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Palm Beach Modern auction explores Jackie O's love of couture through rare photos and personal correspondence
1956 Ford Thunderbird, odometer: approx. 12,000 miles, hard and soft tops, Continental kit. Est. $40,000-$60,000. PBMA image.

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.- With her impeccable eye for design and effortless ability to set global fashion trends, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the 20th century’s most influential style icon. While the entire world was able to admire her wardrobe choices via the media, very few were invited behind the scenes where she collaborated one-on-one with her favorite designers. That very private aspect of the late first lady’s life is the focus of a January 17 Modern Design, Art & Fashion Accessories auction to be held at Palm Beach Modern’s (PBMA) exhibition center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The auction’s centerpiece is an archive of personal notes from Jacqueline Onassis to Bill Hamilton, longtime design director for Carolina Herrera. “Bill dressed Jackie Onassis almost exclusively from the mid 1980s until her passing in 1994. The notes in his archive show that their relationship wasn’t just about business; he and Mrs. Onassis were friends, as well,” said PBMA auctioneer and co-owner Rico Baca. “Some of the notes reveal how involved she was in the design process, but others are very warm notes expressing appreciation for things Bill had done for her.”

Onassis’ impeccable finishing-school manners followed her throughout her life. “She always hand-wrote thank-you notes and had a flair for making the recipient feel special,” said Baca.

Onassis had very definite ideas about detail and fit, and she conveyed them skillfully, Baca said. Auction Lot 51, consisting of a handwritten letter and two notes on blue personal cards imprinted “1040 Fifth Avenue,” includes such comments as: “The zebra costume looks great – but it could use a new pair of trousers in the same cut if the material still exists. If you take the padding out of the cap sleeves that should help a lot.” She goes on to say, “I am most excited about my brown velvet suit – very narrow pants please!” and in a postscript asks, “Could you send a brown satin sample to Manolo Blahnik. I’ll call about shoes.”

In a second note, Onassis asks that Hamilton send “…love to Mrs. Herrera and congratulate her for the business section piece where she has beat out all the competition & all others have fallen by the wayside,” adding: “Maurice, Ed and Caroline told me about it as usually I don’t grab the business section” – a presumed reference to her longtime companion Maurice Tempelsman, son-in-law Edwin Schlossberg and daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. This group lot, one of seven such lots from the Bill Hamilton archive, is estimated at $800-$1,200.

Another six lots are from interior designer Richard Keith Langham, who worked for Keith Irvine (1928-2011), an Onassis favorite known for his English country-house style. Langham’s eclectic archive includes thoughtfully composed thank-you notes and (Lot 60a) an illustrated book titled The White House, inscribed: “For Richard – Perhaps this great house will know your touch one day – your friend Jacqueline Kennedy” (dated March 4, 1987). Her opinions were plainly but politely expressed in notes such as the one that says, “I wasn’t mad about the black chairs. Too heavy I’m afraid – so do keep looking. Thank you. J Onassis.” Each of the Langham lots is estimated at $800-$1,200.

Interspersed among the Hamilton and Langham lots are six group lots of silver gelatin prints from the estate of society photographer Robert Davidoff. “For 40 years Bob Davidoff was the Kennedy family’s official photographer when they were in residence in Palm Beach,” said Baca. “They felt very comfortable with him, so he had privileged access to them during informal moments.” Photos to be auctioned include Lot 49, Jacqueline Onassis with Jayne (Mrs. Charles) Wrightsman at West Palm Beach Airport; Lot 62, Jacqueline with President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy; and Lot 57, Jacqueline with a young John Jr. en route to church. In the latter photo, the first lady wears a lace mantilla, a choice that sparked an instant trend among female churchgoers. Each lot is estimated at $800-$1,200, and copyright will convey with each of the images.

PBMA will follow the archival lots with luxury goods, including a superb selection of designer handbags, jewelry, shoes and briefcases. The grouping is led by Lot 79, a rare Hermes nilo crocodile Kelly handbag with traditional sellier styling (having well-defined corners). The luxe bag, which retains its original box and dust bag, has been consigned by Architectural Digest editor emeritus Paige Rense Noland to benefit the Humane Society of the United States. “Mrs. Noland used to pass Hermes on Madison Avenue on the way to work each day. That led to many irresistible buying opportunities, and she was able to amass a fantastic collection of Hermes bags over the years,” said Baca. With a starting bid of $9,000, Lot 79 is expected to reach $15,000-$20,000.

Other handbag highlights include: Lot 78, an Hermes travel Birkin bag, est. $10,000-$15,000; Lot 68, a Lady Dior “Andy Warhol” handbag from a limited edition of 10, purchased new at Dior in Saks, Boca Raton, Fla., est. $3,000-$5,000; and Lot 80, a pre-1960 Hermes-Paris beaded clasp handbag with silver chain, est. $3,000-$5,000. From a Louis Vuitton limited edition, Lot 66 is a rare backpack of trademark-monogrammed canvas and leather, est. $3,000-$5,000. “Reportedly, Kanye West is among the small handful of people who own examples of this trendy backpack,” said Baca.

Topping the jewelry section is Lot 94, a rare 1968 Coppola E Toppo for Valentino choker comprised of black glass tubes and roses montees affixed to a weft of black half-crystal faceted beads. Previously purchased from the author of a jewelry book in which the design is depicted, it is quite likely the actual book example. Estimate: $7,000-$9,000.

Superior-quality modern furniture will be offered, including a collection of designs by Gio Ponti. Lot 162, a Ponti for Singer & Sons walnut and glass cabinet, could take top-lot honors and is estimated at $20,000-$25,000. Entered as three consecutive lots (170, 171, 172), a Wendell Castle “Molar” suite of yellow gel-coated fiberglass and rubber was purchased new in 1976 by the consignor. The loveseat and pair of matching lounge chairs each carry estimates of $2,000-$3,000, while the matching coffee table has expectations of $4,000-$6,000.

Lot 324 is a Charles & Ray Eames for Herman Miller rosewood and leather lounge chair and ottoman in a rare pastel pink custom color, est. $4,000-$6,000. Other noteworthy furnishings include Lot 34, a John Dickinson painted plaster “African” tripodal table, est. $7,000-$9,000; and Lots 35 and 36, two other Dickinson “footed” tables.

The auction also offers a stylish way for some lucky bidder to return home with their purchases. Lot 104 is a 1956 red Ford Thunderbird with Continental kit and both hard and soft tops. Bidding on this pampered American motoring classic with only 12,000 recorded miles will open at $30,000.

PBMA’s Jan. 17, 2015 auction will commence at 12 noon Eastern Time at the company’s exhibition center located at 417 Bunker Rd., West Palm Beach, FL 33405. Preview: Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 9 a.m. onward on auction day.

All forms of bidding will be available, including live via the Internet through or Bidsquare.

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