Auctioneers Barrett-Jackson have finally addressed the fact that the 1963 Pontiac ambulance it's advertising as the one that transported President John F. Kennedy following his assassination is a fake. The auction house's take: Who knows? We're still selling it. UPDATED
We wrote last night about the in-depth investigation by the Professional Car Society showing that despite the hype used by Barrett-Jackson over the past three weeks, the actual ambulance was crushed in June 1986, and that this vehicle was a well-crafted imposter that had been examined and rejected several years earlier.
After our story was picked up nationally, Barrett-Jackson responded, issuing a statement and holding a press conference with far more disclaimers about Barrett-Jackson's role in researching a vehicle's history than in the buildup to the sale.
While the auction house has its own research team and performs background checks well above the legal minimum, it relies on the seller to provide that information, and makes clear in contracts that it's the seller who bears responsibility. The collector car auction business has been plagued by fakes and misidentified vehicles for years; last year Barrett-Jackson pulled one car that had supposedly belonged to Buddy Holly after doubts were raised, and it's even refunded sales when a car's provenance fell apart after the auction.
In today's statement, Barrett-Jackson executives said while they couldn't prove the car they'd talked up as delivering President Kennedy's body and his family on Nov. 22, 1963, actually did so, no one else could prove them wrong in the mists of conspiracy surrounding the assassination.
We are unable to either confirm or refute with certainty whether the vehicle offered for sale at auction tomorrow was in fact the vehicle that transported President Kennedy's casket and his family members. Based on all research and our conversations with experts around the country, we do not believe there is a person alive who can answer this question with certainty.
But Barrett-Jackson President Steve Davis said the JFK Ambulance was different because the seller had done more homework, and that the auction house was simply being transparent about its research. "We feel the only fair way to represent this car is the way we're doing it," Davis told Jalopnik. "We're letting the world decide...There's no one we've talked to that's prepared to state with 100% certainty this is or isn't the ambulance."
Instead of simply leaving the details "shrouded in mystery" as Barrett-Jackson says they are — or going back to "blogging in their basements," as Davis told the Scottsdale Republic we should do — let's review the auction house's claims versus what's been shown so far:
For example, there are credible reports that indicate there were two 1963 Pontiac Bonneville ambulances involved in the events of the night of Nov. 23, 1963, with one actually carrying President Kennedy's casket and family members and the other acting as a diversion.
The idea of two ambulances comes from the 1981 book "Best Evidence" by David Lifton, who argued that Kennedy's body was stolen from its casket, secretly transported to Walter Reed Army Hospital and altered before the autopsy in Bethesda. The "decoy ambulance" idea has been a favorite among some JFK researchers for years, but there's little proof it ever happened.
There is documentation...that directly ties the Naval Registration number of the vehicle used to transport President Kennedy's remains to the physical identification numbers that are stamped in multiple places on the vehicle consigned to our auction.
Davis confirms Barrett-Jackson turned down the same vehicle for auction last year because it didn't have enough verification to warrant the "JFK ambulance" label. He says the seller then started researching the vehicle, work which Barrett-Jackson has double-checked through several outside experts over the past few weeks.
The key portions would be the letters we wrote about on Thursday — letters dated December 1963 and January 1964 sent to and from a Navy rear admiral who retired in 1961 and was no longer in the Navy in 1963. The letters are what Davis called the car's "avenue to legitimacy," because they tie the vehicles to government service.
But when asked about the discrepancy, Davis says Barrett-Jackson can't explain it. "If they're not real, somehow someway someone put them in the food chain," Davis said, adding that if they were fakes, someone should have tried to use them to sell the JFK Ambulance before now.
The VIN numbers on the Bonneville do match its parts, and appear historically accurate, but that means it's an original vehicle; it doesn't say anything about what the ambulance was doing before it showed up at Barrett-Jackson.
The auction house's final move is to question whether the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library can be trusted with history:
There are also credible reports-and even photos-that suggest a 1963 Pontiac Bonneville ambulance involved in the situation was ordered to be destroyed in the mid-1980s. Some believe this was the original "JFK Ambulance" while others believe there is not enough proof to link the particular vehicle that was crushed with the one that actually carried the President's casket.
Yes, there's not much evidence — outside of having the same ID numbers, the same bodywork, letters from the Navy documenting the move and photographs of its destruction at the request of the Kennedy family who wanted the vehicle destroyed to avoid just the kind of spectacle Barrett-Jackson has created.
The same historians who revealed that the real JFK ambulance was faked also dug up some history on the one for sale Saturday. This ad from a California classic-car collection site shows an identical '63 Bonneville to the one in the auction, making no claim of being the actual ambulance that hauled the president. It does tout its role in two made-for-TV movies, including a 15-second appearance in "The Women Of Camelot," with Jill Hennessey opening its doors.
Davis said Barrett-Jackson had not been aware of the movie link, but that it didn't change the auctioneer's decision to "not pick a lane."
"Maybe it's an aboslote phony, maybe it's a real car, maybe it's a decoy car or maybe it's a movie car," he said. "That's part of it. It's just the nature of what it is."
The ambulance will roll across the Barrett-Jackson stage Saturday, the day reserved for the auction's most expensive vehicles. Estimates once put its value north of $1 million; the California ad offered it for $41,000. If you believe that an artifact such as this could survive an attempted crushing and disappear for decades with no proof, and bear no relation to a car prepped for a movie set, then Barrett-Jackson has a seat waiting for you.