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Great American Values

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The snow did not deter the faithful. The winter storm was a nuisance, but not worth canceling a trip to honor Dave Powers and John F. Kennedy. Born in Charlestown, Mass., Powers helped launch Kennedy’s political career, and after the former president’s assassination, he helped establish the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, serving as its first curator until he retired in 1994. Even though Powers died in 1998 and Kennedy was assassinated half a century ago, their acolytes flocked to Amesbury, Mass., on the Sunday before Presidents’ Day to pay their respects—literally—by bidding on photographs, documents, personal gifts, and memorabilia that Powers received from the president or saved from his tenure as Kennedy’s special assistant.

The event was hosted by John McInnis Auctioneers (www.mcinnisauctions.com), which opened three hours before the auction started to allow bidders a last look at the lots. Karen Cooksey, a bespectacled woman in a coral-pink jacket, could have registered to bid online from her home in Columbus, Ohio, but felt the need to raise her number in person. Cooksey was only 2 years old when Kennedy died, but she later read William Manchester’s The Death of a President and developed a lifelong fascination with Kennedy and Powers. Until now, she has limited her collecting to books. “Even if I walk out of here with nothing, I got to be a part of this,” she said before the sale. “But I would like to take something home to cherish. I moved heaven and earth at work to get the days off; I hardly ever do that, except for family. I guess that’s kind of what they [Powers and Kennedy] are.”

JFK remains popular 50 years after his death, and a presidential signature in his own hand is always valuable. Kennedy relied on the autopen, an automated signing machine, which today increases the value of his authentic signature. In fact, a genuine Kennedy signature is worth more than the genuine signatures of previous presidents who were born too soon to enjoy the labor-saving device. But the people who drove through the snow to Amesbury wanted more than just a good investment; they wanted to own something that had a direct connection to Kennedy—something that he wrote, or wore, or touched.

These artifacts bring presidents to life in a way that unsigned books and photographs can’t. Daniel Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop (www.alincolnbookshop.com) in Chicago, has handled countless Lincoln items and owns a few, including the first signature Lincoln signed after winning his first election to a public post. Weinberg’s collection includes elements of the macabre, as well, such as a swatch of the dress that actress Laura Keene wore when she held the president’s wounded head in her lap after he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. “I feel I know Lincoln. He’s like a friend, in a way,” Weinberg says. “During the Lincoln bicentennial, I felt like I was 200 years old.”

Tom Peeling began collecting political ephemera as a teenager in 1972, and later, after reading about Theodore Roosevelt in the 1980s, he gravitated mostly to Theodore Roosevelt items. Today, Peeling’s Florida home also is home to more than 1,200 pieces of material related to the larger-than-life president. Among Peeling’s most treasured pieces is the only handwritten reference Roosevelt made to the teddy bear, a toy sensation that sprung from a hunting trip the president took in 1902. “Teddy has almost become a member of the family,” Peeling says. “He’s a very interesting man.”

The top lot at Amesbury was an Air Force One bomber jacket worn by JFK, which he had given to Powers in the early 1960s. Estimated at $40,000, the jacket rocketed to $195,000, and then inched upward $10,000 at a time before peaking to hearty applause at $570,000. Including the 17 percent buyer’s premium, the Air Force One bomber jacket fetched $666,900, an auction record for a JFK item, but that’s not enough to rank among the top 10 most expensive presidential artifacts sold at auction. Washington and Lincoln dominate that list, with the single exception of a Thomas Jefferson letter from 1804, which announced the Lewis and Clark expedition and sold for $1.4 million during a Sotheby’s auction in 2002.

The most expensive piece is one that most collectors and specialists would deem to be the ideal presidential artifact: George Washington’s copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, complete with his handwritten notes. It fetched $9.8 million at a Christie’s sale in June 2012, almost $7 million more than its high estimate. “To have him [Washington] annotate the Constitution, looking for his job description, is amazing,” says Patrick McGrath, a specialist in the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s New York.

The book was acquired by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which plans to display it permanently in a George Washington presidential library set to open in the fall. “Washington himself once wrote, ‘The Constitution is our guide, which I will never abandon,’” said Ann Bookout, the organization’s regent, following her acquisition of the piece. “By acquiring this book—his personal copy of the Constitution—we are taking him quite literally. It is extremely rare to see a book of such significance change hands, and we felt that it was essential to muster our resources to bring this extraordinary document home to Mount Vernon.”

The finest presidential artifacts, like Washington’s copy of the Acts of Congress or JFK’s bomber jacket, exemplify a president. In regard to Kennedy’s jacket, for instance, subsequent presidents have received similar jackets as a perk that comes with access to the private plane, but few presidents wore it so well. Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II, and his bomber jacket brings to mind that military service and unites it with his presidency in one glamorous package.

The most valuable items associated with many presidents are handwritten letters. A notorious example sprang from the pen of Harry Truman in 1950 when the president personally mailed a fiercely worded letter to Paul Hume, the music critic of the Washington Post, who panned a concert given by Truman’s daughter, Margaret. “It is absolutely one of a kind; there is no other presidential document to compare,” McGrath says of the letter, which sold for $193,000, almost $100,000 above its high estimate. “It speaks to the character that shows up in the facets of Truman’s life—blunt, no nonsense, what he thinks is what he tells you. It’s the emotion of a father defending a child.”

Written letters and documents pertaining to some of the country’s oldest presidents aren’t always difficult to find, which is why the content of those documents or letters becomes so important. “Historical letters are average,” says Selby Kiffer, an international director of special projects at Sotheby’s, explaining that presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrote as many as 15,000 letters during their lifetimes. “It’s not a question of provenance; the value is really in the content.” Considering more recent missives—from relatively young former presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—it likely will take decades for compelling letters on White House stationery to reach the market, if they exist at all. As some specialists point out, the advent of e-mail has reduced the need for handwritten letters, though Barack Obama is challenging that (more on this later).

Sometimes a president doesn’t need to handwrite a document to impart value. While campaigning in Milwaukee for a third term with the Progressive Party in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt met a man who felt that no president should have more than two terms, and he emphasized his opinion by shooting Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet hit a metal glasses case and a typewritten speech that the former president had folded and tucked into his vest pocket, and together they slowed and deflected the bullet so it only injured a rib. Any other president who gained the office on the assassination of his predecessor would seek medical attention; but Roosevelt, being Roosevelt, gave his speech first. Waving the pages in the air so the audience could see the bullet hole, he trumpeted, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Roosevelt was right, but the failed assassin ultimately got what he wanted. After an hour’s oration, significant blood loss parked Roosevelt in the hospital for eight days. By the time he was discharged, the election was only days away, and he was left with hardly any time to catch up. In the end, Democrat Woodrow Wilson defeated William H. Taft for the all-important post.

Two pages from that speech went to Christie’s in 2005. They were marked by the bullet and in pencil by the person whom Roosevelt gave them to, presumably during his hospital stay, but Roosevelt himself had not written on them. Christie’s estimated the pages at $6,000 to $9,000 and watched them soar to $42,000.

The Powers auction in Amesbury had something along those lines as well. JFK never physically touched it, and never could, but it earned $76,050. Lot 483, which arrived on the block between half past midnight and 1 am, was the most wrenching piece in an emotionally stirring auction: a copy of the presidential schedule for November 21 and 22, 1963. The mimeographed text stopped toward the bottom of the page at 11:45 am, where Powers filled in the rest in handwritten prose. At 1 pm Powers wrote simply, “My President is dead,” as if spelling it out, letter by letter, would make it easier to understand.

As a general rule of thumb, material taken from a president’s administration will be worth more than material that predates or follows his time in office. However, numerous auction results flout the rule, and at least one president is exempt from it: Ulysses S. Grant is invariably more interesting to collectors as a Civil War general than the country’s 18th elected leader—his Civil War presentation sword from 1864 sold for $1.67 million in 2007.

Presidential items aren’t necessarily more valuable after a president dies, but that’s when the choicest material tends to emerge. That being said, not all consignors are motivated by value—many wait to sell their items to avoid awkward conversations on the golf course or at dinner parties with the former leaders. In fact, most owners release beloved items only after they go to their own graves. For the Powers sale, it was his children who called the appraisers.

The artifact that set an auction record for Ronald Reagan—a note that the former president wrote to his estranged daughter, Patti, in 1991—was consigned for sale as soon as news of his death broke. “The minute he died, the guy came to us and said, ‘I want to sell this,’” recalls Beverly Hill, director of manuscripts and collectibles at Ira and Larry Goldberg Auctioneers (www.goldbergcoins.com) in Los Angeles. Having just turned 80, and aware his days were dwindling, Reagan wrote in his letter: “Even if there are differences does this justify a family separation? We can disagree on things without abandoning our family relationship. I remember a little girl who sat on my lap and asked me to marry her. Love—Dad.” Offered in October 2004, it garnered $34,500 against a $10,000 to $15,000 estimate. “I thought it was a very reasonable estimate,” Hill says. “He was not a sitting president, and it was not on White House stationery. But it’s a lovely personal side of Reagan that you don’t often get to see. The underbidder came to me later, saying, ‘I shouldn’t have let it go.’”

Gauging the potential of President Barack Obama’s material is complicated, since he is both a sitting president and a polarizing one. The auction record to date for an Obama item belongs to a pre-presidential oddity—the 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee that he bought new and sold to a dealership in July 2004, weeks before rising to political stardom with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It is an unusual case that reveals how a presidential collectible is minted. The seller explicitly advised the second owner to obtain and notarize a copy of the previous title that proved Obama’s ownership, telling her, “You never know, he could be president someday.” Robert Edward Auctions (www.robertedwardauctions.com) of Watchung, N.J., offered it in 2010, opening the bidding at the vehicle’s Blue Book value of $3,500. It sold for $26,438.

Whatever you think of Obama, he’s generating precisely the sort of material that heartens collectors. Every day, his staff gives him 10 letters from citizens, and he answers some personally in his own handwriting and on White House stationery. It’s unclear how many of these letters he’s written, but if he responds to just one person a day for every day of his two-term administration, he would create more than 2,800 pieces that eventually could reach the market. Three already have, two at Ira and Larry Goldberg and one at Christie’s, and all achieved prices in the mid–four figures.

During Obama’s second inauguration, the Smithsonian deployed scouts to the National Mall, looking for people who had interesting handmade Obama memorabilia and asking them to donate the items to an exhibit planned for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Not surprisingly, few accepted the offer.

Back in Amesbury, McGinnis opened the bidding at 11 am and continued until 5:15 am the following day—more than 18 hours straight. About 20 people stayed until the final hammer drop, along with 350 who watched the proceedings online. McInnis, who had joked earlier in the day about feeding breakfast to the in-room bidders, wrangled coffee and pastries for the diehards at 2 am. His staff also had produced a spread of sandwiches around 6 pm and pizza three hours later. The 723 lots collectively fetched more than $1.4 million; only five did not sell.

“It was surreal,” McInnis says while reflecting on the sale, adding that he only expected it to last 10 hours. “The average lot took two to three minutes to sell when it should take 50 seconds. It took 17 minutes to sell the jacket.” McInnis was prepared to announce around the 12-hour mark that they would suspend the auction for the night and reconvene in the morning, but he says, “I never saw a need or an opportunity to do it. It never stopped. People just kept bidding.”

Knowing that she needed to board her flight at noon to return to Ohio in time for work, Cooksey reluctantly left at 2:15 am, even though about 200 lots remained on the docket. “I actually compared this auction to one of the long-gone dance marathons they used to have in the ’30s and ’40s,” she later wrote in an e-mail. “This was most definitely an endurance event!” Cooksey won five lots, including photos of Powers and fellow Kennedy staffers who together were known as the “Irish Mafia,” images of Kennedy’s flag-draped casket returning to the White House, and a signed typewritten 1964 letter from Bobby Kennedy to Powers regarding a surprise gift for Jackie.

“This was probably the most special and memorable event I have attended in my adult life,” Cooksey wrote. “For all of us who took a piece of Dave and Jack home from the auction, the responsibility is now ours to perpetuate their legacy and memory. I was moved to tears more than once by items that I viewed or read—it was an emotional weekend for me, and although I will always regret never getting to meet either of them in person, I feel like now, perhaps, I have.”

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