What to say of This Assassin’s Coffin

WHEN Lee Harvey Oswald’s coffin arrived in a big crate at work the other day, my first impulse was to e-mail everyone I knew and tell them about how I was sitting a mere three feet away from one of American history’s most macabre artifacts.

“Guess what we’re auctioning” I wrote to my parents.

“He’s not still in there, is he?” my dad replied facetiously, though in case you were wondering, the body of the killer of President Kennedy was exhumed in 1981 amid conspiracy theories that a look-alike Russian agent was actually buried in place of him.

You see, a few days a week, I work at an antique house on the Westside, and my boss, Nate Sanders, an antiques aficionado who can tell a fake Bambino signature in the blink of an eye, recently acquired a smorgasbord of Oswald relics, all for sale for the first time in history.

The media has had a field day with the story – reporters milling around our office, pun-laden headlines on each of the hundreds of news stories swirling around the Internet – sensationalism at its finest.

Usually, I’m on the media side of things, the side where you call 10 times a day and don’t leave your name, don’t quit till you get that quote!

But as a writer for the auction house catalog, it’s my job to come up with punchy descriptions for the things we’re selling.

I write little tomes about the Declaration of Independence or signed baseballs, Dorothy Parker’s letters to a friend or Napoleon’s signature, the battle of Vicksburg and Enola Gay.

But a coffin? No easy feat.

In writing about antiques, you must first learn the antiquers’ parlance. And parlance do they have.

For example, if I were describing the sweater I am currently wearing in antique-speak, it’d sound something like this:

“A rare knit sweater circa 1992, with some hot sauce foxing on left sleeve and moth bites throughout. Else near fine condition. Certificate of Authenticity included.”

Even when something is really old or derelict, auctioneers have learned to abate negative verbiage effortlessly – instead of calling something crappy, you call it “in fair condition.”

But the coffin was a really hard one to write up not only because the pine box had physically endured the wear of earth for almost 20 years, but because I didn’t live through Kennedy’s assassination.

My initial attempts proved pitiful: “A beautiful wood treasure” – no. “A coffin in sub-par condition that smells like old wood” – no again. “Conspiracy theorists, look no further. Your days of look-alike, double-agent, Russian-spy, grassy-knoll questioning are over!” Too much.

I kept trying to imagine who would buy it, with a museum as one good guess and a real eccentric as an even better one.

People like to buy all kinds of weird things – dolls, Faberge eggs, shrunken heads. But I don’t judge! How can I judge when just the other day I bought an oversize glam-shot of James Franco with no remorse.

As we speak, people on eBay are bidding on a Pizza Hut breadstick with an incarnation of Czar Nicholas on it for $1,000; some dude’s “lucky” slippers for $577; Wilbur the Cornflake (a cornflake that looks like a pig) for $500; or, my personal favorite, the “Advertise on my Leg” guy, who lets people put advertisements for their business on his prosthetic leg with the promise he’ll wear shorts “90 percent of the time.” Whoopee.

Bids for the coffin are up to $20,000, and they say it could go for triple or quadruple that price. If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift, bid away.

But I’m also accepting offers on a cinnamon bun I recently acquired that looks like Mother Teresa, in near fine condition. Just sayin’.

Originally published in the Pasadena Star News December 15, 2010.

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