Washington Shed Here: A Collectible

Micha Cohen, NY Times - 9/5/2007
Finding a strange hair in a plate of spaghetti: bad. Finding a strand of George Washington’s hair in a pack of baseball cards: good. 

Among cards picturing third basemen and center fielders, the Topps Company, the maker of baseball trading cards and Bazooka bubble gum, inserted three George Washington “relic” cards, each with a strand of hair from the first president. Topps obtained the strands from the world’s pre-eminent historical hair collector (yes, there is such a thing), John Reznikoff. 

One of the three Washington cards turned up on eBay. The auction was to end tonight at 10:27, but the item was pulled last night with the bidding at $8,300, apparently over a violation of listing policies. 

Tracy A. Hackler, an associate publisher at Beckett Media, which produces price guides for trading cards and collectibles, said the card might be worth $10,000 or more. 

The card was found by Ken Simonis, 31, who lives in the Phoenix area and sells trading cards online. Mr. Simonis said he had nearly finished opening a case of Allen & Ginter baseball cards, the Topps brand that includes the Washington cards, when he opened a pack with a George Washington card. Beneath the words “Authentic Hair Strand,” there was a single hair. 

“Everything after that was just like, wow,” Mr. Simonis said. A single pack of the Allen & Ginter cards, which are designed to resemble the first baseball cards, from 1887, costs about $5 retail. 

Reactions to the eBay auction have been mixed, he said. “Some people e-mail me and say, ‘That’s pretty gross,’ ” he said. “I have some people that e-mail me and say, ‘I’m going to clone George Washington with this.’ ” 

EBay pulled the item last night after a member complained that it was listed in the baseball card section and that “George Washington cannot have a baseball card,’ ” Mr. Simonis said. “I’m in shock over it.” He relisted it on eBay last night. 

At Mount Vernon, Washington’s home in Virginia, the whole episode was a bit upsetting. “It’s a little shocking that Topps would put something of great value in baseball packs” said Carol Borchert Cadou, the Robert H. Smith senior curator there. The eventual buyer “might not be a responsible custodian for the piece.” 

According to the letter of authenticity that came with the hair, the locks were originally owned by Martha Washington’s granddaughter from a previous marriage, Eleanor Parke Custis. Ms. Custis was adopted by George Washington and raised at Mount Vernon. The hair was then given to Col. Levin Powell, a Revolutionary War hero and friend of the first president. 

Mr. Reznikoff, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Largest Collection of Hair from Historical Figures,” obtained Washington’s hair from Charles Hamilton, whom Mr. Reznikoff described as “the pioneer of modern hair collecting.” 

Collectors have grown familiar with cards that come with bits of game-used bats or game-worn jerseys; and Allen & Ginter also has cards with a shred of a jacket from the martial arts star Bruce Lee and with the paw print of last year’s winner of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. 

But a card with historic DNA is new. Clay Luraschi, a spokesman at Topps, said the idea for a baseball card with DNA came up in a brainstorming session. 

After deciding that putting blood or skin on a card would be too disgusting, Topps reached out to a company that sells autographs for ideas, Mr. Luraschi said. After hearing about Mr. Reznikoff’s collection, , “we were like, let’s buy the hair, and put it on a card,” Mr. Luraschi said. 

What is a strand of Washington’s hair worth? Topps would not say how much it paid for the hair, but Mr. Reznikoff gave a rough estimate of several hundred dollars, adding there are probably close to a thousand strands of Washington’s hair in existence that can be reliably documented.