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Bidding on a Piece of Camelot

Sotheby's auction of Jacqueline Kennedy's wares draws platinum crowd and prices

Except for a perceptible "buzz" that pervaded the auction room, this could have been just any other auction. But of course it wasn't. The audience was so large that Sotheby's set up extra chairs to accommodate the overflow - about 2,000 people are expected at each of the bidding sessions, which began Tuesday evening and run through this afternoon. Some here had won their coveted seat by lottery, their names entered when they bought a copy of the auction catalogue. The hardcover edition sold for $90, paperback was $45. Sotheby's expects to sell more than 100,000 copies.

By the time it is over, and the millions made are tallied, close to 100,000 people will have attempted to bid on a piece of Camelot. The enormous hype and bidding frenzy are testament to a passion and nostalgia that surround a president, a family, and an era in American history when the nation teetered on the brink of nuclear war and put the first human in orbit around the earth.

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But only those rich or persistent enough to pay whatever it takes will actually bring home a pair of Louis XVI style caned painted Fauteuils en Cabriolet. Those are wooden chairs with a cane seat and back. Valued at $1,500 to $2,000, the pair sold for $19,550. The chairs are not so fabulous. But Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis once sat in them.

In the auction business it's what's known as "provenance." A woman standing behind me in line used the word when I bemoaned the fact that a partial set of flatware that I had coveted, engraved with the letter K and valued before the sale at $200, had sold for $13,000. It wasn't sterling, it wasn't even silverplate, I wailed. Well, she said with a knowing nod, you're paying for the provenance. "Origin, derivation, source," is how Webster's defines it. In this case it means Jackie.

Still, the venerable New York auction house took pains to make it all seem understated. Her name was not even uttered by those soliciting bids. It didn't have to be.

For four days this week, Jackie wanna-bes, and those who remember exactly where they were when they heard that John Kennedy had been shot, crowded into the auction room and took their chances on buying something the mythical couple had touched or used.

The 40-carat diamond engagement ring that Aristotle Onassis gave Jackie may have sold for more than $2.5 million. But it was really the JBK monogrammed silver-plated cocktail shaker - valued at $200 and sold for $23,000 - that defined this sale.

Maureen O'Connor, the former mayor of San Diego, comes from a big Irish-Catholic, Democratic family not unlike the Kennedy's. She flew in from California to buy something to share with her brothers and sisters. She took home six pairs of ivory salt-and-pepper shakers and six pepper grinders, for a mere $11,500.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the sale was the auctioning of the Louis XVI Ormolu-mounted mahogany bureau plat and Cartonnier valued at $20,000 to $30,000. It is where President Kennedy signed the nuclear test-ban treaty in August 1963.

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Unnoticed in the audience of bidders was Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy and special adviser to Kennedy arms control matters. He had negotiated the test-ban treaty. He wanted to bid. He was prepared to spend $77,000 - all of his disposable assets.

The bidding opened at more than $100,000, and Mr. Nitze never raised his paddle. He had hoped to donate the desk to the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. But a European foundation, which chose to remain anonymous, spent $1.3 million, plus Sotheby's commission, for the desk.

Of course, Nitze has what the thousands of bidders will never have. He was there. And while he may not have a piece of furniture to show to admiring friends, he has the experience that can never be recreated.

It must be nice to own Jackie's simulated pearls that John-John played with, but many of us have our own memories of that special time when America seemed young and anything seemed possible. Or as the 1960 musical put it: "Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot - for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot."

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