After a brief memorial service in Memphis on April 5, 1968, people stand around the Cadillac hearse that would carry the body of Martin Luther King Jr. to the airport. (AP photo)
Photo: AP file
Photo: AP file

Hearse that carried King’s body in Memphis up for sale: $2.5 million

‘An eternal symbol of the struggle of the oppressed’

The hearse that carried the body of Martin Luther King Jr. through Memphis — from the hospital to the funeral home, and from the funeral home to the airport — is for sale. The asking price: $2.5 million.

Gary Zimet, a Los Angeles-based dealer, is acting as broker for the sale on behalf of the anonymous seller, through Zimet’s company Moments in Time, which he said deals with “original historical materials.”

Zimet says his client hopes someone will buy the vehicle and donate it to a museum. The client will not do so himself because, he says, he needs to recover his investment in buying and restoring the vehicle.

At the same time he is trying to sell the King hearse, Zimet is attempting to auction off the cars in which Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were shot and killed. On his website, Zimet is also selling a 1932 Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Annual containing racial epithets; the copy of John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album that he signed for Mark David Chapman, who later killed Lennon; and Schindler’s List. Yes, Schindler’s List.

“This is an extraordinary piece of history, that is a tribute to this martyr,” Zimet said of the hearse. “Although a hearse is a lurid thing to consider; nothing about civil rights is pretty. The harder something is to look at, the easier it is to embrace.”

On the web page on which he offers the hearse for sale, Zimet says, “This important artifact … stands today as a solemn reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by Dr. King with his own life; it is an eternal symbol of the collective struggle of the oppressed; and it is nothing short of true National Treasure.”

‘Bring it to auction, see what it sells for’

The sale of high-priced cars is not unprecedented. In 2016, a 1957 Ferrari 335 S Spider Scaglietti was auctioned in Paris for $35.7 million. A 1955 Jaguar D-Type was sold in California for $21.7 million in 2016.

Steve Linden, an authority on vintage cars who sometimes serves as an expert witness in court cases, said there could be a market for the hearse. 

“There are people who collect cars as historical memorabilia, not as cars,” said Linden, the owner of Specialized Vintage Vehicle Services in New York. “I don’t know what a vehicle is worth. The only way is to bring it to auction and see what it sells for.”

One comparable sale might be that of the Lincoln Continental that carried President John F. Kennedy through Fort Worth on Nov. 22, 1963, on his way to the airport for his flight to Dallas. In 2013, a North Carolina buyer bought it for $318,000.

The car in which Kennedy was shot in Dallas was impounded by the Secret Service and is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.

Funeral procession: two mules pull the wagon that carried the remains of Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Atlanta on April 9, 1968. The wagon was acquired by the King family and donated to the National Park Service, which is making it the centerpiece of an exhibit opening April 4 at the King National Historic Site in Atlanta. (AP photo)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After King’s funeral, his casket was carried in a rickety wagon through the streets of Atlanta by two mules named Ada and Bell. That wagon was later sold to the King family, and the family donated it to the National Park Service.

Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, said the wagon will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit that will open on April 4, the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

‘Hard to come up with a dollar figure’

Richard Flowers, who works at R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home in Memphis, said that shortly after April 5, funeral home director R.S. Lewis traded the hearse back to the original dealer for a newer model.

It changed hands at least three times.

The Journal-Constitution contacted the anonymous owner through Zimet, the dealer in Los Angeles. He said he acquired the car about a year ago but wouldn’t disclose what he paid. Nor would he say how much he spent to restore the hearse, which is housed in Florida.

“How do you put a price on a priceless item?” the man said. “It is hard to come up with a dollar figure.”

The owner says he wants to sell the vehicle — instead of auctioning it — to someone who will promise to put it in a museum like the new Smithsonian African American History and Culture museum. He said he is not donating it to a museum personally because he needs to recover his investment in it.

Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, said the network of museums is not involved in any talks or negotiations to secure the hearse. No Smithsonian curators have been contacted, she said.

Most items spread throughout the Smithsonian are donated, although a few were purchased at auction, she said.

“A lot of people would like to give things to the Smithsonian,” St. Thomas said. “But there are a lot of decisions that have to be made. It is a process.”

Commenting for this article is being moderated by AJC editors.

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