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At the late Clark Clifford’s 19th-century farmhouse on Rockville Pike, the signs of neglect are clearly visible. The bulkhead doors leading to the cellar are ajar, with cobwebs and thick dust apparent on the steps below. The white paint on the shingled house is flaking and chipping off. The antique furniture in the step-down sitting room is encased in the sort of grime, dust, and stains that speak of long use and aged limbs too tired to clean and polish. The curtains are faded; the wallpaper in the upstairs rooms is torn in places. The carpets have been removed from the stairs, revealing layers of white and green paint that must have formed borders offsetting the runners in different eras.
But on a recent Saturday, the walls of the home to the adviser to four presidents are still lined with photos—a laughing President Harry Truman with an impossibly young-looking Queen Elizabeth, then merely a princess; signed photos of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter; group shots of the entire Warren and Burger courts—signed by all the justices—and a slew of collegial generals and admirals.
There is also a framed publicity shot of Wonder Woman Lynda Carter, which seems incongruous at first, until you remember that she’s married to banker Robert A. Altman, with whom Clifford ran the Bank of Credit and Commerce International—and with whom he was indicted in 1991 on charges of fraud and accepting bribes in the largest banking scandal ever to rock the nation. (Altman was acquitted in 1993, and charges against Clifford were dropped, because of his advanced age and ill health.)
And everything is for sale. Including the house.
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Auctioneer Patrick S. O’Neill presides over the house and its contents, on this, the next-to-last day of the sealed-bid auction of items from the estate of Clark M. and Margery K. Clifford. Bids were taken online, at appointment-only viewings of the estate holdings, and at this open house. O’Neill and Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books worked on appraising Clark Clifford’s estate when he died, two years ago at the age of 91, going through his office archives and furnishings and forwarding materials on to the Library of Congress. After Margery Clifford passed away in April, Stypeck and O’Neill did the final appraisal on the entire estate, helping the couple’s family identify what to retain, on the basis of value and personal significance, and what to send on to the open market. “The family chose to do it in a sealed-bid format to avoid the publicity of a live auction and a flood of people in the house,” says O’Neill.
Clifford’s career in public service began in 1946, when he became a special counsel to President Truman. He helped to draft the Clifford-Elsey report warning about Soviet expansionism and also the president’s Truman Doctrine speech, initiating the policy of containment of Soviet communism. Clifford helped set up the CIA and, in 1947, the contemporary Department of Defense. In 1961, he joined Kennedy’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, becoming chairman in 1963. Clifford advised Johnson and Carter and served as secretary of defense under Johnson in 1968, after Robert McNamara resigned. In his later years, Clifford served as a prominent Washington lawyer and Democratic Brahmin, until running into trouble in the world of high finance.
Bidders on the auction lots, says O’Neill, include “people in politics who’ve known of or knew Mr. Clifford personally; dealers in the trade of political memorabilia, autographs, fine art, antiques, decorative objects; curiosity seekers; and the Cliffords’ neighbors.”
Kimberly Reed saw an ad for the sale in the Washington Post. “I’m mainly here because of who he is,” says the attorney, who works on Capitol Hill for the House Government Reform Committee. “It would be wonderful to own something that he owned…kind of like the Jackie Kennedy sale.”
A woman in a shearling coat reviews the merchandise and tells an O’Neill staffer, “I was at a party here once.” Though the woman shakes her head with a conspiratorial smile when asked her name, she notes that her husband knew Clifford professionally from the Department of Defense and that she has come for “nostalgia.”
There are many reasons people might choose to buy items, such as a mahogany card table with a tapered octagonal pedestal and four scrolled feet, owned by famous historical and political figures. You can point to it, nestled between your armchairs, during cocktail parties and casually remark, “That belonged to Clark Clifford, the former secretary of defense” before launching into a tale of how you found it online or at this sale at his house, and how he tried to stop the Vietnam War after McNamara resigned and was a Washington grandee for years and years before being tarnished by the BCCI scandal—”Really, he must have known!”—during the ’80s.
By opening your home to another family’s heirlooms, you also join the family in a way, serving as a living memorial to the deceased each time you speak of the provenance of your new chair. Antique objects may also hold potential secrets, such as sentence fragments half-visible in the varnish on a table, impressed long ago by some firm hand using an early ballpoint pen, or a forgotten set of family photos tucked into a corner behind a drawer.
Then, of course, there is the value of the objects themselves. The bidding on a signed portrait photograph of Kennedy begins at $1,000. A photo of a smirking then-Senator Johnson, also signed, goes on sale for $400, perhaps reflecting his lesser historical popularity. Truman is offered for $300 and Carter for just $200—or less than a pair of antique carved-jade fish.
A May 13, 1945, decree by Truman proclaiming a day of prayer and thanks for the surrender of Germany—signed by the president and given to the Cliffords that year as a Christmas gift—garners much attention. “The proclamation received a tremendous number of bids,” says O’Neill.
So does a Feb. 20, 1949, letter from Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. Addressed to Clifford, the typewritten missive notes: “In these days of struggle and readjustment, we are desperately in need of understanding friendships, and it is good to know that we have in you a genuine friend of our cause. I assure you, and I wish you would in turn assure your great Chief, that we desire nothing but peace and amity with our neighbors, and that we have no aggressive designs on any of them.”
Offered at $250, in a lot that includes a signed copy of Weizmann’s autobiography, the letter is on Weizmann’s personal stationary from his Rehovot home. But beneath “Rehovot,” the word “Palestine” is crossed out with six firmly marked capital Xs, and the word “Israel” is defiantly typed in its stead.
Two Tabriz rugs reportedly given to Clifford by the shah of Iran also draw some attention on this Saturday afternoon. Estelle Stolz eyes the rugs with great interest, mentally making notes about how they might fit into a different spatial configuration. A calligrapher who worked in the White House under the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, the soft-spoken Stolz wears an elegant tweed jacket and delicate, shimmering coral lipstick. A small hair clip holds back a lock on the right side of her face. “I didn’t know them,” she says quietly of the Cliffords, even though she saw the goings-on at their place from her home nearby. “They were very nice neighbors.”
JoAnne Welsh, a blonde in thick socks with an American-flag design on her shirt, has come in search of plates. The author of Chinz Ceramics, an amply illustrated tome on the popular 19th-century ceramics and pottery, she says she’s “always looking for chinz. There is none here.” That doesn’t stop her from oohing and ahhing over an oyster plate decorated in pink and green florals, the “most feminine” she’s ever seen.
Other serving implements also point to a more refined sensibility. In an upstairs room holding lots divided by red ribbons, a set of 19 silver asparagus tongs evokes images of elegant men and women nibbling daintily on the long vegetables. Downstairs, Welsh admires a 1788 George III silver tea caddy with a gadrooned border. Here, she says, “you can touch and feel, like in a museum you can’t.”
Most of the merchandise’s value, however, seems to derive not from nostalgia, but from the market. On Tuesday, O’Neill tells me that the signed portrait of Kennedy sold for $3,600, the signed proclamation of the surrender of Germany for $6,000. Various pieces of unique and beautifully maintained antique furniture—shown in the living room—went for $3,800 to $7,000. A Steinway grand piano from 1952 sold for $9,000, and the signed memoir and letter from Weizmann went for a whopping 40 times the opening bid: $10,000. But it was a personal letter from Truman to Clifford, dated May 9, 1948, that brought the highest price in the house. The handwritten note, discussing Palestine, a railroad strike, and “the D—n Republicans,” commanded a bid of $22,000. CP