Auction of Kennedy-era relics recalls days of Camelot

Guernsey’s via Associated Press
John F. Kennedy’s speedboat, Restofus.

Saturday’s auction of mementos from the era of John F. Kennedy tapped into nostalgia for the nation’s 35th president and a period of history dubbed Camelot.

The sale of about 500 items by Guernsey’s auction house in New York included relics from Kennedy’s life and the America of the early 1960s, and was timed to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday this year, according to a statement from organizers. Guernsey’s previously auctioned Kennedy keepsakes in 1998 and 2005.

Arlan Ettinger, the auction house’s president, said he lived through the Kennedy years. He said part of Camelot’s appeal was the sense of stability in the country’s leadership.


“Things just seemed more elegant, more dignified, more thoughtful than the tumultuous political scene we face today,” Ettinger said. “You trusted Mr. Kennedy to make the right choice.”

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Ettinger estimated about 90 percent of the lots put up for sale were snapped up by buyers in Saturday’s auction, but the auction house didn’t post the final sales prices.

The items included a copy of the communications Kennedy exchanged with then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that helped to de-escalate the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

“I agree with you that we must devote urgent attention to the problem of disarmament...” Kennedy told Khrushchev in the document. “Perhaps now, as we’ll step back from danger, we can together make real progress in this vital field.”

Artwork inspired by the former president included painter Aaron Shikler’s study of Kennedy, which was the basis for his official White House portrait.


Four busts by sculptor Robert Berks — two of Kennedy, and one each of Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein — were also sold for undisclosed prices.

Among other things, the auction offered up relics marking the abrupt end of Kennedy’s presidency, including a copy of a speech Kennedy was scheduled to have delivered on Nov. 22, 1963, the day he was felled by an assassin’s bullets.

“Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our (cause) — united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future — and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance,” he was to say that day, according to the document.

Saturday’s auction combined collections from two former White House staff members, as well as relics related to Francis Gary Powers, a former CIA agent who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

But the auction’s focus was on Kennedy, and many of the items that were put up for auction Saturday were from the collection of US Navy Lieutenant Henry Hirschy, who was stationed in the White House during Kennedy’s term.


The auction included Hirschy’s matching pair of ceremonial naval swords, which were hung from a wooden framework known as a catafalque that held Kennedy’s casket in the East Room of the White House.

There was also evidence of the hip Kennedy, who alongside First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy set the tone for style and fashion after the couple entered the White House in 1961.

Up for grabs were his Kennedy’s 1961 Century Resorter speedboat and a 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible, similar the car the president traveled in.

CBS veteran broadcaster Bob Schieffer called him“our first television president,” citing Kennedy’s success in using the medium to reach the American people. Jacqueline Kennedy herself led a televised tour of the White House following a $2 million renovation.

The former first lady, who was known for her fashionable tastes, apparently inspired the offerings of a leopard skin pillbox hat and a matching leopard skin and alligator handbag, similar to the ones she used. The pair were from a collection once owned by Mary Gallagher, a personal secretary of the former first lady.

Aside from White House-themed china and stationery, the auction also included family knickknacks: a pair of sterling silver children’s toothbrushes, once used by Caroline Kennedy and her late brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., a few pairs of swim trucks worn by the former president and his wife, and even his childhood wooden toboggan and a rose from the cake served at his 44th birthday .

The Kennedy mystique attracted buyers for each, including the toboggan — a 60-inch contraption with the initials “J.F.K.” neatly marked on one end.

John Hilliard can be reached