DETROIT - Erlan Ettinger never will forget the response he got the day he took one of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks' hats to a meeting at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater.
"It was a fairly plain-looking black hat. And then I said it was Rosa Parks'. And their mouths just opened up without saying a word and tears" flowed, Mr. Ettinger said. "It was a very, very powerful moment. You could see the impact this woman has had on everyone."
Mr. Ettinger's New York City auction house has been asked by a Wayne County probate court judge in Detroit to find a buyer - preferably a museum, university, or other institution - for thousands of Mrs. Parks' personal items.
Among them are her presidential and congressional medals, a post card from Martin Luther King, Jr., and the hat Mrs. Parks is believed to have been wearing the day in December, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus, cementing her spot in civil rights history.
Mr. Ettinger, whose company, Guernsey's, has auctioned off possessions of presidents John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia's guitars, thinks the Parks collection could be worth $10 million based on the fact that King's archive sold a few years ago for $32 million.
When it comes to the civil rights movement, "Rosa Parks was its heart and soul," he said.
Mrs. Parks, the diminutive woman whose actions sparked the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott and threats that eventually drove her and her husband to Detroit, died in 2005 at age 92 with many of her most treasured possessions still with her.
There's the Presidential Medal of Freedom she was awarded by President Bill Clinton, along with the rose-colored chiffon dress she wore for the ceremony and the photo of her with the president.
There's a tattered schoolbook, How to Speak and Write Correctly, that she kept from her student days.
There's also a letter she wrote telling of King's house being bombed on a night she was with him at a mass meeting just a month after the bus boycott began. "We do not know what else is to follow these previous events, but we are trusting in God and praying for courage and determination to withstand all attempts of intimidation," Mrs. Parks wrote in her clear, flowing script.
Mrs. Parks left virtually all her estate to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, which was created to teach young people leadership and character development.
But her 13 nieces and nephews, which feuded for years with the people she appointed to handle her affairs, filed a legal challenge to Mrs. Parks' will six months after she died.
Eventually, a settlement was reached, although terms of the deal were sealed.
Guernsey's, which had inventoried all of Mrs. Parks' possessions, was asked by the court to sell them.