Updated April 01, 1996 12:00 PM

IT SOUNDS LIKE A PUBLICIST’S DREAM: On March 13, just as a catalog for a high-profile auction was released, there was an unexpected stir at Sotheby’s in Manhattan. A fire truck pulled up on York Avenue, and two of the city’s bravest, clad in full smoke-eating gear, leaped off and came clattering up the stairs. But there was, of course, no fire: The pair were headed to the second floor for copies of a 584-page opus, The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis/April 23-26, 1996/Sotheby’s, priced at $90 in hardback, $45 in paper. After snaring two volumes for their wives, the firemen sprinted back to their truck.

As it happens, the glossy catalog of 5,000-odd items to be auctioned next month is one of the hotter publications in town. Its 800-plus photos depict booty including real diamonds and faux pearls, watercolors by John Singer Sargent and a high chair on which JFK Jr. once banged his spoon. The volume—which includes rare photographs of Onassis’s Fifth Avenue apartment, as well as family snapshots and photos of the Kennedys’ Georgetown mansion and private quarters in the White House—has been snapped up by 40,000 collectors, voyeurs and Jackie-philes, including those who (cued by Sotheby’s) ordered it by mail before its March 12 unveiling. “The interest,” says senior vice president David Redden, “is unprecedented.”

The hype is certainly in place: To mark the debut of the catalog (whose sales will benefit the Kennedy Library), Sotheby’s held a press conference on March 11. CEO Diana Brooks announced that, with 100,000 copies in print, the volume was likely to outpace catalogs for the auction of both Andy Warhol’s estate and the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels.

Of course, those planning to bid needed no arm-twisting. “I’ll be there, and I’m going sober,” vows Joan Rivers, who admits that she’d love to copy some of the baubles for her own line of costume jewelry. “This is serious business for me.”

For others, it is an exercise in nostalgia. On the block is a humidor given to JFK by Milton Berle. Says Berle: “I’d like to take it back and have it as a keepsake of a darling man that had the charisma I wish they had today.”

Whether other high-profile bidders will weigh in isn’t clear. Connoisseurs have alleged that the offerings—which include a chintz-covered armchair and a chunk of the London Bridge given to Jackie’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, as a wedding present—are merely high-priced castoffs. Friends of Jackie’s like George Plimpton plan to stay away, while others suggest that an auction seems undignified. “Jackie would not want to be remembered by this sale,” says one.

Plimpton, though, asserts that holding an auction was Jackie’s plan. In addition to items Caroline and JFK Jr. kept for themselves, “Jackie gave the things she was sentimental about to the Kennedy Library,” he says. Onassis, it seems, realized that Caroline and JFK Jr. would face hefty taxes on her $100-$200 million estate and that an auction would raise for them a tidy sum ($5 million, by Sotheby’s conservative reckoning). Says Rebecca Knapp, managing editor of Art & Antiques: “What you’ll see is what’s expendable for cash.”

A Sotheby’s staffer reports that after Onassis died of cancer in May 1994, Sotheby’s appraisers spent six months evaluating the contents of a bank vault and a warehouse, as well as her homes in Manhattan, Bernardsville, N.J., and Martha’s Vineyard. “We tried to involve as few people as possible,” she says. “Confidentiality was crucial.”

Bidders searching for sartorial souvenirs, though, will be disappointed. Over the years, Onassis recycled much of her wardrobe through a Manhattan resale shop. Outfits including her wedding dress went to the Kennedy Library; others were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Aside from clothing, Onassis parted with little. According to Barbara Gibson, Rose Kennedy’s secretary from 1968-78, Jackie’s home in Hyannis Port was so full of collectibles that, like a museum curator, she rotated displays every six months. Inspecting her acquisitions, says Gibson, gave Onassis great pleasure: “One of her maids told me that when Jackie couldn’t sleep she would look through her attic.” As Gibson tells it, Rose was less sentimental. “Once she found oil lamps and cranberry glass in her attic and had me send it to Jackie, but with a price on it,” she remembers. “She charged her several hundred dollars.”

As decorator Mario Buatta remembers it, Onassis’s apartment embodied the East Coast old-money look, with plenty of well-read books and worn chintz. “None of the rooms ever looked decorated,” he says. “None of the objects were glamorous—she stood out far above everything.”

The thrill of intruding on a private preserve, says feminist Camille Paglia, is one of the intoxicating aspects of the sale. “One has this sense of the opening of the tomb of a pharaoh and seeing objects that were never intended to be seen by the public,” says Paglia (who has no plans to bid).

In fact, only a few items are revealing. Beads with broken clasps, a single earring and a set of wicker baskets (low estimate: $150) suggest that Jackie was, indeed, a pack rat. Fake pearls recall her effort to downplay JFK’s wealth during his 1960 campaign (“Be sure to point out they’re not real,” she told a reporter), and a trove of ornate jewelry from Ari Onassis confirms that she attached little sentiment to the gold bracelets that often enclosed her breakfast napkins.

Bidders, however, probably won’t care. “Jackie is one of the icons of our era,” says Bruce Wolmer, editor-in-chief of Art & Auction. What’s “fascinating,” he says, is the desire to capture her aura by snaring a reliquary, “like a sliver of saint’s bone.”

Just catching a glimpse will be a feat. The public exhibit, beginning on April 19, is open only to 30,000 souls, including those chosen randomly from customers who pre-ordered the catalog, and Redden admits that the sale itself will be a “logistical challenge.” Although Sotheby’s hasn’t determined just who will be allowed to place bids from its sales rooms in New York City, L.A. and Chicago, it’s safe to say that only friends of the house need apply. (Others may phone 212-606-7552 for a form on which to make their bids; Sotheby’s personnel will place offers for absentees.)

Though catalog estimates are modest (a pair of Aubusson cushions is valued at $150-$250), Redden notes that prices are difficult to predict when reflected glory is a factor. At the Warhol and Windsor auctions, for example, some items sold for up to 100 times their catalog value. “It’s going to be difficult to succeed,” he says, “without an impressive bid.”

Rivers, among others, will be ready. “I think it will be an extraordinary evening,” she says. And an inspiring one, for those still under the spell of the woman who was an enigma to the end. “People didn’t get a piece of her in life,” adds Rivers. Now that she is gone, she says, “they’re determined to get it.”


MARIA SPEIDEL and NANCY JO SALES in New York City, MARISA SALCINES in Miami with bureau reports