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The Autograph Alternative: Human Hair

Luis Mushro's business is pieces of famous people. He sells increasingly smaller and smaller slivers of their hair on eBay, often for several hundred dollars per strand.

"Hair is a thing of beauty; it never fades yet it symbolizes growth," says the Michigan collector, who has been hocking historical hair from the heads of Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon since 1992.

It might sound strange, but hair can carry a hefty price tag. Last week, an auction house in Dallas sold some strands of hair collected from Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the slain Argentine socialist revolutionary, for $100,000. The Heritage Auction House stepped up security after receiving several threats about the upcoming event. But the threats are more likely due to the politics of the man at issue rather than the morbid-sounding practice of preserving human hair.

Collecting hair dates back centuries. It was wildly popular during the Civil War, when Robert E. Lee, for example, would more likely be asked for a lock of his hair (and some from his horse) than for an autograph, a fad that only emerged much later. Locks of Lee's hair (and his horse's) sometimes come up for sale. Thaddeus Stevens, a 19th-century Pennsylvania congressman and abolitionist, reportedly doffed his toupee and gave it to a lock-seeking woman.

Victorians would often make jewelry, lockets, and rings from locks of family hair. Cherishing such tangible tokens from the recently deceased was considered part of the grieving process.

Thus one of the main sources of hair for modern collectors is existing collections. Strands from 12 presidents are owned by the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. The framed collection was such an attraction in the nation's capital when it was first displayed at the U.S. Patent Office (before the Smithsonian's construction) that it was mentioned in city guide books, says Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the Politics and Reform division of the museum, and apparently lock lust hasn't been lost.

"It's still quite popular," Rubenstein says.

John Reznikoff holds the Guinness Book of World Records citation for the largest collection of historical hair--he now has hair from more than 100 people. He runs the University Archives, a noneducational organization that specializes in memorabilia. In the rather small community of hair aficionados, he is the default expert on famous follicles. His collection features locks from the likes of Marilyn Monroe--obtained from her embalmer--and some blood-splattered hair from Lincoln's cranium--post assassination. He donated a few strands to Ford's Theater. (Some of Lincoln's hair, incidentally, was made into a ring and given to President Theodore Roosevelt.)

"People are interested in owning a piece of history and a piece of famous people," he says. (Others have collected hair from Lincoln's convicted assassins Mary Surratt and John Wilkes Booth.)

Reznikoff ran into trouble in 2005 seeking hair from a living subject, when he purchased some of Neil Armstrong's hair from the former astronaut's barber. Armstrong was unsuccessful in blocking the sale, but Reznikoff did offer to donate several thousand dollars to Armstrong's favorite charity. The collector says that he doesn't pursue living subjects, partly out of fear that the combination of rabid fans and scissors is a dangerous brew.

Authenticating hair, meanwhile, sometimes requires a leap of faith. Reznikoff sometimes submits samples to spectrograph and color analysis, yet science can go only so far. Some fakes have been discovered through microscopic comparison with existing samples or through analysis of mitochondrial DNA. But that's possible only if a confirmed DNA sample from the subject is available for comparison.

So, how much hair do those Benjamin's buy? Since Mushro and Reznikoff are among the few dealers publicly marketing collections of hair, the worldwide market for hair s hard to measure. Auction houses and yard sales often include private collections of famous or family hair; so much depends on the sample and the presentation of the artifacts that accompany it. Rare hair strands from Napoleon, for instance, sell for more than $1,500. In the Che Guevara auction, other materials including photos of the body and a series of fingerprints lend legitimacy to the authenticity of the hair sample.

Collector Luis Mushro says that the market for historical hair has grown since his first sale more than a decade ago. Then, there were about 150 serious collectors, he says. Now, he counts around 2,000 worldwide. He has several auctions currently on eBay, from British kings and queens and American presidents to the Red Baron, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh. Mushro says he's only recently run out of follicles from Charles Dickens.

There is no industry standard for length. Collectors sell it by the inch or a fraction thereof. Sometimes it comes in 1/8-inch lengths, says Mushro, sometimes half that length.

"There isn't that much famous hair out there, so the market changes," he says. Historic hair, compared with, say, an autograph, comes cheap. A document signed by Lincoln, for example, costs $50,000 on historyforsale.com.

But it is historic hair that frequently makes news. Last month, a company created a synthetic diamond from carbon taken from Beethoven's hair and sold it for $1 million. It is reported that the composer was nearly bald near the end of his life as friends and visitors would help themselves to some of the dying man's hair. In 2001, researchers documented a variety of forensic tests conducted on strands of his hair and determined that he died from lead poisoning. The hair came from a collection of hair purchased at Sotheby's auction house.

As advances in DNA technology continue, collectors say, interest in their collections of historical human hair will only deepen.

"Just look at those mummies that they pulled out of glaciers after thousands of years--it's almost perfectly preserved," says Reznikoff. It was also a common Victorian fad to save tears in small glass vials sealed with a cork. Inevitably, though, the seal would not hold and the tears would evaporate. The little bottles, however, are now worth considerable sums to collectors.

"The great thing about hair," says Mushro, "is that it just doesn't degrade over time."

By Alex Kingsbury