Article Thumbnail

Untangling the Hairy World of Historical Hair Collectors

Brain matter and nefarious barbers are all hazards serious collectors are willing to navigate to touch a little part of history

If you’re looking for a strand of Justin Bieber’s hair, it’s going to cost you. The going rate for that sort of thing is £399, which translates to a little over $500 in U.S. money. That’s pretty much standard, as it’s also the price for a single strand of Keanu Reeves’ hair, Liam Neeson’s hair, or at the more historical level, even a strand from various kings of England. If you’re looking for an entire lock of Honest Abe Lincoln’s hair though, that’s going to cost you a bit more — like, tens of thousands of dollars more. Oh, and do you want some brain matter with that? Because brain matter costs extra.

Welcome to the world of famous and historical hair collecting, a hobby where collectors spend hundreds, and sometimes thousands, for a literal piece of history. “There are thousands of hair collectors out there,” says John Reznikoff, owner of University Archives, which deals in hair, autographs and other memorabilia. Hair collecting might seem bizarre to the unacquainted, but Reznikoff insists that it’s not that strange. “Your mom probably has a lock of your baby hair,” he says, “and there’s a tradition of cutting a piece of hair of someone who died and placing that in jewelry.” 

That example immediately brought to mind something I’d read in one of my favorite books, the Theodore Roosevelt biography Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. On the eve of his second inauguration, Roosevelt was given a gift by his secretary of state, John Hay, who had served as Lincoln’s private secretary. It was a ring containing hair of The Great Empancipator, which Hay had purchased for $100 from the son of the man who performed Lincoln’s autopsy. Roosevelt, touched by the gesture, wrote Hay a letter of thanks and wore the ring to his inauguration. 

Roosevelt, wearing the ring containing Lincoln’s hair.

Hay was far from the only one who bought a bit of the 16th president’s hair, as Lincoln’s are still some of the most sought-after samples by hair collectors. Back in September, a lock of Lincoln’s hair went for $81,000 to an unidentified buyer, but Reznikoff — who is recognized by the Guinness Book as owning the world’s largest hair collection — tells me, “The lock that I have in my collection is far superior to that lock in that it’s bigger and has more provenance.” And though that recently auctioned bit of Lincoln’s hair also contained a blood-smeared telegraph, Reznikoff’s lock has a bit of brain matter attached, so you know, even better. 

If you’re wondering what “provenance” is, Reznikoff explains that it’s the key element of the hair-collecting world. “That’s not a place in Rhode Island — that’s Providence,” he jokes. “Provenance is the history of the hair, where it’s been and the documents that are with it.” Provenance is, essentially, how a collector knows what they’re getting. “Still, there’s always a leap of faith,” Reznikoff admits. 

Generally, the hair comes from one of three different places — the family of the famous person; their autopsy; or their barber. It’s the latter that has spawned the most controversy. Famously, Elvis Presley’s barber squirreled away lots of The King of Rock and Roll’s hair — an entire jar of it sold at auction in 2012 for $17,000. A similar thing happened to the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, when his barber began selling off bits of his hair. Armstrong, being still alive when this happened, got pretty pissed about it, denouncing the barber and demanding the hair back from the buyer. That buyer was Reznikoff, who tells me, “Neil Armstrong wanted his hair back, but I said no.” Armstrong sued Reznikoff over the matter, but Reznikoff says Armstrong eventually backed down when Reznikoff offered to make a sizable donation to charity instead. “He’s dead now, so I’m not worried about it anymore,” Reznikoff adds. 

The question of legality is one that Reznikoff and Daniel Wade, manager of the U.K.’s Paul Fraser Collectibles, both seem somewhat reluctant to talk about. Part of that, of course, is because this is their lifeblood, but also because this does seem to be a bit of a legal gray area. After all, if someone goes to the barber and leaves their hair on the floor, does the barber now own that hair? The answer seems to be unclear, and it sounds like the hair-collecting world would like for it to stay that way.

But what exactly is the appeal of owning someone’s hair? 

Wade explains that it’s much like autograph collecting, “but famous hair goes one step beyond. It’s not just their mark on a piece of paper, it was actually a piece of this famous person. It just gets you closer to that celebrity or historical figure than anything else possibly can.” When looked through the lens of history, it does begin to make a little bit more sense. Grabbing clumps of hair out of Lincoln’s shattered skull seems downright ghoulish, but Wade explains that hair collecting “was very popular in Victorian times.” Rather than ask a famous person for an autograph, it wasn’t unusual for an admirer to request a lock of one’s hair, which again, makes more sense when you consider how rare photographs were at the time. 

Since then, hair collecting has never completely gone away, and though celebrities like Bieber might have a lock of their hair sell for $40,000, Reznikoff insists that most collectors have more of an eye toward great historical figures. For example, Reznikoff tells me he possesses the hair of Beethoven, Edgar Allan Poe, George Washington, Marilyn Monroe and the only known hair sample of Albert Einstein (just to name a few). It’s a collection that he’s grown over the past 30 years after he got started by buying a sizable collection off of another collector who was trying to fund a different hobby. 

But while an interest in history has been the primary motivation for this community, Reznikoff explains that, in recent years, hair collecting has grown in part because of a greater understanding of DNA. Indeed, his own collection was used to disprove someone claiming to be the son of John F. Kennedy. To take things further, Reznikoff says, “People now even approach the market with a Jurassic Park-type mentality, and that maybe they’ll be able to clone these people in the future.” How seriously he believes in that avenue isn’t exactly clear, but Reznikoff remarks that “it doesn’t hurt for me to have a card catalog of the most famous people in history.” 

That prospect, of course, opens up way more ethical issues than just barbers with a savvy side hustle, as the morality of cloning is still hotly debated. If cloning these famous people ever did work out though, one can only imagine what Clone Abraham Lincoln would have to say about all of these people making a buck off of clumps of his brain-matted hair.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information