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Trove of Presidential Memorabilia, From Washington’s Hair to JFK’s Sweater, Is Up for Sale

RR Auction is offering a collection of nearly 300 artifacts, including a signed photo of Abraham Lincoln and a pen used by FDR

A framed display of locks of George and Martha Washington's hair is estimated to sell for upward of $75,000. (Courtesy of RR Auction)
smithsonianmag.com

A veritable treasure trove of presidential memorabilia—including a lottery ticket signed by George Washington, photographs of John F. Kennedy and his family, and documents signed by James Monroe—is now up for sale at RR Auction.

Per a statement from the Boston-based auction house, online bidding opened on February 11, ahead of Presidents’ Day, and closes tonight. The sale features 285 lots spanning the presidencies of George Washington through Joe Biden.

“We have things starting at $100 into five figures,” RR Auction Executive Vice President Bobby Livingston tells WBZ News’ Rachel Holt, “so it’s an incredible history lesson of U.S. presidents.”

Among the costliest items up for auction are locks of George and Martha Washington’s hair, which carry an estimate of $75,000. The strands are housed in an elaborate floral frame measuring 20 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches deep. In addition to the hair clippings, the frame features engravings of the couple and a gilded version of the Great Seal’s observe, which shows a bald eagle holding an olive branch in its right talon and three arrows in its left.

A lock of hair from Abraham Lincoln, estimated to sell for upward of $20,000, is also included in the auction.

A 3.5-inch lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair (Courtesy of RR Auction)
Locks of George (right) and Martha (left) Washington's hair (Courtesy of RR Auction)
A rare signed photograph of President Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad (Courtesy of RR Auction)

Collectors have gravitated toward presidential hair for years. As Cassandra Good reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2016, 19th-century Smithsonian curator John Varden compiled a collection of the first 14 presidents’ locks, each of which received its own spot in a “grid of gold-framed rectangles” now housed at the National Museum of American History. (During the Victorian era, so-called hair relics were popular on both sides of the Atlantic, with individuals exchanging locks as tangible “tokens of love and friendship,” according to JSTOR Daily’s Matthew Wills.)

Another significant item on the auction block is a signed, sepia-toned portrait of Lincoln and his son Tad looking at a photo album. Expected to sell for $75,000 or more, the 3.75- by 5.25-inch photograph “is one of only three known specimens of this particular size and pose,” per the lot listing.

Photographer Anthony Berger snapped the intimate father-son image at Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. studio on February 9, 1864. The work was widely reproduced: In 1865, Harper’s Weekly ran a modified version on its cover, and in 1984, the United States Postal Service issued stamps featuring the photograph alongside the caption “A Nation of Readers.”

Other items on offer are a check signed by James Madison, a 2011 letter from George H.W. Bush to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a photograph of Biden signed in gold ink and Kennedy’s college sweater. The crimson cardigan—adorned with the letter “H” for Harvard and white mother-of-pearl buttons—is expected to sell for around $35,000. CBS cameraman Herman Lang acquired the sweater in May 1964, when a White House staff member lent it to him because he was catching a cold.

John F. Kennedy's crimson Harvard cardigan (Courtesy of RR Auction)
A signed photograph of Bill Clinton (Courtesy of RR Auction)
A letter from George H.W. Bush to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Courtesy of RR Auction)

Additional Kennedy mementos up for sale include a rosary and religious medal, both of which were gifted in honor of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s birth in 1960, and a brooch given from Jackie Kennedy to her personal secretary that same year.

“It’s just so neat to know that this person was president and they wore it, they signed it,” says Winston Blair, a board member for the nonprofit American Political Items Collectors who personally owns an assortment of 3,000 presidential artifacts, to the New York Times’ Christina Morales. “We can once own what they held in their hands. It brings a connection.”

Artifacts that belonged to Washington, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt appeal to a broad swath of presidential artifact collectors, though modern presidents like Kennedy and Ronald Reagan probably have the most enthusiastic collector bases, according to Hyperallergic’s Cassie Packard.

Per the Times, highly contested elections—like those of 2016 and 2020—tend to result in an uptick of interest in presidential memorabilia.

“It tells the story of the United States,” Livingston explains to the Times. “History repeats itself in America. It’s all right here in this auction.”

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