A Liberal icon - Collecting JFK memorabilia



2015-06-26 11:24:09

Forty nine years ago this Thursday, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Wikicollecting takes a look at the enduring fascination with JFK among collectors.


John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1961. A popular and charismatic leader, Kennedy’s Presidential career was marked by some of the most significant events and paradigm shifts of the last century. He both utilised and was defined by the media more than any President that came before him, and this position in the public eye is partly what has made him so collectible. In the lead up to his election, the first ever televised U.S. Presidential debate took place. Kennedy’s charm against Richard Nixon swung public opinion in his favour. These debates are considered a milestone in American political history, the moment at which television began to play a dominant role in politics.

Television continued to chart and shape Kennedy’s career, promoting his public persona and his young family, reporting on his actions, divulging details of his affairs. His assassination became the first major television news event of its kind, uniting the nation by broadcasting information of his shooting, his death, the arrest of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and the subsequent live footage of Oswald’s death at the hands of Jack Ruby. Kennedy’s funeral was also broadcast to the world.

Kennedy’s political career is remembered vividly, and by many affectionately. He was, and remains, a liberal icon, for his outspoken support of the Civil Rights movement and speeches on World Peace. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the major event of his career, the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. Kennedy was seen as a hero, efficiently negotiating the western world out of danger.


He is also remembered for his challenge to the Apollo Space programme: to land an American man on the moon before the end of the decade (and hopefully before the USSR managed it). This of course was achieved, though he did not live to see it.

His infidelity, consisting of numerous affairs with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Gunilla von Post, Marlene Dietrich and many more, were another reason for his presence in the public eye. The interest engendered by his private life has extended into the collectibles market, items relating to his affairs fetching high prices at auction.

His assassination in 1963 sent shockwaves across America. It marked a turning point in the public’s general faith in American political establishments, as conspiracy theories multiplied and remain an obsession for many to this day. Items connected with his death are highly sought after, including collectibles relating to his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Kennedy’s appeal to collectors is motivated by an enduring affection and respect for this young and charismatic President, admiration for the hope he provided and the changes that he made, his unprecedented position at the forefront of the public consciousness due to media coverage of his life and career, and the shock of his tragic death.


Political items

Kennedy is politically interesting to collectors as the youngest elected President, and also the first Catholic President. His campaign memorabilia is some of the most collected, such as campaign buttons and posters. Official documents, manuscripts and speeches are much sought after. For example, handwritten drafts of the announcement of his intention to run for President sold in October this year for $41,825. Various pens used by Kennedy to sign bills and treaties have sold, for example the pen used to sign the Minimum Wage Bill, sold for $10,350 in 2005.

However, there seems to be more interest among collectors in the man himself, personal items relating to Kennedy.

Personal items

The personal items that evoke the most interest from collectors are those that represent Kennedy’s character. His affection for smoking cigars was his trademark, and items relating to this habit are very collectible, such as humidors and unsmoked cigars from Kennedy’s own collection. He reputedly hurriedly ordered in several Cuban cigars for himself just prior to banning all exports from Cuba into the United States.

There are also a surprisingly large number of Kennedy rocking chairs that have come up for auction. He was left with a back injury following his military career, and these chairs were designed to aid his bad back. Examples of these chairs have sold for as much as $65,725 and $96,000 at auction.

Yet more personal items also excite collectors. Several items of clothing came up for sale in 2010, such as a necktie, sold for $8,540, a pair of his woollen long johns, sold for $7,767, a pair of his WWII undershorts, sold for $2,509, and his 1960 campaign watch, a solid gold Benrus, fetched $23,900. Some X-rays of Kennedy’s pelvis achieved $28,125 the same year, and some of his hair clippings sold for $4,160 in 2011. This indicates the extent to which collectors want to own a part of Kennedy.

Private life and scandal

Kennedy’s private life and his love affairs with glamorous female stars captured a level of intrigue like never before, being so widely reported by the media. Items relating to these fetch very high prices. The top 3 items of Kennedy memorabilia ever sold are his love letters to Inga Arvad, his love letters to Gunilla von Post, and his birthday gift from Marilyn Monroe.


Kennedy autographs can often fetch upwards of a thousand dollars on official documents, and tens or even hundreds of thousands on private letters. However, it must be noted that many documents were signed using an autopen. The last autograph Kennedy is thought to have signed, on a newspaper just before he died, sold for $38,827 in 2009.

If collecting on a budget, signed photos are an attractive and affordable option and can be found for upwards of $100. Signed greeting cards and handwritten notes are also widely available, as well as signed copies of Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage – a book about U.S. Senators who risked their careers for their personal beliefs. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for this work.


Many people focus on Kennedy’s assassination for their collection. It was one of the most shocking and widely reported events of the 20th century, and its impact can still be perceived, in an altering of America’s trust in the institutions that govern them. The conspiracy theories that surround the event are endless, and the mistrust engendered as a result sparked a more critical and inquiring approach into the actions and hidden agendas of politics. A faded photograph taken at the moment Kennedy was shot by a woman called Mary Moorman, considered the most important piece of evidence in the investigation into his assassination, sold for $175,000 in 2008. Items from the motorcade that have sold include blood stained leather scraps from Kennedy’s limousine, the flags from the limo’s bumper, the wallet and money clip given by Jackie Kennedy to her husband on their first anniversary that he was wearing when he was killed. Even the ambulance used to transport his body fetched $120,000 in 2011.

Some popular items that are more available to collectors are ‘assassination newspapers’ from November 22nd, 1963, the day he was shot. Newspapers began reporting his assassination instantly, some bringing out four editions in one day with updates. Some are even available with headlines that list his condition as critical, before he was declared dead. The coverage summarised evidence, provided photographs, and reported the assassin’s arrest. Many people held on to their copies as a memento of the tragic event, thus providing collectors with a wealth of opportunity to acquire these, for anything between $1 and $300 depending on whether they are national papers or papers local to Dallas, where he was shot.

Assassin Lee Harvey Oswald has become widely collected too, perhaps as a result of the interest in the conspiracy theories surrounding events. His marine corps rifle score books, personal items such as his chess set, and the very television camera used to capture his own assassination by Jack Ruby have all sold at auction in the last few years.

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