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Camelot by the Lot

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EARLY ON TUESDAY, APRIL 23, before catching a flight from Milwaukee to New York City to attend the opening of Sotheby’s auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s estate, Pat Baker reminded her husband, Jay, a retail-company executive, that she planned to bid on Jackie’s baby grand piano. Never mind that one of the pedals was broken and the finish was wearing thin. Baker didn’t even care that no one in her family knew how to play. “My husband said, ‘You’re going to make me a pauper,’ ” she recalls, laughing. Indeed, Baker planned to go as high as $50,000 for the instrument, which Sotheby’s had valued at between $3,000 and $5,000. “I was hopeful,” she says. “I felt if it was meant to be, it will be.”

And it was. Declining to bid on other items—”I held back because I really wanted the piano,” says Baker—she wound up buying her dream machine for a whopping $167,500. And she would have gone higher. “I didn’t get swept away,” she says, “but I probably would have stopped at $200,000.”

Baker was typical of the winning bidders among the 1,800 attendees select ed by lottery and invitation to participate in each session of the four-day auction at Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters. (Smaller crowds gathered at Sotheby sites in Chicago and Los Angeles.) The event—part pilgrimage, part circus—was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a piece of Onassis’s private world. “This has never happened before, and it can’t happen again,” said Robert Woolley, a Sotheby’s senior vice president.

With some 5,000 castoffs on the block, the auction exceeded even the most outlandish expectations. The tip-off came the first night, when a worn footstool used by Caroline Kennedy to climb onto a window seat in the White House (estimated value: $100-$150) fetched $33,350. Not long after, Onassis’s silver-cased tape measure, valued at $500-$700, sold for $48,875. “We are all a little cuckoo, aren’t we?” the tape measure’s proud new owner, Juan Pablo Molyneux, a New York City interior designer, said afterward.

Socialites like Patty Hearst Shaw, Blaine Trump and Kimberly Rockefeller oohed and aahed but didn’t always buy. “I have enough of my own family’s stuff,” said Rockefeller. And comedian Milton Berle couldn’t reclaim the inscribed humidor he had given JFK in 1961 (he bid $185,000; it went for $574,500). “I’m happy, but I’ve got a few tears in my eyes,” said Berle.

Successful bidders included Joan Rivers (see page 51), who ponied up $13,800 for a 19th-century French painting, Coach‘s Shelley Fabares, who had winning bids on three items, and Montel Williams, whose wife, Grace, went home with a $17,250 enamel, diamond and faux-pearl bracelet. Non-celebs triumphed too. Dr. Jules Lane, from Great Neck, N.Y., bought an Elaine De Kooning charcoal of JFK for $101,500; Sue Dean, a Tenafly, N.J., homemaker, paid $35,650 for a porcelain dinner service and a pair of candlesticks; Harry Wilks, a retired lawyer from Hamilton, Ohio, paid $37,375 for a pair of gold earrings; antiques dealer John Maas purchased a traveling box that belonged to Marie Antoinette for $118,000; and Richard and Ellen Gaspari of Barrington, Ill., paid $10,925 for a Louis XV table. “It was a carnival atmosphere,” said Live with Regis & Kathie Lee gossip queen Claudia Cohen. “The prices were astounding.”

On the second day, the numbers only got bigger. The desk on which President Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 went for a staggering $1.4 million (suggested price: $20,000-$30,000) to a European foundation. That evening, when the estate’s fine jewelry went on the block, Jackie’s 40-carat engagement ring from Onassis brought $2.6 million from a bidder who, like many, chose to remain anonymous. But for those who walked out winners, the high stakes were a small price to pay for a small piece of history. “There was nobody like the Kennedys,” said Tom Begel, chairman of Johnstown America, a Fortune 500 railroad-freight-car company, who paid $85,000 for John Kennedy Jr.’s 19th-century high chair. “If this were Bess Truman’s stuff being auctioned off, you wouldn’t get nearly the excitement.”

With most buyers guided primarily by emotion, it remains to be seen if any of the Onassis memorabilia will retain its auction-level value. “In the case of President Kennedy’s rocking chair [the first of two up for grabs sold for 442,500], there is very little actual value,” said C. Hugh Hildesley, Sotheby’s executive vice president. “The people who make that chair still make it, and you can buy it for $1,200 tomorrow.”

One thing is certain: Jackie’s children, John and Caroline—who both stayed away from the frenzy—will profit handsomely, just as their mother had planned. Much of their share of the proceeds (which totaled nearly $21 million after two days) is expected to be used to pay estate taxes on Jackie’s $100-$200 million fortune.

For many, the glamor of the event and the thrilling pace of the bidding carried with them a bittersweet reminder that an era had ended. “I’m happy her things will go to people around the world,” said attendee Kathy Roeder, a New York City real estate broker. “But if I had my druthers, I’d want her still here—sitting on her own sofa and rocking in her own rocking chair.”