Yes, I bid on Abe Lincoln's hair

When I collected baseball cards, you had to buy them from other humans. Now you can get almost anything you want, anonymously, on the Internet -- and people want ever-stranger things.

Published December 5, 2002 7:37PM (EST)

When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards -- old baseball cards. Boy, did I get a lot of funny looks.

Today, if you have a collection, whether it's of Elvis Presley's hair, the many typewriters of Ann Landers, or every check ever made out by Ty Cobb, and if you didn't obtain at least part of that collection via auction, there would appear to be something wrong with you.

We've become eBay Nation.

The process by which collecting something outside the mainstream (art, stamps and coins) went from being a dirty secret to an interesting quirk took ages. The next step, to pervasive hobby, went faster than the average eBay auction -- and obviously it's primarily because of the Internet. Today, not only can you buy the kitsch of the world from the comfort of your laptop, but, perhaps more important, you don't have to ask anybody for it. If you're hopelessly addicted to memorabilia from the Schwebebahn -- the monorail suspended above the river in Wuppertal, Germany -- you no longer have to admit this to anybody but the guy from whom you're buying its commemorative ashtray.

EBay and its rivals have brought not just the collections, but also the collectors, out of the closet. Thirty years ago I was one of literally half a dozen kids involved in the definitely grimy card-collecting game. Devotees met almost in secret until the advent of twice-annual "conventions" in the basement of a New York union hall beginning in 1973. The scene -- table after table stacked with old cards, books, photos and occasionally equipment; buyers and sellers, nearly all of them wizened adults, spending literally tens of dollars on this junk -- never failed to bring out gawkers. At least one local television news crew attended each of the first eight or nine shows, at which point the novelty, and the suspicion that we were all nuts, began to fade.

The extraordinary appreciation of the value of sports stuff no doubt hastened the newfound respectability of collecting anything and everything. Only within the last decade or so -- more or less since the Jackie Onassis auction -- have the quirkier fields burst into prominence. This transmogrification almost parallels the journey of the Montgomery, Ala., city bus that Rosa Parks boarded in 1955 on her way to history. The vehicle remained in service for a time, then sat unused in a garage, and was finally junked. Last year, a company called MastroNet, which runs Web and phone sports and "Americana" auctions almost monthly, sold the bus -- complete with its "Cleveland Ave." destination sign -- for a mind-boggling $492,000.

The political auction has taken off, too, to the point that one almost expects to see influence being sold not in smoke-filled rooms, but being offered, with a money-back guarantee, on the Web. Two unused tickets to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 have been sold in the last six weeks alone. The first fetched nearly $5,000. A campaign pin from the woefully underfunded 1920 Democratic presidential ticket of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt sold for $27,000. Over the years, a series of copies of the note by which Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon -- authentically signed by Ford for an undisclosed fee -- have been sold for several thousand apiece. One of the actual Broward County, Fla., voting machines that helped make the 2000 election linger so long in everyone's consciousness has been put up for bid. "This fascinating item," the catalog breathlessly reads, "is the perfect keepsake from the 'electile dysfunction' of 2000, ideal as a conversation piece ..."

And, of course, there's Abraham Lincoln's hair.

Strands of the martyred president's mane have appeared in several auctions, accompanied by labyrinthine explanations as to their legitimacy, and muddy photocopies of 19th century newspapers explaining the veritable hedge-clipping that must have gone on in the sad little boardinghouse across from Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln died. The oddest part of this is not the ghoulishness it seems to represent (saving the hair of a loved one or prominent figure was, 150 years ago, considered a compliment to the manufacturer), but that there is every reason to believe that it really is Abe's hair. Somewhere deep inside each bidder -- and I confess to having been one of them -- is one simple thought: cloning.

More prosaically, a hunka-hunka Elvis Presley's hair sold at auction last month. The explanation of provenance was even more complicated than the ones accompanying Lincoln's locks. The 3-inch-wide hairball had been shorn by the King's own barber, then turned over to one of the earliest of the Elvis disciples, who had for a time in the '70s operated a souvenir shop across the street from Graceland. This was what was left of his stock, vacuum-sealed in an apothecary jar and looking very much like all that was left of a victim of the proverbial explosion at the goiter clinic. Somebody paid $115,000 for it. Again, if cloning wasn't the idea, what was? Very small toupees for balding Elvis impersonators? Celebrity merkins?

It's odd, considering that sports memorabilia was the seminal point for all this buying and selling, that when his former girlfriend Greer Johnson attempted to auction off locks of Mickey Mantle's hair, only then did somebody step in. The Mantle family, their lawyers straining at the leash, convinced Ms. Johnson and the auction house to withdraw the item on a pretext long since seemingly eliminated from the equation: good taste.

The mainstream auction houses have gotten into the act. Christie's sold 312 lots of NASA and Soviet Space Program items in 1999, much of them obtained directly from the astronauts or their families, ranging from the infamous dimes Gus Grissom sneaked onboard Mercury 4, to the NASA patch from Jim Irwin's suit from Apollo 15, complete with a few smudges that just happened to be moon dust. Next month, Sotheby's offers a series of Harry Potter lots, including a 93-word preview of the next book by author J.K. Rowling. Bidding between Potter aficionados and British tabloids is expected to goose the price past $10,000. And last month, Butterfield's of San Francisco sold $250,000 worth of the cream of the knickknacks of the late Eppie Lederer, including an IBM Selectric typewriter on which she wrote her advice columns, for $400. A second Landers-used model went for $200 to Seattle Stranger editor Dan Savage who also writes -- what else? -- an advice column.

Still, there are not enough marquee items to explain a craze, nor feed its participants' hunger. There must be a market for tapes of long-forgotten TV series like "Name of the Game," or a toothpick found in the jacket of baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, or gum discarded by various athletes, to keep all this going.

And to become part of American culture, the auction process must become an arena for protest. Just this week, the members of the varsity swimming teams at Dartmouth were informed that their programs would be eliminated after this season as part of a budgetary cutback at the Ivy League school. How did they lash back, and seek to publicize the lashing? They posted themselves on eBay - offering a corporate sponsorship and just happening to mention how odd it seemed that an institution of higher learning with an endowment of about two billion dollars needed to save 0.02 percent of that by dropping swimming. A minimum bid of $211,000 (and it hasnt happened yet) would get you all the Dartmouth swimmers you could ever want - just add water.

And the final evidence of the growing auction mania is the appearance of the hoards. When one toothpick shows up, it's a collector's item. When a thousand do, it's a seller's market. The next MastroNet auction features a collection of 103 different canceled checks made out by baseball immortal Ty Cobb, and given a minimum bid of $20,000. That there was a Ty Cobb collector, or investor, who wanted, or needed, to have 103 checks in the hand of baseball's dark prince, should be no surprise.

That another lot in the same auction offers a collection of 100 different canceled checks made out by Sal Maglie -- best remembered, if at all, for being the losing pitcher in the Don Larsen perfect game in the 1956 World Series -- should testify to just how far the auction madness has really gone.

This story has been corrected.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

MORE FROM Keith Olbermann

Related Topics ------------------------------------------