During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: A brown Air Force One bomber jacket, size 44, which President John F. Kennedy gave to Dave Powers circa 1962. Estimated at $20,000 to $40,000, it sold at John McInnis Auctioneers in February 2013 for $655,500, a record for a presidential Air Force One bomber jacket.
The expert: Dan Meader, gallery director for John McInnis Auctioneers.
Who was David Powers, and what was his connection to John F. Kennedy? It started in 1946, when Kennedy was running for Congress. He needed to be a real player in the Charlestown area near Boston, and he was told by people in the know he had to befriend Dave Powers. He was the one who could really affect the local community. Kennedy knocked on his door, and brought him to a Gold Star Mother event. It was a really emotional meeting. Powers was blown away by his words, his actions, and how the audience took to him. He worked in the West Wing as a special assistant, and he remained a friend and confidant until the end. When things were tense in the White House, if people saw the president with Powers, they knew things were going to be OK.
How did John McInnis Auctioneers win the opportunity to auction Powers’s personal collection? We got a call from a person in Massachusetts who had things related to President Kennedy, and would we like to take a look? It was Powers’s son, who was in contact with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, all the big players. Someone recommended he contact us. We gave our presentation after we looked over the things. They chose us because of our desire, our ability, and our personal touch. They wanted to keep it [the sale] in Massachusetts, and the others only wanted to pick and choose. We had 750 lots, with literally thousands of objects [overall]. We were able to give [the collection] the honor it deserved.
How did President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket come to Powers? Did the president give it to him? The president had, I forget how many. It was an odd number of bomber jackets he had. Some he never wore, and gave to people. We believe he gave him this jacket in 1962. That’s how Dave got it. That’s how Dave got everything. He was the first creator of the JFK Library, and he gave thousands and thousands of objects to it. These [the collection McInnis sold] were the personal things he kept–things Dave had in drawers and files, a whole treasure trove. They [the family] didn’t understand what they had.
Did Powers wear it? I think he wore it on occasion. There’s a family story that when Powers passed away, his son hung it in the closet. He knew it was a special jacket, but he didn’t think of it in terms of dollars. It had been hanging there maybe a year or so, or two years. Then one of his [the son’s] kids was going away on an overseas trip, and was told, “You need a jacket to keep you warm at night.” The dad saw the jacket sticking out of the kid’s duffel bag and said, “Whoa, whoa, that’s JFK’s jacket.” If he hadn’t noticed that, it could have ended up lost and gone overseas. The kid just thought, “Oh, this will work, it’s leather.” He didn’t think about it, he didn’t understand. $655,000 later… [laughs] It was a good find for dad to see it sticking out of the bag.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $20,000 to $40,000? If you look at the estimates in the catalog, we tried to make things attainable. It was an unreserved sale across the board. It [the estimate] made people understand this is real, it’s going to be sold, and it’s going to sell for what it sells for. If we put the highest price on it, people would lose interest right away. If it felt attainable, they might get hooked, and maybe it would continue to go higher. That happened. I can tell you the person that won didn’t know what they would pay for it.
What condition was President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket in? It was in worn condition, but very good. There was a tiny hole in the stretchy material at the bottom of the jacket, but it wasn’t abused or anything like that. Dave didn’t wear it as an everyday jacket.
Do we know where the other JFK-era Air Force One bomber jackets are? JFK gave one to Peter Lawford, which sold for $14,000. I don’t know where that one is. There’s one at the JFK library. Bobby Kennedy had one, but Ethel Kennedy didn’t know where [it ended up].
Did you try it on? [Laughs] Yes. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that.
What is President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket like in person? I think the most amazing thing for me about the jacket–I don’t want to say I was jaded. I saw all the personal things [Powers kept from his relationship with JFK] and got a sense of what it was all about, but during the previews [for the auction], we had two television camera crews come from Russia. JFK was so well-known to them because of Castro and Cuba. They were dying for the jacket. It brought him to life.
This jacket is actually connected to two presidents. Ronald Reagan asked to borrow it from Powers, and he agreed. How might that have affected its value? That was kind of an unknown. Ronald Reagan wrote Dave Powers a nice letter. He wanted it for his museum. Powers was kind enough to let it out. He only loaned it to President Reagan. [Reagan’s thank-you note to Powers was part of the lot.] When you can see another president enamored of the jacket, it’s just incredible, just incredible.
What was your role in the auction? I’m the gallery director here. I do behind-the-scenes stuff. John McInnis is the auctioneer. We believe the Powers auction broke the record for a continuous live auction of antiques. We began at 11 am on Sunday, February 17, 2013, President’s Day weekend, and it went around the clock, ending with lot 732 at 5:31 in the morning [on Monday, February 18, 2013]. We stood right there without a break. It took forever to sell stuff. All the major television stations came. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people wanted to participate.
When did the jacket come up? After 8 pm.
And bidding lasted 17 minutes? It was 17 or 17 1/2 minutes. It’s a huge amount of time. It’s an eternity. There were people online, people in the audience, and at least eight phone lines, if not ten, for the jacket alone.
Physically, how were you all doing at that point, having auctioned for eight straight hours and gotten to lot 327 of 723? I worked until 3 am before the auction. I was back here by six. I got a half-hour of sleep, but I couldn’t sleep anyway. It was unbelievable. I was handling all facets of the press, all the questions from bidders, and I was trying to keep the place looking good. At the time, I was drinking Rock Stars and Monsters [energy drinks] to keep me going. I was a zombie afterward. The auction ended at 5:30 am and I didn’t get home until 8:30. I had to bring the jacket home with me [laughs], because I had insurance. Physically, I was… so much adrenalin was going through me. It was kind of a high, I guess. It was so exciting–no lulls. People would come and go, watch it online, and come back again. I knew when something big was coming up because the hall would fill up again.
Did you physically bring out the jacket, or did you show a photo behind John McInnis as bidding started? We had it in a glass case behind the podium. Just prior to the sale, three or four lots ahead, we took it out so people could take pictures of it. We laid it on Dave Powers’s desk from the West Wing.
What do you remember of the sale of President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket? The hall started to fill back up again. Don’t forget, there was a snowstorm, and it was getting late. I realized it was coming up. We didn’t know we were going to sell it for that kind of money. Personally, I thought it would sell for $75,000. I never thought it would go over half a million.
So you were surprised at the final figure? I was surprised, but I wasn’t. It had so much activity on it, [I realized] it could do $150,000 or $200,000. The beauty of the auction is the public determines the value of the object that day. On that particular day, that was what the public decided.
Did the snowstorm have any effect on the bidding? It had an effect on the crowd. [The sale room could hold about 450 attendees.] A lot of people couldn’t get here. I tried not to think about it. I had enough to worry about. But it didn’t have an effect on prices. It had an effect on the crowd being there in person, rather than online. That [the Internet option] made it much easier for them to bid without the stress of worrying about getting into an accident.
Did any members of the Powers family attend the sale? We don’t recommend [consigners] come to the auction. We had a private preview for the family, so they had their own time to shed their emotions. One of Powers’s grandchildren was having her Broadway debut in New York City that night. After 8:15 or 8:30, I got off the podium, went over, and left a message [with a family member]: “I wanted you to know what it just sold for.” Within two minutes, my phone was beeping. “I want to make sure I’ve got this right–WHAT did you say it sold for?” Prices were extremely strong across the board–10 times, 20 times, 30 times the estimates. It was incredible.
Did you have any notion that the auction would last as long as it did? No! No! Another auctioneer we’ve known forever texted me probably one hour in, “Do you realize, at the pace you’re going, it’s not going to end until 4 am?” [I texted back,] “I don’t care what it takes, so be it.” When you see the other end of it–the prices rise and rise and rise–it’s very exciting. It doesn’t happen often. It was a lot of fun. We run auctions of 700 or 800 lots in a day. We can usually do 60 to 75 lots an hour. We thought we’d be done by eight or nine at night. We could never have anticipated going for 30-something hours. [We thought,] “Eh, we can do it all in a day. We’ve done it a million times.” We never anticipated going through the night. We felt in full confidence we’d get through and be done by 9 pm.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It was the most valuable thing to sell at the auction, by far, and the only item in the sale that brought over $100,000. But honestly, a few other things in the sale had a bigger impact on me. There’s the book Jackie Kennedy signed to Powers [after the assassination, saying] “You and I will miss him most.” There’s the typewritten schedule for November 21 and 22, 1963. Dave had annotated the whole, entire schedule. When the murder happened, Powers was the guy who brought him to the hospital. He was in a Secret Service car behind the president. He was there through the whole thing. He was his most loyal person. It was a true bromance. He never had a better friend.
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Film of the 2013 auction does not appear to be online, but you can hear Meader discuss the sale in an episode of the Antique Auction Forum podcast that is up on YouTube. A photo of Meader with the jacket appears at the 1:15 mark.
Meader is at work on a Columbus Day 2019 auction of presidential material at John McInnis Auctioneers. Check the website or follow the house on Twitter for more information as the fall approaches.
Image is courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers.
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