Birth of a new legend as relics of Jackie O's Camelot are snapped up for king's ransom

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Even Sotheby's own staff could not stifle the occasional giggle. On Tuesday night, the well-heeled and super-rich of America assembled for the first session of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate sale in New York, instantly sendingprices through the roof and all the way to saleroom legend.

"All I can tell you about tonight is that it has surpassed our wildest expectations," the auctioneer for the evening, Diana Brooks, said breathlessly afterwards. As to what had possessed bidders both in the room and around the world to spend so much, she replied: "This is about history."

History indeed. Embodied in the collection of antiques, artworks and not always especially distinguished knick-knacks, on the block in nine sale sessions ending tomorrow, is the enduring mythology of the Kennedy Camelot era. With every item there is the tantalising knowledge that it was either touched, worn, sat on, eaten off or posed for by Jackie or her husband, the late President. But even in the sale itself there is history-in-the-making. According to the Sotheby's "suggested bid" prices, the entire sale was meant to harvest a mere $3.3m (pounds 2.1m) to $4.6m (pounds 3m) for their children, John and Caroline. The final tally could now climb to $100m.

The fever that characterised Tuesday returned yesterday with many items selling for more than 10 times estimates. Her school textbook on French verbs went for $42,550. Due to go under the hammer later yesterday: a diamond ring given as an engagement gift to Jacqueline by her second husband, Aristotle Onassis. Its suggested price: between $500,000 and $600,000.

That Tuesday evening was fast going to test the bounds of sanity became obvious with Lot 10. The revolving display at the head of the room did its game-show-like spin and revealed a footstool so small only the front rows could properly see it. It was scuffed and tatty and had a suggested price of $100-$150. "I think I'll just start the bidding at $5,000," Ms Brooks teased. Sixty seconds later and it was gone for $33,350 (pounds 22,000). But then this was the stool given to Caroline to help her climb on to a White House window seat.

It was pieces like that, with a clear emotional tie to the Kennedy years, that really put the zeros on the cheques. The highest price of the night was for a walnut cigar humidor given to JFK by the comedian Milton Berle. It triggered a bidding contest that had the audience gasping. Finally, Marvin Shanken, owner of Cigar Afficionado magazine, won it for $598,000.

Lot 56 was one of two oak rocking chairs used by JFK in the White House to soothe his aching back. Within 10 seconds of Ms Brooks taking bids, its price had leapt from a suggested $3,000 to $70,000. The hammer fell on a price, including Sotheby's commission, of $442,500 (pounds 293,000).

The tiniest item was a tape-measure. Granted, it was not the normal DIY variety, but a silver-cased one, made by Tiffany & Co of New York and initialised JBK (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy). "A woman has to buy this," Ms Brooks cajoled as the bidding narrowed down to a man and a woman in the sale room. It was the man - a New York decorator - who pocketed it for $48,875.

On an evening that was somewhere between the Ocars night and a celebrity garage sale, the sublime prices brought excitement, but for some, frustration as well. Karen Mudd and her husband had flown up from Florida with their eyes on the Tiffany measure. They kept bidding until $8,000 and then gave up. "We are a little disappointed," she said. "The prices were simply amazing."

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