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JFK assassin's first coffin goes on auction block

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By John Rogers
Associated Press / December 2, 2010

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LOS ANGELES—It's one of the most ghoulish -- and overlooked -- American artifacts of the 20th century: A modest wooden coffin stashed in a storage room of the Baumgardner Funeral Home in Fort Worth, Texas.

Few people had any idea that the rotting wooden box, with its rust-coated metal ornamentation, held for nearly 18 years the body of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President John F. Kennedy to death in 1963.

Occasionally someone would learn its macabre history and at first be put off by it, said funeral home owner Allen Baumgardner.

"Then they become curious and want to know everything about it," he added. "They forget about all the gory stuff because it's history."

Now history is on the auction block, Baumgardner having consigned the coffin to Nate D. Sanders Auctions of Santa Monica. Bidding opened Tuesday at $1,000, and auction manager Laura Yntema expects it could go as high as $100,000 by the time the online and phone auction closes Dec. 16.

Baumgardner was 21 and working for the Miller Funeral Home when Oswald himself was killed just two days after he shot Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

By the time Oswald's coffin was dug up in 1981, as part of an effort to put to rest conspiracy theories that he wasn't buried in it, Baumgardner had bought the mortuary and changed its name.

He was surprised to learn Oswald's burial vault had cracked over the years and water had leaked in, damaging the coffin and the body. Still, authorities identified Oswald through dental records and reburied him in Fort Worth's Rose Hill Memorial Burial Park.

Before the burial, Baumgardner traded the Oswald family a brand new coffin in exchange for the old one.

"We placed Lee in a new casket, and I just brought that one back to the funeral home," he said Wednesday. "I've had it all these years."

He also kept the original embalming equipment and paperwork.

"I just think it's time to do something with all that stuff," the soft-spoken funeral director said. "I just felt like I'm 68 years old, I think this would be a good time to go ahead and see if anybody is interested in it."

An early version of Oswald's death certificate, in which the cause of death was listed as being shot by Jack Ruby (identified by his real name, Jack Rubenstein), was being auctioned separately. Yntema said it could fetch as much as $20,000.

The certificate had to be changed because Ruby hadn't yet been convicted of killing Oswald at a Dallas police station.

The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, which is dedicated to the Kennedy assassination, has no interest in bidding on the coffin, said curator Gary Mack, adding its exhibits lean heavily toward photographs and videos.

The museum is located on the sixth floor of Dallas's old Texas School Book Depository Building, from which Oswald is believed to have opened fire on Kennedy as the president passed by in a convertible.

Baumgardner said he's hoping someone more interested in history than the coffin's macabre appeal will be the one to buy it.

Rachel Day, spokeswoman for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, declined to comment.

Mack said he expects no shortage of bidders, adding that Kennedy's death and its circumstances continue to fascinate people 47 years later. The Sixth Floor Museum attracts more than 325,000 visitors a year.

"My experience as a curator has been, if people have room and it's a Kennedy item, they will collect it," Mack said.