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Slick catalogs are auction houses' secret weapon


NEW YORK -- The cover is so self-consciously quiet it looks more like a wedding album than an auction-house catalog. Yet the cool white cotton cover with discreet silver lettering that says only "The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis April 23-26, 1996," with Sotheby's name in small letters at the bottom, has captured the public's curiosity in a way no other auction catalog ever has.

This 584-page publication, which is $90 in hard cover and $45 in paperback, is soon to be a Sotheby's best seller. That its cover has no enticing photograph (an auction house standard) matters not a whit. Inside is what counts: details on more than 4,000 pieces of art, furniture, jewelry and other objects that once belonged to the former first lady, along with nearly 800 illustrations and personal remembrances.

Sotheby's says it has orders for more than 15,000 copies and plans to print at least 100,000, far more than the 40,000 copies of the last record-breaker, the six-volume set for the sale of Andy Warhol's memorabilia in 1987.

Book critics have been asking for copies of the Onassis volume so they can review it before it goes on sale at Sotheby's New York City headquarters Tuesday.

Auction catalogs have always been important, but in recent years they have taken on an added significance both as a marketing tool to lure prospective sellers and as an enticement to potential buyers. Like the Warhol set, the Onassis catalog will also most certainly become a collector's item.


When pushed, even Sotheby's officials admit that what's for sale isn't great art or objects but leftovers that neither Mrs. Onassis' children -- Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and John F. Kennedy Jr. -- nor the John F. Kennedy Librrary Foundation wanted.

But the catalog contains, among other things, never-before-published photographs of Mrs. Onassis' Fifth Avenue apartment, snapshots of the White House private quarters during the Kennedy era, family photographs of President Kennedy, the first lady and their children and a life-size photograph of the 40-carat diamond ring Mrs. Onassis received from Aristotle Onassis.

There are snapshots of Mrs. Onassis with such notables as Muhammad Ali, Rudolf Nureyev, Charles de Gaulle and President Clinton. In many of the pictures she is wearing jewelry that will be on the auction block.

The catalog is also bait. To see the art and objects when they go on view at Sotheby's on April 19, you buy a catalog to put your name into a computerized lottery, from which 30,000 names will be drawn at random. Those chosen will be allowed to see the objects at an assigned day and hour. (Special Sotheby's clients, of course, are invited to viewings.)

This is a first for Sotheby's, whose officials say the auction house cannot possibly accommodate all those who want to see the objects. Proceeds from catalog sales will go to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, not to Sotheby's, Mrs. Schlossberg or Mr. Kennedy, who will receive proceeds from the auctions.

Tool of the trade

Special catalogs like the Onassis volume have become the auction houses' most important marketing weapon. "After salaries, catalogs are the most expensive and important part of our business," said Diana D. Brooks, Sotheby's chief executive officer worldwide, who estimates that between them, Sotheby's and Christie's spend over $50 million a year on their catalogs. That figure, she says, is about twice what it was 10 years ago. TC Both auction houses regularly create mock catalogs to lure prospective sellers. Design teams spend months creating special looks to reflect the character and personality of a particular sale. (Ms. Brooks said Sotheby's wanted the Onassis catalog to "look serious not folksy.")

To please a seller, the auction house will even produce a special, so-called "vanity catalog," that looks like an art book, reads like an art book and doesn't even have the usual price estimates. Sotheby's and Christie's use catalogs to introduce clients to new areas of collecting.

A recent Sotheby's mailer, for example, offers subscribers what it calls a "Sotheby's Sampler," a special rate of $75 for ordering three catalogs in categories ranging from Impressionist paintings and English furniture to paperweights and garden statuary. Many of these catalogs are resold in bookstores and are used by scholars and students as reference materials.

"They have become a cross between a book and a mail-order catalog," said Meredith Etherington-Smith, Christie's group creative marketing director.

Started out drab

This wasn't always the case. Thirty years ago, when 70 percent of all auction buyers were dealers, not private collectors, catalogs had little more than listings, with a few black-and-white photographs jammed on a page. Covers had no photographs, and the descriptive texts were minimal.

There were no estimates of prices. By the late 1960s prices were listed discreetly in the back. In the early 1980s the auction houses began placing them with the object.

"Auction catalogs are a mirror of the auction business," said Christopher Burge, chairman of Christie's in America. "It was when we began going retail and reaching private collectors that we started responding to a marketing need."

Mr. Burge said the first catalogs with color photographs, pull-out pages and long scholarly texts were for sales of Impressionist and modern art, the bread and butter of the auction business. "The Impressionist market led the way," he said, "but as audiences grew in other markets so did the catalogs."

Over the last few years, Christie's has produced many collector's-item catalogs, most notably one for the estate of Nureyev and one for furniture belonging to fashion designer Hubert Givenchy. Another popular one accompanied the sale of English and French furniture, Old Master paintings, silver and objects from Haughton Hall, the home of the sixth marquess of Cholmondeley in Norfolk, England.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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