Seated in his office, surrounded by pieces of John F. Kennedy's life--the president's charcoal and brown suit jacket draped on a tailor's dummy, JFK's crimson Harvard sweater in a garment bag plunked on his desk--Arlan Ettinger talked excitedly on the phone.
On the line was a major consignment agent. And when the conversation ended, Ettinger, the president of Guernsey's, was ecstatic. The presidential yacht Honey Fitz, all 92 feet of it, was sailing full-speed ahead as a last-minute item into the auction of Kennedy memorabilia Guernsey's is holding next week.
The yacht and about 600 other items--ranging from the Ace pocket comb the president ran through his full head of hair and some of his winter underwear (the first lady had wrapped unwanted wedding gifts in the Size 40 long johns when she sent them to an antique shop) to important and revealing letters, speeches and diaries--will be up for sale.
Included are the Cartier wristwatch Kennedy wore when he was shot in Dallas, the black alligator briefcase he carried during most of his political career, his 22-foot sailboat Flash II, the antique radio he kept in his Senate office and took to the White House, and a rose from the huge cake that marked his 44th birthday.
Traditionally, the reconstruction of White House administrations has belonged to the biographer, the memoir writer, the historian, the presidential librarian.
Now, add another player: the auctioneer.
Fueled by the startling success of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sale at Sotheby's two years ago, which fetched $34.4 million from frantic bidders who fought for scraps of Camelot, Guernsey's--a much smaller but aggressive auction house--has rented part of an armory on Park Avenue to sell its Kennedy collection.
While 70 consignment agents have given merchandise, the major portion belonged to Evelyn N. Lincoln, President Kennedy's longtime, loyal secretary, who seemed to throw out nothing from the Oval Office. She even kept the sketches of sailboats Kennedy doodled on yellow legal pads.
Guernsey's auction on March 18 and 19 is tinged with controversy. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and John F. Kennedy Jr., who received millions from Sotheby's sale, are seeking to reclaim some of the family's treasures. Legal letters have been exchanged.
The National Archives is raising questions about the ownership of 14 items it desires. Negotiations are underway between lawyers for the archives and attorneys for Robert White, a former salesman and longtime presidential collector.
In her will, Lincoln, who died on May 11, 1995, left many items to White, a friend who shared her affection for Kennedy.
"I always had a collection with my fascination going back to George Washington," said White in an interview. "She [Lincoln] specifically handpicked things I knew I would appreciate or cherish."
Among the items the Kennedy Library, which is part of the National Archives, desires is President Kennedy's portable stereo, which the chief executive took with him on trips so he could listen to his favorite music. A master sergeant was assigned to transport and set up the record player. The presale estimate is $20,000 to $30,000.
The library also wants a small mahogany drop-leaf table Kennedy used in the Oval Office to sign documents, as he found his regular desk uncomfortable.
"We have a letter from Mrs. Lincoln saying she bought the signing table and the stereo from the General Services Administration as it was government surplus property," said White's lawyer, Robert Adler.
"Mrs. Lincoln used it in her apartment. In 1998, these things take on a much more significant value after the Jackie Kennedy sale," White said. "In 1964, it was a cute little table that had no value. It meant something to her [Lincoln] aesthetically, not monetarily."
The auction will also feature items originally collected by Janet Desrosiers, a former secretary in the White House, who, like Lincoln, saved scraps of paper with doodles and other pieces. The Washington Post chronicled the sale of her collection in the 1980s, but "not a whimper, not a peep was raised" at that time, Adler said.
On Friday, discussions continued over the disputed items after representatives from the National Archives visited the auction house's preview exhibit in New York and examined the material.
The talks were held at the Justice Department in Washington. But a spokesman for the National Archives cautioned not to read too much into the setting.
"The fact this is at the Department of Justice does not mean there will necessarily be any legal action," said Gerald George, director of policy and communications for the archives.
In a statement, Guernsey's said the government had requested removal of three documents because of concerns about national security.
The auction house took the documents from a showcase and said unless there is a further development, they would not be included in the sale.
The items being auctioned by Guernsey's offer fascinating glimpses of history. For example, flags from the Oval Office were given to Lincoln by Jacqueline Kennedy five days after the assassination.
"Not knowing what was in the envelope, we opened it and to my surprise there were these two flags," the president's secretary later wrote. "I cried and cried and cried."
At a tense meeting of the National Security Council during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy scrawled "smoke and fire" three times on his legal pad.
In a 1961 memo, he pondered what was to prove the central question of South Vietnam: "Are we prepared to send in hundreds and hundreds of men and dozens and dozens of ships," he wrote.
After Kennedy received the Democratic presidential nomination, Lyndon B. Johnson sent him a private telegram that helped pave the way for Johnson being chosen as vice president.
"Dear Jack: Warm congratulations. I am looking forward with confidence to helping you in every way to carry the whole Democratic ticket to victory from the courthouse to the White House. Best Regards," the telegram said.