The Hot Bid: Washington’s lock of hair could raise $25K

Washington's lock of hair

A lock of George Washington’s (1732-1799) hair, framed and encased in ornate gilt-metal locket. Two applied notes of provenance on verso indicating the hair was ‘Cut by Mrs. Oliver Wolcot (sic.) at her house 4th & Spruce Sts. Phila 1798’ for Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson.’ Hopkinson Family Archive. Estimate $15,000-$25,000. Bunch Auctions image

What you see: A lock of George Washington’s hair, taken late in 1798 in Philadelphia. William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

The expert: William Bunch, owner of William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals.

Who was the Hopkinson family? They’re a family from Philadelphia, one of the founding families, if you would. A very significant family politically, economically and socially in colonial Philadelphia. They were friends with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, any number of people.

How did the Hopkinson family become friends with George Washington? They were involved in the Revolution and fought the war together. They were upper echelon, not in the trenches with rifles. They drove the political process. The new American government capital was in Philadelphia then, and George Washington spent a lot of time there. In those days, the city had a much smaller footprint. What was called Society Hill was the nucleus of colonial Philadelphia.

What is the story behind the lock of George Washington’s hair? What led to him agreeing to have it clipped? It was collected in 1798 by Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, who was a friend of Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson. [Wolcott served as the country’s second secretary of the treasury from 1795 to 1800; Alexander Hamilton held the post first.] George Washington was retiring from government service after having been president. He was highly revered. He just wanted to be a farmer, but society and the politics of the day would not let him do that. President John Adams wanted to get him back in service, and Washington agreed, but only if the French invaded the United States. A November 10, 1798 letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his wife, Eliza, states he was staying at the Wolcott residence in Philadelphia and that Washington “will be here about twelve to-day”. [The auction house produced a detailed story about the background of the locket. Scroll down a bit to see the text of the Hamilton letter that contains the quote.]

So we can pin down almost precisely when the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken? We have documents outside of the Hopkinson family that provide evidence? Right, right down to who was there and why they were there. The final assumption is the lock was cut to be given to Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson as a sign of friendship and camaraderie [between Mrs. Wolcott and Mrs. Hopkinson]. Washington died a year after this was taken. I’m not going to say it’s the last lock taken from him – it was common to take locks of hair at death – but it might be the last one taken in a high-profile, ceremonial setting.

The lot includes handwritten provenance notes that detail when, and for whom, the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken.

Do we know when the lock of George Washington’s hair was placed in the locket? We don’t know for sure, but I had the locket out of its frame because I wanted to test the metal to see if it was gold, and it’s not. It’s gold leaf. But it [the locket] certainly seems to be 19th century. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t mount something like that at an early time.

How do we know this is a genuine lock of George Washington’s hair? Because of where it came from. A couple dozen steamer trunks descended in the Hopkinson family. The archive was undisturbed for decades. There was no chance to play with it or mess with it. It all, pardon the expression, smells right. Given the family it comes from and the documents, books, manuscripts and family ephemera that came out of the trunks, there’s no reason to doubt anything in there.

But the hair hasn’t been subjected to DNA testing, correct? If the future owner wants to confirm it with DNA testing, they can do that. Because it came from that family archive, and it’s backed with research that shows who did what and when, it makes all the sense in the world [for it to be genuine]. I would be astounded if it proved through DNA testing not to be George Washington’s hair.

The headline on the lot listing describes this as a “substantial” lock of George Washington’s hair. What does “substantial” mean here? As opposed to half a dozen wisps. It’s a pretty good chunk of hair. If you took the strands of hair out and stretched them out, they’d be six to eight inches in length. For the most part, I’d say it’s a sandy-silvery color that some of us get as we age – not a totally silver-haired person, like I am.

Washington's lock of hair

A closeup of George Washington’s lock of hair. Bunch Auctions image

What is the locket containing the lock of George Washington’s hair like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? I don’t think so. But these objects are–inanimate objects can speak volumes about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. I’m always in awe when certain things cross my desk. All these objects have their own stories, and they all stand as silent witnesses.

How does this lock of George Washington’s hair fit that idea – how does it speak? The fact that it bore witness to a gathering of such important people, but they were no more than neighbors getting together for a farewell dinner. This is a piece of everyday life from one of the families that helped create our country. To have American history sitting on my desk is so overwhelmingly powerful … I sit in awe of the ability to touch it, handle it, learn from it and hand it on to someone who will take care of it.

I see a blue ribbon strung through the top of the locket frame. Does that imply that the locket might have been worn as a piece of jewelry? Or is it more likely it was always displayed inside a frame? I think it was a keepsake. It was never a piece of jewelry, I think. It’s too big. It might have been hung on a wall with the ribbon as decoration.

And the lock of Washington’s hair and the rest of the Hopkinson family archive – it’s all fresh to market? Never been to auction before? This is the first time any of it has been on the marketplace.

How often do you see locks of hair from this period at auction? In my experience, it’s rare. I’ve certainly never handled anything this important. Most of the time, when hair is saved as a memento, it’s from [between] the Civil War and the end of the 19th century – things such as hair jewelry.

And to clarify, what does this lot consist of? What does the winning bidder receive? The locket, which contains the hair, and the provenance notes that were fastened to the back of the frame.

What’s the world auction record for a lock of George Washington’s hair? It was at Leland’s last year [2019] and sold for $35,764. For material such as this, the market is not going to go down. I have no doubt [the lock of George Washington’s hair that he is handling] will hit the top end of the estimate, and it may well exceed it.

What condition is the locket in? I can’t find anything negative in terms of condition. It doesn’t look as if the hair has been out of the frame since it was placed in it.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because of the emotional and adrenaline boost it gives me in pursuing my auction business. Over the last 45 years, I’ve sold a lot of things. Things like this – you remember them. You just do. It’s not about the money. The money comes and goes. You cannot replace the thrill of handling things like this.

How to bid: The lock of George Washington’s hair is lot 0227 in the Francis Hopkinson Family Americana Collection sale at William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals on June 23, 2020. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

___

By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.