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McClatchy Newspapers, Published December 01 2010

Original Oswald coffin going on auction block

DALLAS — The empty pine coffin that once held the body of Lee Harvey Oswald, and that for three decades Allen Baumgardner kept in a storage room at his funeral home, is going up for auction.

A funeral director knows his own mortality, he explained.

“None of us is going to be around here forever,” said Baumgardner, 68, owner of the Baumgardner funeral homes in Fort Worth and Crowley, Texas. “I just felt it was time to let go of it.”

The coffin — and other Oswald artifacts owned by Baumgardner, including a handwritten death certificate for the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy — will be sold Dec. 16 in Santa Monica, Calif., by the Nate D. Sanders auction house.

Baumgardner's collection is among many JFK-related items the auction house has put up for bid.

Bidding on the coffin will start at $1,000, but Laura Yntema, auction manager, predicted final bids of $60,000 to $100,000. So far, auction house officials have had inquiries from museums and private bidders.

“We view it as a matter of historic significance,” she said. “It's an amazing, one-of-a-kind piece.”

Baumgardner was an assistant to Paul Groody, director of what was then the Miller Funeral Home, who embalmed Oswald's body in 1963. Baumgardner was in attendance when Groody conducted an exhumation of Oswald's body in 1981.

Oswald's grave was reopened after conspiracy theorists noted that records of Oswald's height, weight and eye color differed in official records over the years.

One who shared those concerns was Michael Eddowes, a wealthy British barrister, who wrote a book that theorized that during Oswald's visit to Russia, he was switched with a Soviet agent named Alec.

The agent, not Oswald, was the real assassin of President Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Eddowes argued.

According to Gary Mack, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, Eddowes — convinced that only a new autopsy could clear up the issue — persuaded Oswald's widow, Marina, to agree to exhume the body.

When the exhumation took place in October 1981, the original coffin, a simple pine box with a curved cover, was found to have significantly deteriorated. Once the forensic examination had taken place, the body was returned in a new coffin to the original grave at Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth.

Medical examiners later announced that the body was undoubtedly Oswald's.

Baumgardner said he took the old coffin back to a storage area of the funeral home and kept it there, because no one else was much interested in its existence. He later acquired and renamed the funeral home after himself, occasionally displaying the Oswald coffin on the rare occasions when someone requested to see it.