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At Wildflower Gala, a collection of LBJ treasures

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

One of the things that distinguishes the annual Wildflower Gala is its simplicity. The dignified but relaxed affair is a dinner. Under a tent. At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. That's it.

As long as one realizes that: 1) the exquisite dinner is prepared by the Four Seasons Hotel, 2) the Wildflower Center is among the most delectable places imaginable on a spring night and 3) the tent shelters some of the most astute Austinites and visitors from the fields of education, politics, business, charity, design and letters.

Best of all: The organizers let us be. There's no program. No live auction. Two people spoke from the dais. The right two: Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb.

Orating with the clarity of an old-time politician on the stump, Luci, the younger daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, encouraged the guests to wish her late mother a happy 100th birthday. She also urged backers of the center that bears her mother's name to bid on the (blessedly) silent auction of nature art inside.

Unexpectedly, Robb spoke. The elder sister, despite her board leadership and longtime devotion to literacy programs, doesn't address Austin audiences often. Yet, here she announced a special project that deserves detailed explanation.

You see, Robb had sifted through memorabilia at her Virginia house to present the "LBJ Collection," on sale to benefit the University of Texas-linked environmental center. The bidding, partially online, ends Saturday at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. One hundred percent of the net proceeds will go to the center, and each lot comes with a signed letter of authentication from Robb.

None of the jewelry, statuary, glassware, medallions, scarves, paintings, silverware or other items are state gifts. Yet some were made especially for the president and first lady.

Some items jumped off the pages of the auction's 52-page catalog. For instance, LBJ's 14K gold cigarette case monogrammed "LBJ," estimated sale price between $3,500 and $4,500. Another, a rare copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Sensitive Plant," one of Lady Bird's favorite books, also bearing her signature, is expected to go for $300-$400.

Some pieces, like a pair of Steuben crystal eagles ($900-$1,200), formerly decorated the Texas White House at the LBJ Ranch. Others are baubles, like Longhorn or Alamo cufflinks, that might — or might not — have been worn by the presidential pair.

Someone will want LBJ's tan leather briefcase ($400-$600) or Lady Bird's personal Kalimar binoculars by Zeika Optic with case ($400-$600). I'm no expert, but I'm convinced that some of these estimates are quite low, given the emotional and historical connotations.

The personal links of auction items to the Johnsons are not always clear to the outsider. But consider a streamlined Greek sterling silver cigar box with a mounted tetradrachm coin bearing the effigy of Alexander the Great and dating from the Fourth Century BC ($1,200-$1,800).

Doesn't matter if the Johnsons treasured it personally. It's divine.

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com