"There's never been a book that has told Kennedy's life story through his memorabilia," the collector tells PEOPLE. "That's what this does."

By Sam Gillette
January 20, 2020 09:51 AM

Even John F. Kennedy Jr., “America’s prince,” couldn’t escape the FBI … kind of.

It was the summer of 1995 and bureau special agent William Rosenbaum and others of the special operations group were on an FBI stakeout, waiting to see who notorious mobster Whitey Bulger was going to meet on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Instead, the agents noticed a couple a short distance away sharing a picnic on the shore. It was former President John F. Kennedy‘s son and and Carolyn Bessette, JFK Jr.’s soon-to-be wife.

“They ate sandwiches, had wine, and took a nap. When they awoke up [sic] the tide had gone out so far the dory was stranded,” Rosenbaum later wrote in a typed letter, describing the interaction. “Whitey Bulger also noticed them and took off. I and another agent ran down to the shore and helped JFK Jr. push the dory out to the water.”

Two weeks later, JFK Jr. presented the agent with a photograph from that night, depicting him pushing the boat. He signed it: “Bill, thanks for your help, John Kennedy.”

Both the photo and Rosenbaum’s letter about the unusual run-in are part of Ronnie Paloger’s historic collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia and photographs that is being auctioned off by RR Auction.

A world-famous collector, Paloger is seeking to sell his entire collection to a museum or similar institution so it can be viewed intact. The opening bid is $1.5 million and the auction for the whole collection is now open and will close on Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. (If it is not sold, the collection will be auctioned off in individual lots that same day.)

John F. Kennedy Jr.
John F. Kennedy Jr. on Martha’s Vineyard in 1995
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction
John F. Kennedy Jr.
John F. Kennedy Jr.’s note to FBI special agent William Rosenbaum
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction
John F. Kennedy Jr.
FBI special agent William Rosenbaum’s letter of explanation about his run-in with John F. Kennedy Jr.
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction

“What makes [the collection] unique is that it could be kept intact. This could be in a museum or university setting, so that it could be preserved, saved and appreciated by the public and historians and academics forever,” the 70-year-old collector, who dedicated five years full-time to curating the collection, tells PEOPLE.

“It’s like a film,” Paloger says. “There’s never been a book that has told Kennedy’s life story through his memorabilia. That’s what this does.”

While Paloger can’t pick out his favorite part of the collection (“that’s like asking what is your favorite child, and you have five children,” he jokes), the collection does have hundreds of negatives of “unpublished, mostly unseen photographs,” including photos from 1946 to 1953 that provide insight into President Kennedy’s life. It’s a period that hasn’t been covered as extensively as others.

“[The collection] starts with his school book, then onto the PT-109 archive, to the photo archive of Congressman Kennedy, all the way to President Kennedy’s inauguration and Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday and to the assassination,” says Bobby Livingston, RR Auction’s executive vice president. “So it’s got a little bit of everything. Ronnie [has] this eye and this passion and the emotion for the importance of each individual piece in his collection. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts because of his passion.”

John F. Kennedy Jr.
From left: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy visit St. Justine’s Children’s Hospital in Montreal, Canada, in 1953
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction

The photo of JFK Jr. on the water is just one of many images and artifacts from the life of President Kennedy and his family. Other noteworthy pieces include the elder Kennedy’s handwritten letters to the mother of a deceased WWII sailor, Harold Marney. Kennedy (then a naval officer) wrote Mrs. Marney for almost two decades, even though he only knew her son for one week.

“I know you know how we all feel—boys like Harold and my brother Joe can never be replaced—but there is some consolation in know that they were doing what they wanted to do—and were doing it well,” Kennedy wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Marney on Sept. 1, 1944.

There are also photographs of the young politician shaking hands with supporters while on crutches; candid photos from his early campaign days; images of the president with his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, including their visit to a private charity; photographs of young JFK Jr.; and even the unpublished eyewitness account of Dave Powers, a best friend of the president who was riding in the car behind Kennedy’s limo when the president was shot and killed on Nov. 22, 1963.

“Mrs. Kennedy, still covered with blood, kissed the President goodbye,” Powers recalled in his official account. “She then took the ring from her finger and placed it on the President’s finger…”

John F. Kennedy Jr.
John F. Kennedy’s 1952 senatorial campaign
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction
John F. Kennedy Jr.
A young John F. Kennedy Jr.
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction

Paloger says that the collection reveals an intimate version of President Kennedy that the public hasn’t seen — or has forgotten about.

“His compassion, character and loyalty could not be more visible, reading the PT-109 letters to the mother of the sailor who was killed,” Paloger says of what the collection can teach people about the former president. “The second thing that people will learn, more than anything else, is his wicked, unbelievable sense of humor that is sprinkled throughout. … The third part is his intelligence.”

LIvingston agrees.

“Really, he’s a human being that walked this earth and there’s every little piece of his personality in this collection. It brings him back to life. It captures his essence with his humor and his passion for history, and his humanity,” Livingston tells PEOPLE. “Kennedy’s humanity, and all the emotions of his life and the tragedy and his children and his beautiful wife — it’s all there.”

John F. Kennedy Jr.
One of the many letters John F. Kennedy sent to Mrs. Marney.
| Credit: The Ronnie Paloger JFK Collection / RR Auction

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Even though the backstory of the photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. with the FBI is humorous, it, too, evokes great sadness. Some four years later, he and his wife died when their plane slammed into the Atlantic Ocean not terribly far from their picnic that 1995 day on Martha’s Vineyard.

“When I looked at this photo of him pushing the boat out to sea from behind, the composition of that photo is just gorgeous, isn’t it?” Livingston says. “Then it reminds you of his father and the sailboat and the Kennedys at the Cape and the water. But then your mind thinks of the plane crash … it’s not lost on me when I look at the photo [that there was] tragedy. It was a tragedy.”