25,200 Sources: Sotheby's, USA Today
"If anyone can be seen as psychotic, it's some of the purchasers. Some coasters or ashtrays with "J" on them were bought for $37,000. You put them around your house, and your name is Jones, what do you do? I suspect a lot of people are waking up today saying, "What on earth did I do?' " --GEORGE PLIMPTON
"I saw Halley's comet. I was at Malcolm Forbes's birthday party, and now I was at Jackie O's auction. I can die happy. And when they bury me, they can put my little painting in with me." -- JOAN RIVERS, who bought "A Park View" for $13,800 (est. $800-$1,200)
"[Jackie and I] were in Provincetown in the summer of '61, and this vast crowd was following us down the street and I said, "Does this always happen?' "Yes,' she said. "Sometimes you wonder what sort of lives people must lead that they find Jack and me so interesting.' It was said with almost truthful wonder . . . She was on the one hand boasting, of course, but on the other a bit puzzled . . . Who knows how she would have reacted to the sale? It is all conjecture. But let us say worship of a golden calf is perennial. And here it is on offer at Sotheby's, the most obliging of temples." -- GORE VIDAL
"She was famous for being inaccessible in the deepest ways, ways which America experienced collectively as a rejection. There is the emotional gratification in being admitted to her apartment . . . It is sort of a reunion with someone who never really wanted to have anything to do with us."--WAYNE KOESTENBAUM, Yale professor and author
"There are a few spoilsports who say it's unseemly, undignified. I don't agree with that. I think she would have been terribly amused. She had a great sense of humor and was very savvy about understanding the media's fascination with her."--CLAUDIA COHEN, gossip reporter