Judge grants injunction over Jackie Kennedy letters

High Court restrains rare books expert from representing himself as owner of valuable cache

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy wirh Fr Joseph Leonard: the archive of her correspondence with the priest will be sold at auction next month. Photograph Sheppard’s Irish Auction House.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy wirh Fr Joseph Leonard: the archive of her correspondence with the priest will be sold at auction next month. Photograph Sheppard’s Irish Auction House.

Thu, May 15, 2014, 20:00

A dispute has arisen over the letters written to an Irish priest by the late Jackie Kennedy, wife of assassinated US President John F. Kennedy, after details of them were published earlier this week.

A High Court judge has granted temporary injunctions restraining an expert on rare books representing himself as the owner of the valuable cache of letters written by Ms Kennedy. The letters are due to be auctioned in Ireland next month.

Owen Felix O’Neill, with an address in Cahir, Co Tipperary, may have taken photos of some of the letters without permission of their owners or seller and provided those photos to a US newspaper, it was also alleged.

Mr O’Neill appeared to have been “miffed” at not being mentioned in connection with the discovery when articles were published concerning the letters, which extend from 1950-1964, in The Irish Times earlier this week, Mr Justice Peter Kelly was told.

Details of some of the letters, written before and after Mrs Kennedy became first lady of the United States, have been published in The Irish Times.

The archive of her 14-year-long correspondence with Fr Joseph Leonard – a Vincentian priest who lived in All Hallows College in Drumcondra, Dublin – will be sold at an auction on June 10th.

Mr O’Neill — who was present at All Hallows College in Dublin when the existence of the letters was first disclosed to Sheppard’s auctioneers — would be entitled to commission in relation to the sale of the letters, the judge noted. When he realised they were likely to attract substantial amounts, it seemed he became disenchanted with the terms of that commission, the judge added.

The court was told Mr O’Neill walked out of a meeting with Philip Sheppard and Michael Sheppard earlier this week after making “strange comments”, the judge said. Mr O’Neill’s alleged assertion he was going to “get the letters sold” appeared to be a “ridiculous” claim when the letters were not his to sell, the judge added.

He granted additional orders restraining Mr O’Neill publishing any of the letters or any extracts or holding himself out as having the authority to negotiate their sale or publication.

Those orders were sought by Maurice Collins SC, for Sheppard’s, on the basis of concerns Mr O’Neill may have photographed some of the letters and may have been behind the publication of some of the letters by the Boston Globe this week.

The interim orders, returnable to Monday next, were granted this afternoon by Mr Justice Kelly who directed no details of the making of them could be published before 8pm after concerns were expressed Mr O’Neill might be alerted by media reports to the orders being made before they could be served on him.

MJ Fine Art Ltd, trading as Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, of Durrow, Co Laois, sought those orders, plus another order restraining Mr O’Neill passing on any confidential information or trade secrets of the firm, as part of intended proceedings where the firm is also seeking damages against Mr O’Neill.

The court was told Mr O’Neill had been a client of the firm for some years and last December agreed to act as a consultant to it concerning rare books for which he was paid expenses and commission representing 3 per cent of the “hammer price”.

There was no written contract and the firm said it had offered to pay Mr O’Neill an additional sum relating to the Kennedy letters.

In evidence, Philip Sheppard said he felt it was put under pressure to do so by Mr O’Neill and that meant Mr O’Neill was getting a percentage of the sale of material not within his particular expertise.He was concerned Mr O’Neill’s actions could adversely impact on the value of the letters which could attract bids from between €800,000 to €3m.

The letters were “effectively the autobiography” of Jackie Kennedy, a very private person, and there was “enormous interest” in them worldwide, he said.

His firm became aware of the letters after representatives from All Hallows attended a valuation evening hosted by the firm at Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green Club seeking a valuation of a 15th century manuscript and other items. As a result of that evening, representatives of the firm and Mr O’Neill later visited the college library when they were shown the letters. The college also held a painting by Sir John Lavery and portraits by the Irish artist Leo Whelan.

His firm agreed to sell the letters, extending to some 130 pages, for the college at auction and it was always understood the college’s identity as owner and seller would be kept confidential, as was the firm’s practise, Mr Sheppard said. He believed Mr O’Neill was aware of the confidentiality obligations.

It was arranged for extracts from the letters to be published in The Irish Times as a “teaser” to generate interest. When the first Irish Times articles and a supplement were published last Tuesday, Mr O’Neill appeared miffed and unhappy he was not credited with their find in some way, Mr Sheppard said.

The following day, May 14th, The Irish Times reported All Hallows owned the letters and suggested the reasons for the sale was because the college was experiencing financial difficulties. Mr Sheppard said Mr O’Neill had disclosed that information which was “a total breach of confidentiality” and a betrayal of the firm and All Hallows.

An article about the letters was also published in the Boston Globe which stated the letters had been bought by Mr O’Neill, a rare books dealer, and the Boston Globe also published what appeared to be photographed reproductions of them without authority of his firm or All Hallows, extending to some 13 pages. These were not the letters provided to The Irish Times and it was “utterly untrue” they were purchased by Mr O’Neill.

As a result of those developments, he and his cousin Michael met with Mr O’Neill hoping to resolve the matter but Mr O’Neill was “verbally aggressive” and said he was “going to war with us”, going to get the letters and get them sold, he added.