I just spent $1,500 on a new sofa, and now I could kick myself. According to Sotheby’s elegantly photographed auction catalog The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a sofa of hers, ”with plain back, three-cushioned seat and buttoned box-pleated apron, yellow upholstery faded,” is estimated to go for only $500-$800 when many of the late former First Lady’s worldly goods are put on the block in New York City April 23-26. Of course, auction houses usually give lowball estimates, but there is plenty to be had by regular folks — like the little mahogany footstool that Caroline Kennedy used to crawl up on Mom’s White House bedroom window seat ($100-$150).
Such accessibility may explain, in part, the phenomenal success of the catalog. Sold by mail order (800-601-6155, with proceeds going to charity), more than 35,000 copies have already landed on coffee tables. The most important of Jackie’s possessions — including her late husband’s personal copy of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — were donated by her children to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation earlier this year. Sotheby’s got his golf clubs ($700-$900), Jackie’s less-important letters, and about 5,000 items (lumped into 1,195 lots), most of which were taken from Jackie’s Fifth Avenue apartment. The furniture is the kind of stuff you might find at Ethan Allen or a nice antiques store, with the occasional serious lapse in taste (the gold, sapphire, and diamond table clock, estimated at $7,500-$10,000, looks more like Liberace than Jackie).
As it turns out, Jackie’s belongings are probably not unlike your own grandmother’s — provided that your grandmother received a 40-carat diamond engagement ring ($500,000-$600,000) from her second husband. Except for that gem — the most expensive item in the catalog — and a few good paintings, the value of almost everything will ultimately be determined by the enthusiasm for anything Camelot. The catalog itself, however, is a treasure, with never-before-published photos of Jackie’s abode (we’ve been waiting for years to get a look at that!) and crystal-clear photographs of the goods, all with inadvertently campy descriptions. In Sotheby-speak, sofas are ”settees” and worn-out caning is ”distressed.” It’s like pornography by Ralph Lauren. Jackie sat there! Jackie ate there! Jackie drove that green 1992 BMW sedan ($18,000-$22,000)! ”The indicated mileage is 10,032,” notes the catalog, ”and is believed to be correct.”
In the catalog’s engaging introduction, Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s longtime friend, introduces her through anecdotes as a funny, earthy saint (she knew how to toss a water balloon). It’s Jackie’s stuff, however, that makes her human — a very rich human, but human nonetheless. You can almost imagine the Most Famous Woman in the World rummaging through her jewelry box, picking up the awful star-shaped, faux-diamond-studded costume brooch by Kenneth J. Lane ($400-$500), and — in that tiny, inimitable whisper — uttering the consumer’s universal lament: What was I thinking?