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Saturday 18 November 2017

Kennedys halt sale of Jackie's letters

Disputes over copyright and ownership scupper auction plan by college

Jackie Kennedy’s letters to an Irish priest were expected to fetch up to €3m.
Jackie Kennedy’s letters to an Irish priest were expected to fetch up to €3m.
Jackie Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy with Fr Joseph Leonard.
Some of the letters between Jackie Kennedy and Fr Joseph Leonard.

Shane Phelan Public Affairs Editor

Plans to sell long-lost letters written by Jackie Kennedy to an Irish priest in the 1950s and 1960s have been called off after disputes over ownership and copyright emerged.

The letters were withdrawn just days after it was announced that they were expected to fetch up to €3m at auction.

Representatives of the Kennedy family claim they own the copyright and that this would be infringed if the sale went ahead.

Meanwhile, the Vincentian Fathers religious order has asserted its ownership of the letters.

Fr Joseph Leonard, who had a lengthy correspondence with the former First Lady up to his death in 1964, was a member of the Vincentians.

The 33 letters, written by the wife of US president John F Kennedy before their marriage and after his assassination, were to be sold by All Hallows College in Dublin, where Fr Leonard lived.

What will now become of the letters has yet to be decided.

The college said it and the Vincentian Fathers were exploring with members of Mrs Kennedy's family how best to preserve and curate the archive for the future.

One possible outcome is that the letters will be donated to the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

The Irish Independent understands Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of John F and Jackie Kennedy, has asked representatives to keep her briefed on the situation.

The scuppering of the auction is likely to have serious ramifications for All Hallows, which has been seeking to raise funds for the running of the college.

It has been actively identifying historical items, such as books and paintings, to sell. The college has also been engaged in a fundraising drive in the US.

Mrs Kennedy began corresponding with Fr Leonard after meeting him on a trip to Ireland.

After Fr Leonard's death, the letters lay largely undisturbed at the college for 50 years. The priest did not leave a will.

The significance of the letters was only realised earlier this year when they were shown to a valuer. The college subsequently engaged Co Laois-based auctioneer Philip Sheppard to curate and sell the letters and other effects.

Mr Sheppard had suggested the letters could attract bids of between €800,000 and €3m. The auction had been due to take place next month.

The shock development caught Mr Sheppard by surprise yesterday evening. He was unaware that the letters were being withdrawn from auction when initially contacted about the college's statement.


The existence of the letters provoked huge interest around the world.

They were described by the college as a "a treasure trove of valuable historical information, covering seminal events that include her engagement to Senator Kennedy and his assassination in 1963 and will be a valuable addition to the Kennedy archive."

It said the letters provided a tremendous insight into Mrs Kennedy's opinions and motivations and showed her to be a warm, witty and intelligent woman.

However, there has been some criticism of the college from members of the public for putting the letters on sale.

This is said to have stung the Vincentian Fathers order, which ran All Hallows as a seminary until the late 1980s and retained an involvement in the running of the college after it came under the umbrella of Dublin City University.

It is understood that the order only asserted ownership of the letters in the past few days.

Its provincial, Fr Eamon Devlin, did not return calls seeking comment last night.

Only last week the college's director of public relations, Carolanne Henry, had said there were no legal difficulties, as far as the college was aware, with pursuing the sale of the letters.

It had defended the sale, saying it did not have the resources to properly curate the letters and they therefore ran the risk of damage and deterioration.

When asked last night about the potential financial repercussions for All Hallows of the auction being cancelled, Ms Henry said: "It is difficult times for any third-level institution right now. We are not in receipt of government funding."

She said All Hallows was "exploring all avenues" to raise funds, "as would any other college".

"We are looking to increase our student numbers. We are looking at fundraising. We are looking to broaden the range and number of courses we offer."

The letters had already prompted one legal action when, earlier this week, the High Court granted temporary injunctions to Sheppard's auctioneers restraining Owen Felix O'Neill, an expert on rare books, from representing himself as the owner of the letters.

Mr O'Neill is alleged to have made copies of the letters without permission and provided them to a US newspaper.

Orders restraining Mr O'Neill from publishing any of the letters or any extracts or holding himself out as having the authority to negotiate their sale or publication were also granted by the court.

Irish Independent

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