When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died, items from her estate epitomized her style and her place in history. When some of these items came up for sale in 1996, it kicked off days of auction fever where bidders fervently competed to own a part of Camelot. It is a textbook example of how nostalgia and a craving to own a piece of a myth can affect an estate’s value.

A dramatic increase in the value of Jackie O’s estate

When executors first began to put a price tag to the items Onassis left behind after her death, their initial estimates totaled at about $43.7 million. But that figure didn’t take into account the historical and sentimental effect of pricing things that represented the Camelot era. When some of her items went to auction, a lot of people were willing to pay high prices to own a piece of American mythology. Auction bidders gravitated to items that epitomized the former first lady’s historical significance. Ultimately, items at auction commanded so much money that it raised the value of her estate to an incredible $73 million.

High-value item surprises

What kinds of things were included in the estate and what kinds of prices did they bring in? Two oak rocking chairs used by President Kennedy in the oval office brought in almost half a million dollars each. But they’re just basic examples. Other items epitomized how much more than the estimated value people were willing to pay for items.

A mother of pearl handled magnifying glass and letter opener, valued at $200 to $300 actually brought in just under $25,000. A painted model of Air Force One, valued at $300 to $500, sold for almost $49,000. A cigar humidor, given to JFK from comedian Milton Berle and estimated at $2,500, sold for $575,000 to the publisher of Cigar Aficionado Magazine. In another surprise, even the programs for the auction itself were a sought after, high-ticket item. They were 105,000 copies printed with hardcover versions being sold for $90 and soft cover versions being sold for $45. That’s a total of approximately $2.5 million. Onassis’ children donated the proceeds from these programs to charity.

The highest and lowest cost items

In looking back at the auction, many are curious about the highest and lowest sale-priced items of the day. The most money for a single item was for Jackie O’s engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis. The 40.42-carat ring sold for almost $2.6 million to J.F. O’Reilly, the president of the H.J.Heinz Company. Coming in second to the Onassis diamond ring was the desk President Kennedy used to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1962. Though this was estimated at $30,000 it was sold for $1.4 million. The lowest priced item was $1,240 for six books about Asia. This may have been surprising considering Ms. Onassis’ love of both books and travel.

The effect of the auction

The family was humbled and gratified by the response. Jackie O’s Children told officials from Sotheby’s that they were surprised and delighted by the response and by the fact that so many people wanted to participate.  Though they may be grateful for the interest, the increased value for the estate meant more than just a larger inheritance or a larger amount of money which could be donated to charity in Onassis’ memory. It also meant a larger tax bill. Following the auction, the IRS got busy re-evaluating the estate so their tax bill represented the estate’s actual value. No surprise that Uncle Sam was just as interested as everyone else in what Jackie O left behind.