News & Opinion

History for sale

Buy Lincoln’s hair—and his assassin’s

The Daily Beast

June 22, 2016

If historically significant hair is your thing, liberate your credit cards now.

Come September, in what the auctioners think is the first time in the same auction, a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s hair will be sold alongside a lock of hair belonging to his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Eric Brady, a spokesman for Heritage Auctions in Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast that the sale—which will take place on September 17 at Heritage Auctions’ Dallas outpost—will be historically significant. “Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, society and culture was purged of any mention of John Wilkes Booth, so anything of his is always desirable.

“In the 19th century it wasn’t considered creepy to take a lock of someone’s hair. It was socially acceptable, indeed a calling card of a president or celebrity to honor their fans. After someone died, it was an act of remembrance or tribute.”

Other locks of hair—belonging to Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant—will also be up for sale, as well as hair belonging to Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy. Some of the strands are encased, or set, in ornaments.

Human hair—the hair of the famous or notorious—is a hot auction property.

Fourteen strands of Thomas Jefferson’s hair sold for almost $7,000 recently, while a lock of David Bowie’s hair is expected to be sold for $4,000, or maybe more, this weekend. The starting bids for Bowie’s hair is are $2,000.

A lock of John Lennon’s hair sold for $35,000 in February, while—as with all objects having to do with them—the desire for a lock of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, or any other Beatle’s hair remains high, says Margaret Barrett, director of the Entertainment Memorabilia department at Heritage Auctions.

Some of Elvis’s hair sold for $115,000 in 2002, while strands of Justin Bieber’s hair secured a winning bid of just over $40,000 in 2011.

That means the Biebs was seen as more desirable than the three strands of hair from Robert E, Lee, which sold for around $19,000 in 2009, and a braided lock belonging to General Custer, which sold for over $21,000 in 2013.

Tom Slater, director of Americana Auctions at Heritage, said: “We’re very careful. Provenance is everything with hair. Often, the hair we auction comes without follicles, so you can’t do a DNA test. The supporting evidence—rigorous, trusted, verifiable documentation—is everything.”

After Booth was killed, said Slater, his body was taken to a naval vessel, where any autopsy was to be conducted.

Strict instructions were given that the body should not be tampered with in any way, but—after creating a distraction—an officer managed to lop off a lock of Booth’s hair. Or so the story-deemed-plausible goes.

The minimum opening bid for Booth’s lock of hair will be $25,000.

There will also be a log cabin-shaped item, made out of strands of Lincoln’s hair, which, said Slater, may sound odd, but in Victorian times hair was regularly used to make gift-objects like bracelets and rings.

As to why people collect hair, Slater said, “It’s the same desire to own as personal objects as possible—it’s why there’s great interest in hats and walking sticks of well-known people. Glasses are very popular. President Zachary Taylor’s gold-rimmed glasses fetched $40,000. And you can’t get any more intimate or close to someone than owning their hair. This is a way to feel closely connected to that person.”

While auctions of a well-known person’s possessions have been popular since Victorian times, the dawn and evolution of celebrity culture has given such auctions a fresh impetus.

Slater has overseen the sale of a lock of Apache leader Geronimo’s hair, while in 2007 Heritage sold a lock of Che Guevara’s hair, which was taken by a CIA liaison agent who had accompanied the Bolivian soldiers who oversaw his execution.

The hair sold for $119,000, Slater recalled, but not before protests from around the world that it was sacrilege to be “trafficking” in Guevara’s body parts.

What would Slater say to those who object morally to the sale of someone’s hair? He laughs. “I’d say, ‘Don’t collect it.’ It’s perfectly legal. It comes down to a matter of taste.”

There had also been objections from Native Americans over the sale of three guns recovered from the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, “although those guns had been owned and sold respectively by the families that had owned them,” insists Slater.

Both dedicated collectors of memorabilia as well as dedicated fans of individual public figures cluster around hair auctions; the scale of their devotion not only dictating how much they will pay, but how much they drive the prices up during aggressive bidding.

Don’t expect the celebrity hair market to dwindle: as Slater points out, a lock of hair can still mean thousands of individual hair strands.

He knows of sellers who sell the hair, at perhaps three strands at a time. “On a bad day, you can get $800-$1000 for them, and on a good day, $2500.”

Barrett says the typical buyer at celebrity possessions’ auctions is older, just because of the price of objects on sale; but millennial buyers are entering the market, and buying things for the $100-400 range to indulge their passions, or begin what will become larger collections.

A passionate devotee of the Golden Age of Hollywood and longtime stars, Barrett is particularly anticipating upcoming auctions of Mae West (“she was wearing platform shoes, beautifully made, fifty years before Gaga”), Shirley Temple, and Linda Ronstadt’s possessions and personal items, like West’s bank books, which showed she was depositing $30,000 checks into her accounts during the Great Depression.

Slater’s dream hair auction would feature strands from the astronauts who walked on the moon during the historic Apollo 11 mission of 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. “They walked on the surface of the moon, and so by definition have hair or follicles that have been on the surface of the moon. Kennedy hair is also very desirable, and nobody yet has tried to sell a lock of Bill Clinton’s hair.”

The fascination with buying and selling hair will not end, says Slater. “Hair is very durable. After a couple of hundred years, bodies and bones disintegrate, but not hair. The locks I come into contact with look like they could have been cut yesterday.”

For Barrett, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Brad Pitt’s hair is the most desirable among contemporary figures. She wryly acknowledges that the most famous hair in the world right now belongs to Donald Trump. “The question is, would someone want a lock of it? I don’t know. I would say, right now, on the record, no they would not.”