By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Unprecedented.
That’s how appraiser Don Meader summed up Sunday’s highly anticipated auction of John F. Kennedy memorabilia at McInnis Auctioneers in downtown Amesbury.
The auction — which featured more than 2,000 Kennedy photos, gifts, documents and keepsakes — got under way at 11 a.m. Sunday and lasted well into the wee hours of Monday morning.
By the time the final hammer fell, the collection had sold for just under $2 million.
While McInnis staff members knew it would take a while to sell all 723 lots up for bid, nobody was expecting the marathon it turned out to be, with the auction attracting thousands of participants worldwide, both in person and online.
“It went nonstop for 18 hours, and there were still people bidding,” said Linda Greenstein, the auction’s publicist.
Along the way, interest in items connected with the Kennedy legacy never waned.
Greenstein said the last item in the sale — the former president’s London Fog jacket — sold at 5:31 a.m. Monday for $11,000, plus a minimum 15 percent buyer’s premium.
“We’ve run many, many, many auctions with 700 to 800 lots, so we know how long they take to run,” Meader said. “But it ended up that there was such a huge response between the crowd and the Internet that it actually took the same amount of time to sell the lesser-estimated items as the large items. Each lot took three to four minutes to sell.”
The collection offered a unique glimpse into the personal life of the former president through the eyes of David Powers, who was both Kennedy’s special assistant and his best friend. Powers became the first curator of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston after the former president’s assassination. He remained close with Kennedy’s family until his death at age 85 in 1998.
Powers donated most of his Kennedy-related keepsakes to the JFK Library, but the most personal things he kept for himself. The collection remained locked away in his home until his family discovered it about a year ago while preparing to sell the house. Once it became clear how extraordinary the collection was, they decided to auction it off.
Greenstein said Powers’ family shopped around for auction galleries, but found the larger auction houses were interested only in the prime lots and didn’t want the entire collection. They also wanted to make it a JFK auction and not a Powers one, she said.
They were drawn to McInnis, who welcomed the entire collection and proposed selling it chronologically in a way that would tell the story of the friendship between Powers and Kennedy, she said.
“The last lots featured letters from Jackie (Kennedy Onassis) to Powers thanking him for his work with the library,” Greenstein said.
Once word got out, the auction garnered massive media interest around the world. Some industry experts described it as the Super Bowl of auctions. After it was over, Meader said he couldn’t think of any other sales like it.
“It became a kind of phenomenon,” Meader said.
Nearly every item up for bid sold for considerably more than its pre-auction estimate, with some items fetching more than 10 times the expected price. The highlight of the auction was Kennedy’s leather Air Force One bomber jacket, which was expected to go for $20,000 to $40,000, but wound up being sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $570,000, plus a minimum 15 percent buyer’s premium.
“It was quite the scene,” Greenstein said. “The whole hall broke out in excited applause when it finally sold.”
While most of the bidding came via phone and Internet, McInnis Auctioneers did have a packed house in spite of the snowstorm that blew through on Sunday. Greenstein praised Mayor Thatcher Kezer for making sure the roads were plowed and for doing his part to ensure the auction was a success.
Kezer was on hand at the start of the auction to personally welcome bidders to the city and open the bidding.
“The mayor did a great job getting the streets clear,” Greenstein said. “Amesbury was in the world view and it looked fabulous.”
Meader attributed much of the success of the auction to the way it was catalogued, saying having it organized in chronological fashion allowed Kennedy’s life story to be told in a poignant way while respecting the impact that Powers had on the late president as well.
“I think the family themselves were very pleased with the way we were able to portray their father’s legacy,” Meader said. “They felt that he would’ve been very pleased at the way we represented that.”
Early estimates have the collection selling for right around $2 million, but an exact total for the entire collection won’t be available until McInnis calls back all of the buyers to confirm how they will be paying, Meader said.
If they bought through Live Auctioneers online, they’ll pay an 18 percent premium, but if they bought directly through McInnis, it would be a 17 percent premium by credit card or 15 percent by cash or wire transfer.
Greenstein said she thinks people will still be talking about the auction long after the final numbers are tallied.
“It was a very emotional sale for people,” she said. “It was a change for them to own their own little piece of Camelot.”