AMESBURY — It took longtime John F. Kennedy personal adviser and friend, the late David Powers, decades to amass more than 2,000 pieces of memorabilia related to the late president.
Yesterday, those items — including personal photos, letters and a one-of-a-kind Air Force One leather bomber jacket that sold for a jaw-dropping $570,000 — were auctioned off over several hours to serious collectors, fans and everyone in between at a much-anticipated presidential auction at John McInnis Auctioneers in Amesbury.
Hundreds of people braved a blustery winter storm to fill the Main Street auction house to take in the fast-paced sale firsthand, while an estimated 1,000 bidders participated via phone or Internet. Aside from a few technical problems related to phone lines and Internet connections, the auction proceeded smoothly, if not quickly.
The 723-lot auction began shortly after 11 a.m. and among the early highlights were a signed copy of Kennedy’s book “Why England Slept,” the published thesis he wrote while in his senior year at Harvard that went for $4,500, and a copy of Robert Donovan’s book “PT 109, John F. Kennedy in World War II,” signed by the president in 1961, which fetched $7,600.
For decades, Powers, who died at 85 in 1998, was inseparable from Kennedy, serving as his longtime friend’s confidant during his political career. After Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, Powers became a driving force behind the creation of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, donating thousands of items to the iconic library. But Powers kept many of the most personal items to himself; and after his family discovered the items while cleaning out his house, it was decided to put most of the pieces up for bid.
During yesterday’s auction, McInnis appraiser Dan Meader announced to the crowd that the library would be interested in acquiring some of those items from whomever purchased them.
Word of the historic auction spread across not only this country, but across the globe. In the days leading up to yesterday’s sale, McInnis Auctioneers and Amesbury as a community were the subject of countless national and international television news reports, newspaper stories and magazines, according to Meader.
For about a week, the collection had been on exhibit to the public, giving people from all over the country a memorable look back at a pivotal time and temporarily transforming the auction house into a museum of American history.
The early going was dominated by some of the more prodigious buyers bidding online or via phone, scooping up multiple lots of signed letters, documents and photos. But there were some bidders inside the building who snatched items for themselves.
Among them were Donnie Greenwell of Waverly, Ky., who won two items in the first hour: two patriot speeches written by Kennedy, “We Must Be Worthy Of Our Times” during his run for U.S. Congress in 1946 for $500 and another speech, “Why I am a Democrat,” written around the same time for $550.
“It (the price) sounded reasonable,” Greenwell said, right after purchasing “We Must Be Worthy Of Our Times.”
For Rich Travaglione of Nantucket, his purchase of a 1946 photo of JFK for $525 had less to do with striking a bargain and more with keeping the memory of his late father alive. Travaglione said his father, who was 15 around the time Kennedy ran for Congress, met the candidate when he was campaigning in the North End section of Boston. Travaglione’s father then introduced Kennedy to many of the residents, creating a lasting memory for the younger man.
“That particular time was important to me and my father,” Travaglione said shortly after winning the photograph.
Perhaps the highlight of the auction was a brown leather bomber jacket encased in glass and displayed behind McInnis’ auction table.
The jacket, which has the presidential seal sewn on the front, was given to Powers shortly before the president was assassinated 50 years ago. It came with a color photograph of Kennedy wearing it while watching the America’s Cup race. It was apparently also loaned to President Ronald Reagan, and the auction includes a letter from Reagan to Powers thanking him for the jacket.
It was almost 8 p.m. before the jacket, which had a pre-auction price of $20,000 to $40,000, came up for bid. It was sold to an unidentified buyer on the phone, who shelled out $570,000, plus an 18 percent buyer’s premium and 6.25 percent sales tax, for the piece of nostaligia.
Before the auction, the jacket caught the attention of Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, who joked to a reporter that he was going to make a run at the item. Kezer, who attended the first hour of the proceedings with his wife and son, welcomed attendees with a short introductory speech.
“We are so proud to have the auction here in Amesbury,” Kezer said.
John McInnis also took a few moments to mention the significance of the auction.
“This is kind of turning into a historic event. We wanted this auction to tell the story of Jack Kennedy and Dave Powers,” McInnis said.
Amesbury resident and Newburyport historian Jay Williamson, the curator of the Cushing House Museum in Newburyport who helped create a full-color auction catalog, said shortly before the auction started that he was excited to see what turned out to be months of preparation come to fruition in one day.
“To have such a horde of items here, great and small, it really gives you a glimpse into his entire life,” Williamson said.
$570,000: Price paid for Kennedy’s Air Force One leather bomber jacket; pre-auction price was $20,000 to $40,000.
$21,000: Price paid for an American flag that flew at the White House during the Kennedy administration; pre-auction price was $3,000 to $6,000.
$16,000: Price paid for a Kennedy administration White House seal used in the West Wing; pre-auction price was $2,000 to $4,000.
$9,750: Price paid for a photo of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on their wedding day signed by the couple; pre-auction price was $2,000 to $5,000.
$6,000: Price paid for Kennedy adviser David Powers’ desk from the White House.
$4,250: Price paid for a little photo of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis captured in the mirror taking a photo; pre-auction price was $100 to $200,
1,000: Approximate number of bidders online and on the phone based around the world.
350: Number of bidders in-house at John F. McInnis Auctioneers. Each bidder was allowed one guest. The auction house was at capacity for the event.