Buying a piece of Jackie O

For $300 you could own her cigarette lighter. The sale of the century is in April at Sotheby's. Daniel Jeffreys reports

When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died last May, many New Yorkers went into shock. They knew she was dying, it wasn't like the sudden trauma of JFK's assassination; this was more personal. People felt an intimate connection with Jackie O; they liked to feel she was part of their lives - the older sister who always knew what to wear, who could put together an eclectic mix of furniture and fabrics which somehow worked perfectly. She was a grande dame of style, someone who summed up in her every choice - the triple strand of pearls she wore in the early Sixties, the sunglasses, the head-scarves, the Oleg Cassini suits - the elements of fine taste. Like a latter-day Greek goddess she shaped mortal lives by the power of example. She seemed to have the perfection that all of us may aspire to but never reach. Her grace seemed as complete as it was effortless.

Now you have an opportunity to buy your own little part of what made Jackie O. For this week her myth comes a step closer to earth as Sotheby's unveils a collection of 4,000 objects from her personal estate to be sold in New York on 23 April. It is simply the most glamorous house clearance sale of the century.

People from all over the US are bombarding Sotheby's with requests for information, jamming the switchboard at their Manhattan headquarters. Sotheby's has hired extra security for the four days of viewing which begin on 19 April. The auction house expects at least 15,000 people to come; dealers, the curious, old acquaintances and acolytes peering into the remnants of the life of an icon.

"We have ordered 23,000 catalogues," says Sotheby's President Diana Brooks. "We plan to print over 100,000 to meet the level of interest. This is unprecedented - it easily outstrips the demand for catalogues from the Andy Warhol and Duchess of Windsor estate sales."

The 598-page catalogue contains items from Jackie O's Fifth Avenue apartment and from her time at the White House. Within its elegant cream covers is a pictorial history of the main chapters from her life. The catalogue includes details of 21 sets of dishes, two sets of silverware, four of her watches and 21 bracelets. There are also some never-before published photographs of her New York apartment and a set of relaxed family snapshots from the White House era.

The $45 catalogue itself is expected to become a collector's item and nobody can get into the sale unless they have one. Rupert Murdoch's New York Post is already running a "Win a Jackie catalogue" competition which tests readers' knowledge of Jackie's life. Sotheby's have put an estimate of $5m on the collection. That is an extremely conservative figure that takes no account of the value which the devout will put on the echo of Jackie's presence in each and every object.

Take those signature pearls. A photograph in Life magazine from 1962 shows the glamorous Jackie with her head thrown back as John Junior plays with her necklace. The pearls are in the sale catalogue with an estimate of $500 to $700. I know at least three women who would pay five times that amount and I don't socialise with millionaires. Buyers in that bracket could push the price of such an emblematic item up to $10,000 or even $20,000.

Imagine the cachet they would earn in the most up-market of ladies' lavatories:

"Darling, I've got to tell you, many wouldn't but I'm a friend: those pearls look rather dated."

"Yes, they were last worn by Jackie O."

Getting to see the collection will not be easy. Sotheby's has had more than 300,000 requests for tickets. The auction house has picked just 15,000 people by lottery to attend the viewing and they will get just one hour. "Those tickets will change hands for big money," says Andy Cantelli, who runs a ticket agency on Madison Avenue. "I've already had inquiries and I plucked a figure of $500 per ticket out of the air, assuming I can get any. Everybody I've spoken to says they would pay that just to get in."

The auction itself is another matter. Sotheby's have invited just 2,000 people to attend the sale, many of those long-time Sotheby's clients and only a small number of the general public will be allowed in. Like Jackie herself, the sale will be all over the US media, but only a select few will be allowed to get close.

There is an 18th-century watercolour of a snow owl which once hung in her bedroom in the White House. A photograph from the John F Kennedy library shows the painting centre-stage above her mantelpiece. The painting is all Jackie - cool, aloof and graceful with a hint of hidden power. She looked at it every day she woke up in the White House when Pennsylvania Avenue was the headquarters of Kennedy's Camelot.

But though the sale appears to offer intimacy, actually it will disappoint. There are few quirks or insights into her character. Many Americans hoped right till the end that Jackie Onassis would divulge the secrets of her life, particularly her latter years, after the death of her second husband. That she hardly ever spoke about her private life did not stop Jackie fans from hoping that one day she would tell the whole story. The Sotheby's auction will not fill in the gaps.

The pieces in the catalogue and the photographs of rooms in New York and Washington display a chilly indifference. Buyers will come away with a piece of Jackie's stuff, but maybe not a piece of Jackie, for above all her taste seems to have been an artifice, a way of keeping the world at a distance. There is no hint in her belongings of her suffering from JFK's many affairs, from his death, from her isolation after her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. The sale includes some costly baubles purchased by the Greek shipping tycoon including an engagement ring which has an estimate of $600,000.

The proceeds from the auction will go to Jackie's children, Caroline and John. In the foreword to the sale catalogue they wrote, "As items go out into the world we hope they will bring with them not only their own beauty and spirit but some of hers as well." That's what people want, that's why the sale will generate some hysteria and tears amongst those who fail to buy anything. Especially for any American between 30 and 50, Jackie O represents a glorious time when anything was possible. Her possession may help some people keep that feeling of confidence alive. People want to invest these objects with that power.

And if you were in a position to bribe your way into the sale and had enough money to risk bidding are there any bargains you could walk away with? One perhaps. It would take you closer to the hidden Jackie O than any other and is priced at just $300 to $400.

In private Jackie smoked; she began in an era where a cool cult goddess was always seen with a cigarette in hand, but Jackie O never puffed in public. She kept at the habit even when it was unfashionable. A virtual chainsmoker, she almost never got caught in the act, firing up her cigarettes with a gold and black enamel lighter by DuPont. There's a single "J" embossed on one side and somehow the classical curve of the initial with its straight back says it all. A manicured hand with graceful fingers would have picked up this lighter, the same hand that flailed desperately across the back of a Cadillac in Dallas just after her husband was shot. Jackie O's lighter, it could be yours, your hand where hers was. Think about it.

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