- Interest in the presidential hair market surged during the pandemic, as buyers, cooped up at home, splurged on collectibles.
- The most valuable Custer is Abraham Lincoln's. Shorn off on the night of his assassination, it sold for $81,250.
- Jared Cohen sources much of his collection from John Reznikoff, who's listed in the Guiness Book of World Records.
A few weeks ago, Jared Cohen, a Google executive, made the 90-minute trek from his Manhattan apartment to the sleepy suburb of Wilton, Connecticut, to purchase 24 hairs from the head of John Tyler, America's 10th president.
The seller was John Reznikoff, an auctioneer and authenticator who, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, owns the world's largest collection of presidential hair.
Reznikoff has samples from 25 former presidents and from celebrities like Edgar Allen Poe, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon Bonaparte. An exquisite specimen of Lincoln's deathbed lock is among his most prized possessions. His collection, which he has been assembling for three decades, is so renowned that his JFK strands were used to disprove a Texas man's claims that he was an heir of Camelot. Reznikoff was also the inspiration for a character in a 2009 Law & Order episode about a presidential paternity case.
Reznikoff has never had his private collection appraised and he hates to part with any of it. Cohen, a former advisor to several Secretaries of State, and author of "Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America," is one of his only clients.
Reznikoff stores his locks in a filing cabinet in a temperature-controlled room in his 6,000-square-foot home office. "I keep it organized in case I want to find this or that and it keeps it away from the elements and safe from theft," he said.
The vault is stuffy; no air conditioning. Security cameras are everywhere. Staring into a magnifying glass, Reznikoff works with the care of a jeweler and the precision of a surgeon, using a pair of the tweezers to tease out a specimen.
Cohen, an avid collector of early American documents and the drinking vessels of historic figures including Ronald Reagan's mug, has been collecting the hair of US presidents for a decade. He and Reznikoff had spent the previous week in careful negotiations to acquire this particular artifact.
"He's very convincing. I can't resist him," says Reznikoff. "He's probably one of the few people who I have sold multiple things to because he is really passionate and I feel that somebody who has that kind of passion I want to satisfy him."
As Reznikoff worked, Cohen documented his every movement through the lens of his smartphone camera, lest the value of his quarry instantly evaporate.
"If one of the strands separates and lands on the table, it's done. You have to throw it away. It loses its provenance," Cohen says. "I like to micromanage the extraction of my locks from his larger locks. If you aren't there in person you can't document the transition."
That night, back home in Manhattan, Cohen waited for his kids to go to sleep before setting his treasure on his desk. Each transfer must be done in total stillness. He painstakingly transferred the strands with a pair of tweezers onto a ribbon, which he then slowly worked into a knot. He then pressed the tufts between two panes of framed museum glass.
"If the hair blows away, a piece of history that spent 150 years getting to you is lost and it is all your fault," he says. "George Washington's hair deserves to be preserved. He never imagined an air conditioner disrupting that."
Cohen is just one of the avid hobbyists who dream of plucking the hairs from heads of state.
Sales happen at antiquarian book fairs, auction houses, or online marketplaces. Prices for presidential hair samples sold through auction houses and e-commerce sites have tripled in the past decade, Reznikoff said. More than 300 collectors alone have bid online for his sets of solo presidential strands.
But a clump of Abraham Lincoln's mane that surgeons shorn off the night of his assassination is believed to be the most valuable presidential mop in existence. Last year, four score and seven strands of Lincoln's locks attached to a telegram were sold at Boston-based RR Auction for $81,250.
Hair is generally on offer as part of a trove of documents that also includes letters or jewelry that encased a few curls, and other related documents.
The items' heavily documented provenance, a record of ownership used to determine an object's authenticity, almost certainly enhance its worth today. That's one reason why Cohen and his ilk are so obsessed with presidential hair in the first place.
Reznikoff authenticates hair samples for auction houses and law enforcement agencies by analyzing the documents that can often accompany the follicles. He compares the handwriting with known examples of their other work to determine if they share authorship. Sometimes he'll even use microscopes and a video spectral comparator to enlarge a hair sample and examine its thickness and color.
"Any relic simply by its nature requires a leap of faith," Reznikoff said. "The only way to be 1000 percent sure is DNA testing with a known relative.
According to Reznikoff, high net worth investors, including hedge funders, lawyers, bankers, and real estate developers, have increasingly been buying from private dealers and at auctions. Interest in the presidential hair market also surged during the pandemic, as wealthy individuals cooped up at home splurged on all kinds of collectibles easily accessible online.
"There's a giant new audience online that realizes there are tremendous items like rare books and strands of hair available," Reznikoff said. "They're not traveling, they're not going to France this year. That's $20 grand they have to burn."
'You can't be insecure about it'
Cohen started acquiring historic memorabilia when he was eight years old and saw a bag of campaign buttons at a flea market on Broadway and Grand Street. As a kid, Cohen would beg his parents for presidential souvenirs on his birthday and for his bar mitzvah.
"It's the only intellectual thing in my life that has been consistent since I was a little boy and that's a really pure and special thing," he says. "For me it's the closest I can get to experiencing the history I am so fascinated by."
"These items are a way for me to connect with the past. The richer the provenance the purer that connection to the past feels," he says. "It's not that I care about the value of any of it. It's the love of collecting… I'm owning to own."
The first time Cohen bought a lock of hair was 15 years ago, when Reznikoff sold him a copy of George Washington's discharge papers as president of the Continental Army, and threw in a few of Washington's follicles as well.
The biggest obstacle was bringing his wife and kids around to his newfound hobby. For a while, Cohen promised his wife he would never spend money on hair, but found himself overpaying for presidential documents and obtaining the hair - the thing he truly was after - as a kickback.
Eventually, he started buying his White House wisps directly from Reznikoff.
Now Cohen has amassed hair samples from 11 different presidents that he encased in glass frames and hung throughout his apartment. In addition to John Tyler, Cohen owns a cluster of Washington tufts, four John Adams strands, six long Lincoln strands, a "beautiful" Andrew Jackson lock, some short patches from James Buchanan, a Ronald Reagan ruff, and the only privately owned lock of Ulysses S. Grant's curls.
Even Cohen's kids can tell whose hair belongs to which president, although they still think their father's obsession is a little odd.
"Here's the thing, as a hair collector you have to own it. You can't be insecure about it," Cohen said. "This is not something you can do and be embarrassed by. It doesn't work. It is a weird hobby."
'A part of yourself'
It used to be that people traded hair all the time. Lovers would slide locks between the pages of letters or drop them into pendants.
"It was free, anybody could snip off some, it didn't decay, and it was also literally giving a part of yourself to someone," Cassandra Good, Assistant Professor of History at Marymount University, said. "So there was an intimacy to it but it wasn't an exclusive intimacy because you could give hair to so many people."
Collectors hanker for hair to connect with the past. Presidential coifs also provide a tangible link with the allure of extraordinary fame, like Elvis or Beatles memorabilia.
"We tend to want to frame our presidents as human beings who have transcended normal life," Helen Sheumaker said. "Their hair becomes an interesting relic that symbolizes that ability."
First Lady Martha Washington snipped off filaments of George Washington's hair upon request.
"People could attach emotions they had for the king to George Washington but at the same time he led them away from monarchy and kept giving up power," said Keith Beutler, the author of the forthcoming book, George Washington's Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders.
Washington's private secretary Tobias Lear even chopped off a shock from the founding father's scalp just after he was put in his casket in 1799 and distributed it to friends and family.
"They had in their view that people were going to request more of it," Beutler said. "Hair can be disbursed in smaller and smaller increments. Some of these would start out with 50 strands and over time they are parceled out across generations."
President Lincoln was even asked to donate his hair to raise money for union troops. Years later, Teddy Roosevelt paid $100 for a ring containing five strands of Lincoln's hair, which he wore for his inauguration in 1905.
The first known collection of U.S. presidential hair - a scrapbook of notable men's locks, including signers of the Declaration of Independence - was compiled by a Philadelphia lawyer named Peter Arvell Browne in the 1840s.
This inspired John Varden, an early Smithsonian curator, who began acquiring locks from commanders-in-chief for his personal reliquary in 1850. The Smithsonian acquired Varden's "Hair of Presidents" assemblage in 1883, and it remains on view at the National Museum of American History.
But in the 20th century, sharing and collecting human hair, presidential or otherwise, began to fall out of favor.
"By World War I there's a decline in the value of sentimental displays and clothing styles became more modern and streamlined," said Helen Sheumaker, Miami University of Ohio professor and author of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hair Work in America, referring to jewelry and crafts made from human hair.
But hobbyists - even if they stopped sending letters requesting locks - continued to hoard historic hair. Now collectors relied on estate sales and auctions from families unloading their 19th century heirlooms or from doctors and barbers who snipped and sold clippings from their presidential clients.
Sometimes presidential hair traveled in more roundabout ways. Washington's family gave one clipping to Marquis de La Fayette, who handed it off to Simón Bolívar, a South American statesman and revolutionary. It remained preserved in a Caracas museum until June 1970 when a Venezuelan delegation presented some of the hair embedded in jewelry to President Nixon at a state dinner.
"Nixon was a little bit annoyed that they did that. He thought it was pointless," Beutler said. "He was a hard man to impress."
Nixon later displayed the hair in the Oval Office on Washington's Birthday in February 1971. Today, the sample sits in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.
A red line
More recently, the collections have interested researchers for other reasons.
According to Beutler, the author of the book about Washington's hair, hair samples can offer a forensic window into a person, such as what their diet was like.
"[Washington] had a pretty reasonable diet…. very high in vegetables and wholesome things," he said.
Some visionaries even hope to someday clone deceased icons using the data preserved in their hair follicles.
But even hardcore hair collectors like Cohen have red lines they won't cross like owning locks from presidents who are still alive.
"I have a rule that I don't collect presidential hair of the living. I don't cross that line," Cohen said. "I think it's a little weird to collect it." (Ever self-reflective, Cohen adds: "I realize it's sort of weird for somebody who collects presidential hair to be commenting on what's weird.")
Living presidents aren't necessarily interested in parting with their hair either.
A former campaign aide to Donald Trump, whose hair sprouts from the most famous cranium in the country, said he "couldn't see Trump doing that," even though Reznikoff predicts there will be a "strong market" for Trump's hair after his death.