Westport's Curiosity Shop

Robert Liftig, Westport Magazine - 3/1/2002
I am holding a large clump of Abraham Lincoln’s hair in my hand. It looks like a small Brillo pad with flakes of dandruff in it - and it’s encased in an antique glass-covered box.

''That's Lincoln’s hair, and the white spots could be his brain matter,'' says John Reznikoff, president of Westport’s University Archives. ''The surgeon, Dr. Charles Taft, removed it when he cleaned the bullet wound. And when Lincoln died, it became a collectible.''

Reznikoff denies any unnatural interest in the macabre, however, and reminds anyone who is within collecting distance that owning a piece of history brings you closer to it. With what’s left of the Great Emancipator in my hand, I have to agree with him.

“I’m off to China,” on of Reznikoff’s assistants interrupts him. Without missing a beat, he responds, “Bring back something from Chairman Mao.”

John Reznikoff has to be taken seriously when you consider what’s on the shelves around him: sheaves of documents signed by Josef Stalin (“Still waiting to be translated,” he says enthusiastically.) and execution orders cosigned by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering.

“I don’t really like dealing with Nazi material,” he says with a momentary flash of sadness. “My mother was a Holocaust survivor.

So the self-described “Indiana Jones of paper” ignores them and reaches for what first appears to be a carelessly tied stack of blank papers. “These are Helen Keller’s notes in Braille,” he says proudly. “I can’t read them but they feel important.”

It is impossible to speak about this collecting business without trying to understand John Reznikoff. The athletic forty-one-year-old combines a scholar’s interest in detail with a pitchman’s verve in reinterpreting the everyday detritus of the famous as contemporary treasures of the historical world. Reznikoff is a tall, tanned and just in from camp with the Navy SEALs. IF he told me he was a tennis pro and not just the proprietor of Westport’s own curiosity shop, I’d believe him.

In 1979, Reznikoff started a stamp-collecting business out of a briefcase after dropping out of Fordham University at age nineteen. Two years later, he was also trading in autographs, documents, and other memorabilia; by 2000, his company was grossing $7 million in annual revenues. Now John, his wife Tracy – a writer and former Staples High School English teacher – and their children have become another fascinating footnote in Westport’s sometimes eccentric cultural history.

John still collects autographs. In fact, his impressive glossy catalogs highlight those from U.S presidents, astronauts, signers of the Declaration of Independence, quite a few English kings and American Civil War generals, plus many famous Hollywood stars and notorious gangsters, such as Dillinger, Capone, and Clyde Barrow. Autographs remain the mainstay of his business. And the price range is staggering – from $52,000 for a letter from Albert Einstein detailing his theory of relativity, to a $120 Gerald Ford signature on an unofficial White House card, to a $9,500 Mark Twain autograph.

Complete collections of an individual’s writing being even more. The personal diaru of Confederate General Jeb Stuart, for example, is offered at $65,000. In these days of computer printouts, and autograph “signing” machines, Reznikoff says the real McCoy is becoming harder to find/ It is not just limited availability of those personally signed texts that makes them valuable, but also their provenance – the historical context in which they were produced. And authentication is everything; a collector is only as influential as his reputation. So Reznikoff employs a research staff to trace the ownership of rarities, appraise them according to market value and verify the documents’ historic importance. He even went so far as to testify against a friend who misrepresented JFK and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.

Reznikoff asks me to wait for a minute while he goes in search of two simple manila shipping envelopes. A moment later, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he shakes a small green bundle out of one of them.

“Jackie Kennedy’s bathing suit,” he says matter of factly, then empties the other envelope. “And John John’s booties.” All of which were given to Jackie’s secretary by Jackie herself.

Reznikoff, like so many other contemporary American’s, seems to have a soft spot for the Kennedys. In the middle of his research staff’s office in s secure brick building near downtown Westport is a Kennedy rocking chair given to JFK by the president of the Dominican Republic. Its authentication is hanging from the armrest in a plastic pocket: a letter describing the piece and a picture of JFK with his rocker. Reznikoff will accept $220,000 for it.

“I’m waiting for the final restoration of the limo JFK rode in just before he switched to the famous death car,” Reznikoff says. “It’s being worked on in a body shop in eastern Connecticut. And it should sell for $1 million.”

Anything, it seems, can be of interest to him. Hair, for example. One of his research assistant, Mike Pisseri, a Coleytown Middle School history teacher who has worked for Reznikoff for the past five summers, recalls a time when he used tweezers to separate some strand’s of Ronald Reagan’s hair from the archive’s presidential collection. For $500, it was sent to a collector in the Midwest along with, of course, an authenticated statement from the presidential barber and a photograph.

Reznikoff keeps folders and folders of important hair in one of the many protected vaults he maintains at secret locations throughout Fairfield County. In addition to the presidential collection, there are locks from almost everyone: from Charlotte Bronte to Napoleon, from the decapitated head of Charles I to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He even has strands of hair from the Duke of Wellington and a few stray shavings of Elvis Presley’s taken after his famous G.I. haircut. Some samples of Einstein’s hair just sold to a researcher who expects to extract the distinguished professor’s DNA.

And then there’s the Hollywood collection. A favorite clipping he loves to show is a wisp of blond curl behind plastic. At first glance, it looks like the lock of a child, innocent and natural, clipped for the sake of sentiment. But the letter of authenticity mounted beside it identifies this dyed remnant as having come from Marilyn Monroe, snipped from her head by her embalmer in 1962, shortly after her apparent suicide.

So part of Norma Jean is back in Westport. The same hair that was seen blowing in Westport’s salty air the day she rode down Main Street on a motorcycle a few months before she died is now safely housed in the vaults of University Archives. Marilyn Monroe fans can also round out their collection of memorabilia by purchasing her traveling case of her signed 1955 movie contract for Bus Stop.

There is memorabilia from the infamous, as well. While Reznikoff rejects dealing in what he calls “Charles Manson memorabilia”, he talks eagerly about having acquired “The Other Dress.” That is, Monica Lewinsky’s black negligee. Monica had an affair with a teacher, and the teacher dumped her. Apparently, Monica wanted to get even. So she gave the teacher’s wife the negligee and suggested she wear it to bed with her cheating man. If you’re interested in reading a full description of Monica’s nightie, by the way, or if you can’t wait to bid on it, you can boot up your computer and go to www.lelands.com, where it’s on the block.

Pens are another part of Reznikoff’s world. In February 2000, he acquired one of the most extensive private collections of presidential bill-signing pens in the nation. The set of sixty included pens Lincoln used to sign the Homestead Act, the one FDR used to implement Social Security and the one Harry Truman used to sign the Act for Use of Atomic Energy. There is also the one Kennedy used to officially establish the Peace Corps and another that Lyndon Johnson used to institute the Civil Rights Act.

Pens, the rich and famous, and DNA extraction all came together in 1995, when Reznikoff provided some of Lincoln’s hair to Kary Mullis, a 1991 Nobel Prizewinner in chemistry. Mullis succeeded in replicating its DNA and incorporating it into a commemorative pen, which Krone Pens then sold for $1,600.

In the memorabilia business, however, John Reznikoff has to keep a prophetic eye on the future as well as on the famous and infamous past. His Russian collection includes death mask clones of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and a nine-foot antenna from Sputnik I, a backup satellite that was never launched.

“Russia is selling everything,” he says, and points to an overstuffed gym bag on the floor. “Go on. Open it!”

Inside the bag is a cosmonaut’s used space suit, complete with silver-coated helmet, Has it been into space? No. It was used for training, he says. But he’s got one that’s been out there, which definitely makes the property more valuable.

Maybe I’d find some protective aluminum foil coating from an Apollo space shot more to my liking. What about some moon rocks?

That’s a sore point with Reznikoff. He almost owned one, but representatives from NASA showed up one day and confiscated it. The space agency declared that moon rocks are national treasures and cannot be privately owned or given away. It seems it had been given to NASA electrical engineer Joseph Healy as a souvenir (the only one ever gifted), then traded from collector to collector after the executive’s death. Reznikoff’s misadventures with NASA become a lead story in the New York Times.

As if all these items were not enough, Reznikoff still wants to show a new collectible he is sure will increase in value. And so we virtually ignore Hemingway’s custom-fit matador’s outfit (obtained from Ernest’s friend A.E. Hotchner, author of the memoir Papa Hemingway), which is hanging somewhat limply from a doorknob on a sagging coat hanger, and we make our way back to the autograph room.

For Reznikoff, revealing the prospective treasure is no laughing matter. It is scrawled on a piece of official White House stationery, written and signed in what looks like black magic marker, and it reads: “My favorite President is my Dad.”

John has been thinking of showing select pieces from his collection to young people in the area, and with Mike Pisseri’s help, this may become a reality for the Coleytown middle schoolers. It’s easy to see how holding a piece of Lincoln’s scalp for one minute would make students want to read books about the assassination or biographies of the fallen President or even study the anatomy of the brain and the medical procedures of the nineteenth century.

As we return to University Archive’s well-guarded entrance, Reznikoff points to a yellowed and authenticated photo of a modernistic concrete house with water tumbling out of it. “You can study architecture too,” he says. “’That’s Falling Water’, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright House. If you want to see the blueprints, I’ve got the originals.”

Sure. Why not? At this point no one would be surprised to see him pluck the half-eaten apple from the Garden of Eden off his shelf.