By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Of course you are dying to see Jeane Dixon's crystal ball first. And here it is. It made the trip to the auction house in someone's lap and then was placed in an illuminated vitrine for safekeeping. It was the celebrated seer's most powerful tool, or prop, if you don't believe in soothsaying, astrology and other hocus-pocus.
But so many do believe, and that's why we're here at Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers in Chevy Chase, watching them sort through 500 boxes of Dixon's worldly (and otherworldly) possessions, which just arrived on five trucks.
Dixon, who died in Washington in 1997, was at one time the most celebrated psychic in America, if not the English-speaking world. She was also a fixture in Washington, a grand doyenne who corresponded with presidents and was one of Nancy Reagan's astrologers. She grew wealthy as a nationally syndicated columnist and author of seven books. Her most famous prediction was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Okay, she also said that we would be in World War III with China in 1958 and that we'd have a female president by now.)
On July 26, virtually everything the prognosticator owned in her Dupont Circle townhouse will be sold to the highest bidder. After a five-day exhibition starting Tuesday, all of the items -- Dixon's 19th-century alms box, files of typed transcripts of her visions, her Chanel hats, 80 pieces of furniture and her 1993 datebook filled with celebrity birthdays and astrological notations -- will be sold to the highest bidder.
"This discovery is fused with spiritual essence," says Stephanie Kenyon, president of the auction house, sounding a bit like Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawney, the divination teacher from the "Harry Potter" movies. Kenyon has spent 32 years in the auction business, sorting through possessions of Washington's rich and famous and not-so-famous. For this sale she didn't just hope the stars would align -- she researched the most auspicious date to hold it.
"We are supposed to be levelheaded people," she says, "but we have to get into the spirit of this."
The auction is likely to bring out antique collectors and bidders who want a piece of anything Dixon may have touched, whether a cat show ribbon, a Victorian chair or a creepy, enormous, 18th-century Italian gilded mirror with two carved satyrs with cloven feet.
Kenyon points out a navy parasol with a silver handle engraved with Dixon's name.
"Let's not polish it," she instructs her staff. "We may wipe away some of her karma."
Dixon kept everything. There are several letters from Ronald Reagan to Dixon and her husband, James, a Washington real estate executive who died in 1984, plus books, letters and telegrams from Billy Graham, Brigitte Bardot, Betty Ford, John Glenn, Joan Crawford, Richard Nixon and Harry Truman. There is a framed copy of a 1991 Senate roll-call vote on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with a cryptic notation, "Dear Mrs. Dixon, Wow. You hit it right on the head. Many heartfelt thanks. Love, J.P."
"It seems like the whole world was consulting her," Kenyon says.
Dixon died of a heart attack at either 79 or 93, depending on whom you believe. She had no children. Many of her possessions ended up with Washington investor and banker Leo M. Bernstein. In 2002, he put them on display at the Jeane Dixon Museum and Library in Strasburg, Va., which he founded. Bernstein, who had a yen for psychic phenomena himself and happened to be Dixon's banker, died last year. Members of Bernstein's family involved in his arts and history foundation, in consultation with Dixon's own children's foundation, decided to sell her possessions, according to Kenyon.
Dixon's spirit seems to be everywhere in the auction house. A life-size portrait of the psychic oversees the staff as they treasure-hunt through boxes, unpacking and cataloguing items. Early on, they unearthed a mother lode of religious/mystical ephemera tied up with scapulars between the mattress and box spring in Dixon's own bed -- which she said was owned by Empress Eugénie of France -- where she experienced some of her famous visions. Tucked in the bundle: a dried rose from Fátima, the Portuguese city famous as the site of religious visions; a document in Latin folded around a religious relic; and a white handkerchief with an embroidered cat and hieroglyphic-type symbols.
Dixon, who was born in Wisconsin, was a child when she was told by a Gypsy (of course) that she had amazing patterns in her palms. She shared her psychic visions and telepathic messages with a vast public. In 1956, she was quoted by Parade magazine as saying a tall, blue-eyed young Democrat with thick brown hair would be elected president in 1960, and would die in office. Dixon insisted that she told her interviewer that the president would be assassinated but that detail was withheld.
Her fame was sealed when Kennedy was shot. Ruth Montgomery's 1965 biography of Dixon, "A Gift of Prophecy," sold more than 3 million copies. A household name in the 1960s and 1970s, Dixon was an afternoon talk show regular. Her annual predictions on Dolly, Burt and Jackie were splashed across tabloids and digested over breakfast.
Thirty years ago, she predicted that Prince Charles would have a long wait before he became king. In 1981, she annoyed Sissy Spacek by predicting the actress would give birth to a baby girl the following year. Spacek retorted that she would make that decision, "not Jeane Dixon." Spacek gave birth to a daughter in July 1982.
The sale has Sloans & Kenyon cranking. Bean, a 27-pound Maine coon cat, was brought in to model the chunky rhinestone collar of Dixon's mystical pet "Mike the MajiCat" for the $15 auction catalogue. Document consultant Dale Sorenson is sifting through boxes labeled "Dog Horoscopes" and "Nostradamus." He's found a Playboy magazine tagged for Dixon to use in trying to figure out where Jimmy Hoffa was buried. The Dickensian warren of storage rooms is bursting with her Bob Mackie sequined evening gown in what looks like a size 2; books on astronomy and paranormal studies, files of fan mail; and Laura Ashley bed linens. Dixon's personal desk, an oak Renaissance-style model, is said by those in the supernatural know to be "pulsating with energy."
Dixon was a devout Catholic who worshiped at St. Matthew's Cathedral downtown. She amassed Madonnas, busts of cardinals and a curious plastic bottle of holy water from San Damiano, Italy, with a taped handwritten label: "the most powerful water the earth has ever seen." (It also warns you to say three Hail Marys before giving it to anyone.)
Some of Kenyon's employees are having fitful nights after hours of unwrapping unicorns, candelabra and tangled rosaries. "I had a dream about wars and natural disasters," says Lisa Jones, director of silver and decorative arts, as she unpacks another porcelain cherub.
Not all items are from another plane, such as the Dortmunder beer glasses and hideous hand-knitted afghan. Much of that will be sold in box lots. Kenyon declines to put a price estimate on Dixon's primary crystal ball (there are several others), but thinks it will get a lot of action. She says the 376 lots might normally be worth $100,000 to $200,000, but it's difficult to determine how much Dixon's provenance could add.
She isn't making predictions about what the most coveted Dixonalia will turn out to be, but says, "I trust she will direct the items to the proper buyer."