Sunday, February 15, 2015

Letting Go

Last week, we let go of the material residue of my parents' lives.  The executor of my father's estate, my eldest brother, Jerry, emailed the rest of us a couple of weeks in advance, but because I'm flaky, I either read and forgot, or didn't read, the email.  So, on the eve of the event, it came as a surprise to me that the time had come to do the necessary, but unpleasant.  Not "to do" in a literal sense, since I didn't have to Do a thing, being out here in Texas.  I just had to sit back and mourn while he did all the work of having Habitat for Humanity come choose what they could profit from and to the landfill with the rest.  Ugh. Made me sad to think of it.  As I wrote in a previous post, Label Your Photographs / Ode to Annie....  I sure hope that we didn't toss out any family pictures that I'll someday find in an antique mall in Timbuktu.

I'm exaggerating.  I didn't mourn.  Let's just say I wasn't at peace with it.  I woke up at 3:00 the morning that Habitat was scheduled to go to the storage units.  Couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd write a letter to my brother, Billy, to relax and go back to sleep basking in the warmth of a good deed.  But, first, I wanted to glance at my catalog of the Kennedy estate sale at Sotheby's.  I opened it hoping to understand how Caroline and John Kennedy could bear to part with their parent's treasures, so I could do the same.  Don't get me wrong, though, there's absolutely no comparison to the two estates.  I was having trouble letting go of melted tupperware and used tin foil.

Allow me to backtrack...

My parents were of the generation that elected the JFK and my mother, especially, spoke of her admiration of them - Jackie's style and grace, in particular, but also JFK's new ideas.  When JFK was assassinated, Mom wrote her mother (a southern woman of another generation) a scathing letter about how it was the fault of people like those in her native Mobile who were responsible for his death. She felt such remorse that her mother had happily opened the letter, anticipating a newsy, loving letter from her far away daughter, then had her hair blown back by the blast. 

A couple of shared points made me feel a connection with Caroline Kennedy.  During the Kennedy presidency, we lived in Newport where the Kennedys sometimes vacationed.  We once watched them enter their church to hear Mass.  Caroline was about my age and had a pony named Macaroni, a gift from Lyndon Johnson which you can see on this sweet Kennedy home video. In my little girl mind, there was a perception that because I loved horses, of course, she and I would be friends if we ever met.  I just always liked the way she looked so unassuming and gentle.  Plus, my father was one of the pilots poised to launch when Khrushchev blinked during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  Even at six, the tension in my house, born of international conflicts, didn't escape my notice. Caroline's house on Pennsylvania Avenue was larger, but I wondered if she felt the strain in her family as well.

Fast forward to 1996, when the Kennedy estate items were auctioned through Sotheby's.  My mother's admiration for the Kennedys and my imaginary connection with Caroline coupled with the fact that my niece, Katie, worked for Sotheby's and on the Kennedy catalog, resulted in a pleasant afternoon of oohing and ahhing over the catalog with my mom on her couch at the River.  Two points stuck in my mind:  How could Caroline and her brother, John, sell their parents' treasures and, good god, how many treasures must they have that this was the excess?

A couple of years ago, I happened upon that catalog on ebay and bought it, glanced at it when it arrived, then stuck it in the bookcase to look at when I had time to really delve into it.  That time came around at 3:00 a.m. last Monday.  

As luck would have it, totally by chance, I opened to page 200 and my eyes fell upon:  

"A fine Louis XV Gilt-Tooled Red Morocco Leather Small Casket, circa 1770"

"Sold with this lot is an envelope bearing the inscription Cassette de la Reine Marie Antoinette in the hand of the 5th Earl of Rosebery.  This coffer belongs to a group of travelling caskets and trunks made for members of the royal family. Similar examples of various sizes bearing the arms of Mesdames, Louis XV's daughters, are in the Louvre, the Musée Carnavalet and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York."

With the gilded arms of Marie Antoinette on the rectangular top, this piece was listed in the catalog, prior to the sale, as expected to bring $25,000 - $35,000.  It sold for $118,000.  Obviously, when estimating an item's worth, the historic value of an object previously owned by President and Mrs. Kennedy or, as in some cases, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, wasn't factored in.

Well, having seen that Marie Antoinette treasure, I was hooked and sleep was impossible.  Here are a few of the offerings in the 1 1/2 in. thick catalog...  Sorry about the photo quality.  I took most of them with my phone in the wee, blurry hours.

"Miniature of a Young Boy, possible Louis, Dauphin of France (1727-65), French School, 1745"

"Wearing a red jacket, contained in a gold frame with a blue enamel border, the glazed back revealing the armorials and motto of the Dauphin.  Oval, height 1 1/2 in. (3.8 cm.)"

Sale price estimated at $800 - $1,200.  Sold for $34,500.

"Oak Rocking Chair"

"A rocker is a rocker and there isn't much you can do to make it look like anything else," Jacqueline Kennedy once said.  Rocking chairs were recommended by Dr. Janet Travell to ease President Kennedy's severe back pain.  In deference to the President's need for comfortable seating, the comment was one of surrender;  Mrs. Kennedy was, after all, attempting to restore the White House state rooms, wherein she explained "everything... must have a reason for being there."  But, in a sense, there's a very good historical reason why a rocking chair should have been included among the furnishings of the Oval Room;  it is said that no less a personage than Dr. Benjamin Franklin devised the form by applying rockers to the lower extremities of a straight chair."  

Sotheby's goes on to note that though Oxford English Dictionary cites a reference that credits Franklin with the invention, there are rocking chairs listed in Connecticut estate inventories prior to the date referencing Franklin.  Anyway, Franklin may or may not have invented the rocker, but Early American it is.

I like this excerpt from the auction house's description:  "Rocking chairs abounded in Jacksonian America.  The Englishwoman Anne Royall abhorred them.  She stumbled over their bold crescent projections, departing the country in 1828 with "hardly a sound toe left."  Nevertheless, the rocking chair became established in general use during this period.  The critical English traveler and writer Harriet Martineau on a visit here in the mid 1830s was reflecting a general attitude  among foreigners when she wrote in her Retrospect of Western Travel of "The disagreeable practice of rocking in the chair...  How this lazy and ungrateful indulgence ever became general, I cannot imagine, but the [American] nation seems so wedded to it, that I see but little chance of its being forsaken."  We Americans are a good-for-nothing, slovenly lot.  I'm writing this post from my bed.

The value of this particular rocking chair was listed $3,000 - $5,000.  Actual sale price:  $442, 500

Note:  According to a New York Times article that I blogged about and linked to Here, there's another  another Kennedy rocking chair in the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. 

"Simulated Pearl Necklace"

"The triple strand of "pearls" with silver Art Deco style clasp set with single rows of "diamonds"... was worn by Jacqueline Kennedy in residence at the White House."  I don't think I'd have been able to sell that necklace what with that precious photograph.  Then again, there are starving people and Caroline Kennedy is a philanthropicly-minded person.  Maybe she thought the money it would fetch could do some good somewhere.  She probably still has the picture and the pearls aren't even real. 

Suggested value:  $500 - $700.  Sale price:  $211,500

There was a piano sold in the 1996 auction, but, off the top of my head, I don't remember if it was this one or if this is simply one of the rooms in their home.  I'm not going to bother looking it up.  In researching a couple of things for this post (pathetic the amount of time I waste here), I discovered that there was a a second Sotheby's sale in 2005.  

Judging by the cover, there are probably some interior shots of their homes. Naturally, I went straight to ebay and wasted another $30 on the catalog. I didn't even feel a particularly keen interest in the Kennedys possessions a week ago and now....  well, I just hope I don't get carried away with this.  If I actually had money, I'd have frantically bid on that Marie Antoinette case and dozens of other lots. Thirty dollars here and there isn't so bad, is it?  My friend, Trish, likes the Kennedys, so I bought her a catalog, too.  Ebay is the best.

There was no mention of where this chandelier originally hung, but it sold for $37,375.

There were oil paintings, sketches, prints , cartoons, sculptures, lithographs, photographs, personal and historical documents galore.   This charcoal, by Elaine De Kooning, went for $63,000.


Representations of each of their respective hobbies

The Louis XV desk at which Kennedy signed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
*with some restoration and alteration

Suggested price range:  $20,000 - $30,000 

Actual sale price:  $1,432,500

An engagement gift from Aristotle Onassis

Yield to Kennedy estate - $277,500.  Additional $85,000 for the matching ring.  Not to be confused with the 40 carat engagement ring mentioned in this online article.  The article is the first one I opened and I can't vouch for the website, but it was pleasantly readable.  Hopefully, factual.  (The diamond engagement is at the bottom of this post.)

When news of Jacqueline Kennedy's marriage to Aristotle Onassis came out in the press I felt a little betrayed.  How could one of our national treasures abandon her post?  And, for that creepy guy? Now that I'm older, I reluctantly acknowledge his roguish appeal.

If you're into that sort of thing, there was some fabulous jewelry sold at the 1996 auction, but I'm not much of a jewelry person myself.

The Lesotho III Diamond, Harry Winston

The lot that snagged the most dollars (or might it have been yen, rubles, pesos, pounds, yuan, dinar, francs, shekels exchanged into dollars?) was the engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis.  It was originally found in Lesotho, South Africa by Mrs. Ernestine Ramaboa, the wife of a digger who felt that the large brownish, irregularly shaped chunk was a diamond in the rough.  (Literally.  Uncut, unpolished diamonds are called "roughs."  Learned something today.) She slipped it into her pocket and hurried back to the hut to wait for her husband, Petrus.  When he returned home, they set off on foot, without telling anyone, to the capital city of Maseru where they sold it to a dealer.  I don't know how much the Ramaboa's got for the rough, but it was eventually cut into three diamonds and made into three rings, the Lesotho III being the smallest.  It passed through Harry Winston's hands, into Aristotle Onassis' hands and onto the ring finger of Jacqueline Kennedy (only twice before being stored in a bank vault.)  and, ultimately, into the two-day Sotheby's auction where it garnered a grand total of $2,587,500.

The 1996 auction netted $34,461,495 for the Kennedy estate.

Speaking of  auctions... A few years ago a pair of Marie Antoinette's shoes sold at a French auction for $65,000.  That price is suprisingly low when compared to the prices paid for some of the Kennedy estate pieces at the Sotheby's auction.  To me, anyway.

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