40-Carat Ring Is Auction’s Gem, Fetching $2.6 Million


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ 40.4-carat diamond engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis sold for $2.58 million at Sotheby’s auction Wednesday as the frenzy to own a chunk of Camelot and Mrs. Onassis’ possessions continued unabated.

The diamond, the most expensive item in the auction catalog, had been valued at $600,000 by Sotheby’s appraisers. It was bought by Albert and Felice Lippert, founders of Weight Watchers, on behalf of a “dear friend” who was not identified.

By the end of bidding Wednesday night, buyers had spent more than $20.8 million for items from Mrs. Onassis’ estate, and there are still two days left in the auction. At this rate, the Onassis auction could compete with the $50-million record for an estate sale set in 1987 by Sotheby’s when it sold the jewelry of Wallace Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.


The ring, on which the so-called Lesotho marquis diamond was mounted, was the high point of Wednesday’s bidding. It brought a flurry of bids to more than $1 million, then crept to its selling price. “This is your last chance to be part of the mystique,” said John Bloch, the auctioneer and head of Sotheby’s jewelry department. “Don’t be shy.”

Lippert wasn’t.

When the gavel finally fell, applause filled Sotheby’s crowded auction room. Later, Bloch said “people wanted to buy something that belonged to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, something she wore, something she loved.”

That was clear from the prices some of the other items brought:

* $415,000 for a kunzite and diamond ring that was purchased by President Kennedy as a gift for his wife. The high estimate was $8,000.

* Ruby-and-diamond-pendant ear clips went for $360,000, against an estimate of $35,000. Like the engagement ring, the clips were a gift from Aristotle Onassis.

* A ruby-and-diamond ring went for $288,500, much more than its estimate of $30,000. And a smaller pear-shaped diamond, which brought spirited phone bidding from Los Angeles, sold for $156,500, well above the $70,000 estimate.

Harry Wilks, a retired Ohio lawyer, was the winning bidder on a pair of 18 carat yellow- and white-gold ear clips for $37,375. “She [Mrs. Onassis] still represents a dream to the American people,” he said.


Earlier in the day, the desk on which President Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 sold for $1.43 million. The Louis XVI mahogany table, estimated to sell for $30,000 by Sotheby’s, was the subject of a 10-minute duel between two telephone bidders. The buyer was identified only as a European foundation.

Even relatively mundane items brought big markups. A set of wicker baskets, much like those sold at housewares stores, fetched $9,200. The pre-sale estimate was $200. The cheapest item in the catalog, a reproduction of an etching of Washington, D.C., valued at $20 to $30, went for $2,070.

Mrs. Onassis’ French textbook, which she used as a schoolgirl (complete with her sketches of fashion outfits), went for $42,550.

A copy of former Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s memoirs, inscribed in his handwriting “To Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy with deep admiration,” sold for $61,900, eclipsing its estimate of $2,500.

Sotheby’s based many of the estimates in its catalog on the actual value of the objects minus Mrs. Onassis’ provenance, which proved to be phenomenal--a marketing strategy designed to elicit the most excitement when the goods were actually being sold.

A small leather traveling casket that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, which Mrs. Onassis bought herself at auction in 1981, sold for $118,000, far above the estimated value of $25,000 to $35,000. The bidder, John Maas, a London antique dealer, bought the tiny trunk for an unidentified American client.


“If you wanted the best provenance of two women in the world, it would be Marie Antoinette and Jackie Kennedy,” he said.

An elated Diana Brooks, Sotheby’s president, watched the bids soar past the auction house’s total estimate early in the day. “It’s not work, it’s pleasure,” she said.

Mrs. Onassis’ engraved Tiffany silver-cased tape measure was bought Tuesday night by Juan Pablo Molyneux, a New York interior designer, for $48,875, certainly a dollar record per inch. Its high estimate in Sotheby’s massive catalog was $700.

“I am an architect and an interior designer, and I thought it was a nice piece of history and something I can eventually use,” he said. “It is a nice start for any job to take measurements.”

“It shows that Americans are obsessed with fame,” said New Yorker Allison Schloss, who sat in the audience but said she was not going to bid. “I’m here as a spectator sport.”

But the desire to buy Kennedy memorabilia--what students of the psyche might call transference by object--did not stop at U.S. shores.


In addition to the European foundation that bought the Kennedy desk, Brooks said four of the top 10 selling items at the morning auction Wednesday were purchased by Latin American clients.

“She [Mrs. Onassis] goes beyond national boundaries,” Sotheby’s chief executive said. “The Latins have been involved today. I’m delighted.”

As the bids climbed in steep spirals, with scores of reporters watching, a certain giddiness enveloped the normally staid auctioneers.

“The Super Bowl of auctions,” Lita Colis Cohen, the editor of Maine Antiques Digest, said quietly as she watched the bids pour in by phone and by eager collectors in the audience.

Several rows behind her, New Yorker Clare White said she hoped to bring home some mementos.

“She [Mrs. Onassis] had very charming pictures. She also had some very lovely painted furniture. I intend to bid if I am in the ballpark,” White said. “It’s sort of bittersweet history.”


Maureen O’Connor, the former mayor of San Diego, snared enough salt-and-pepper shakers to serve as Christmas presents for each of her 13 siblings. The shakers were valued at several hundred dollars; she paid $11,500.

“I grew up under Camelot, and my family is a big Democratic family in California, and we feel strongly about the Kennedys,” she said.

The prices include Sotheby’s commission, which is 15% of the first $50,000 and 10% of anything above that.

Mrs. Onassis died in 1994. Her will directed her children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr., and the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, to choose whatever they wanted from her possessions then sell the rest. Proceeds were to go to her estate.

In a unique arrangement, Sotheby’s agreed that profits from the sale of catalogs (more than 85,000 have been sold at $90 hardcover and $45 paperback) would go to the children, who will donate the money to charity, allowing a tax deduction.

According to Alexander D. Forger, one of the executors of Mrs. Onassis’ estate, who also served as her lawyer, New York state and federal taxes will add up to a tariff of about 60%. Forger said that before the auction, Mrs. Onassis’ estate was valued at $45 million to $50 million.


“She anticipated there would be an auction, for the reason that she knew that the children would not want to or be able to retain all the tangible property she had accumulated,” Forger said. “She had not only property in houses, but she had a lot in a warehouse.

”. . . There was no sentimental attachment to much of what she had, and it didn’t have historic interest and it was appropriate for sale. The sale would be for expenses and taxes.”