Estate sale provides a rare look at the world of Justice Potter Stewart

The most committed arrived about 4 a.m., when the neighborhood of Spring Valley was still dark and coated with frost. When the doors opened six hours later, they poured into the three-story brick house — and thus commenced a sort of Black Friday for blue bloods.

It was a rare glimpse into the inner chambers of old Washington society: an estate sale at the home of the late Potter Stewart, who served as a U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1958 to 1981. Nominated by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Michigan native was often the swing vote on divided rulings.

All Saturday morning, a line snaked through the door of the Northwest Washington home as people were let in a handful at a time — aspiring lawyers, celebrity fans, antiques dealers and a few old family friends, picking through books, paintings, statues, Pyrex bowls and a collection of psychedelic gowns from the 1960s and ’70s.

“Potter Stewart signed this,” said Tracey Doellefeld of Arlington County, opening a leatherbound copy of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” pointing at where the justice had inscribed his name in fountain pen and noting the year, 1933.

“And we got his squash ball,” she added, opening her hand to reveal the small black trophy.

Stewart may be best known for a quote from an opinion he wrote in 1964, in which he wrote that hard-core pornography is difficult to define, but “I know it when I see it.”

But Bill Golden, 63, a family friend who traveled from Falmouth, Mass., for the sale, remembered him for the way his personal experience in the Navy during World War II had informed his later decisions.

“He was a very human man,” Golden said, adding that he had come in part for a final glimpse of the house where he had spent so much time four decades ago.

“I wanted to find something for my 9-year-old son,” he said, considering a jackknife but settling on a telescope. “My son is hopefully going to appreciate the vision of the justice.”

The house spilled over with family mementos, including photographs of Stewart and his wife, Mary Ann (“Andy”), with former president Ronald Reagan, former president George H.W. Bush and Rock Hudson.

The Bushes had lived down the street, and the wives were close friends. Among the contents of the house were hundreds of personal letters from former first lady Barbara Bush, which were not for sale. Andy, who is in her 90s, moved several years ago to a family home in New Hampshire, and the family decided it was time to sell this one.

In Washington, celebrity tends to be understated, but these aficionados were no less ardent than any in Los Angeles or New York.

“Washington’s the richest city in the world — people think it’s New York or Dallas, but it’s really here,” said Stephanie Kenyon, president of Sloans & Kenyon, the auction and appraisal company overseeing the sale. “There is a huge depth of income, and lawyers and others understand the value of things Potter Stewart would have had. They feel that when they’re touching that object — they’re connecting with the karma of that celebrity, and it gives them a thrill.”

Such thrill seekers might have been interested in a decorative dueling pistol for $10, a copy of “Abbey Road” for $20, or a cast iron lion and unicorn from the justice’s office in the Supreme Court, $800 for the pair.

Mike Von Husen, 29, of Herndon wondered whether a $145 set of license plates had actually belonged to the justice.

“I like unique items that were really people’s things,” he said. “I collect all different things from politicians and musicians and other random people. . . . It’s kind of like shaking their hand, in a sense.”

Ethel Smith, 80, an elephant admirer who lives in Bethesda, gasped upon spotting a small stuffed elephant with mirrors embedded in its head. “It’s sort of a piece of history,” she said, adding that she had overheard a man in line behind her saying that all he knew was that the house had belonged to “a judge or something.”

“I would’ve been embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know who Potter Stewart was,” she said. Adam Fernandez, 29, of Bethesda knew exactly whose leather briefcase he was holding.

“I’m a law student here in D.C.,” he said, beaming. “I’m in my third year, and I’m going to be a real lawyer soon, and I think I’ll be using this briefcase.”

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Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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