Dictator's 'Junk' for Sale: Moon Rock to a Goya

14,000 'dreadful' items given to the late Romanian leader Ceausescu to be sold.

As America is caught up in the controversial auction of John F. Kennedy's memorabilia yesterday and today, East Europe is also gearing up to sell the goods of a well-known former leader - albeit a less-respected one.

In what could be the world's most bizarre collection ever to go on the block, Romania plans the sale of 14,000 presents given to the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.

Earlier this month, dozens of workers at Bucharest's National History Museum began the daunting task of sorting through the vast collection of the Communist couple known for their extravagance.

The sale promises to be an eclectic mix of pricey kitsch and junk: A small moon rock from former President Richard Nixon, sequined slippers from an African king, Peruvian ceremonial daggers, as well as a set of flashlight batteries and a carburetor given to the despot during factory tours.

Not for the glamorous

The items hardly compare to the glamorous gowns worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, which were auctioned off last summer before her death.

The collection was exhibited in 13 halls of the museum until the 1989 revolution, when the reviled ruling couple was executed by firing squad. During those heady days, museum workers quickly transferred the items to the museum vaults. Says deputy director Nicolae Petrescu, "After years of having that dreadful collection take up so much space, we wanted to make room for real national treasures."

Mr. Petrescu hopes the auction will raise funds for the cash-strapped Ministry of Culture. How much the items will fetch on the world market is unclear, but Petrescu is optimistic, saying "every penny we make will help."

Mostly 'junk'

A brochure from the early 1980s describes the artifacts as "tokens of the love and deep respect that comrades Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu enjoyed all over the world." Asked to describe the objects in his own words, Petrescu chuckles, "Junk. They are ... how should I say this? Banal, yes?"

Endless rows of bric-a-brac line the dusty shelves of museum storage rooms: stuffed animals, national costumes, leather handbags, and a silver replica of Pakistan's Lahore Palace.

Some valuable items

As can be expected, the leader's image is emblazoned on many gift boxes, rugs, and tapestries. But although many of the objects look as if they could be purchased at a yard sale, there are some valuable ones. These include etchings by 19th-century Spanish painter Goya and a Roman sculpture from the 2nd century.

There are also hundreds of international titles and medals that the Ceausescus, renowned for their obsessive vanity, amassed during travels overseas. The "honorary distinctions" from 61 countries include the Apimondia Jubilee Medal, conferred in token of homage at the 26th International Bee-Keeping Congress in Adelaide, Australia, and the Great Girdle of the Mauritanian National Merit.

Museum official Petrescu says he can't yet say what will go on sale or who will organize the auction. He did stress that some items will stay in Romania. He sees it as his duty to keep one room intact, to "make it clear that the world's leading nations propped up the Ceausescus" and share in the blame for Romania's totalitarian past.

"We need to teach future generations the nature of the personality cult and what it does to a country," he explains.

It's hard to imagine that the crowds who bid for Diana and JFK memorabilia would want a hard hat worn by Ceausescu, but Petrescu is hopeful.

"I know we'll get rid of it all, because everyone knows who Ceausescu was," he says. "I already received two faxes from buyers in New York, and we haven't even finished our inventory."

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