The Unusual Case of Babe Ruth’s Hair

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

In the April 2007 auction we presented the famous Babe Ruth Hair Display from Barry Halper’s collection. We’re not much for auctioning hair - we really don’t know how to authenticate it and it’s just not the type of item that we usually have occasion to offer. Lot 1028 in the April auction, “Barry Halper’s Famous Babe Ruth Framed Hair Display,” was a rare exception. This item has an interesting story.

The catalog description for the lot opened with: “Barry Halper’s collection of baseball memorabilia was both vast in number and rich in quality. For that reason, visitors to his home were often plagued by sensory overload as they wandered from room to room. One of the pieces that few people ever forgot, however, was this unusual item: a lock of Babe Ruth’s hair, framed together with a typed-signed letter from Ruth, the original mailing envelope (bearing Ruth’s preprinted name), and a black-and-white Hall of Fame postcard of Ruth. This display piece was one of Barry’s absolute favorites and certainly the most unique Ruth item housed in his collection.”

We then went on to explain why the framed display was not included in the 1999 Barry Halper auction: The reason was that, according to our authenticators, the Babe Ruth signatures on the letter and envelope that were framed with hair were not real - they were secretarial signatures (that is, they were not signed by Ruth personally, but by someone else, on his behalf, which is not an uncommon practice).

At the time of the 1999 Halper auction, when Barry Halper sold the vast majority of his great collection, a number of collectors at that sale inquired about the Ruth hair, and we explained why we did not include it in the sale: The Ruth signatures were secretarial. They were disappointed but still expressed interest in the Ruth hair display, even though the signatures were deemed to be secretarial. We gave the piece back to Barry. Barry, who was not convinced that the signatures were secretarial but was always very respectful of the opinions expressed by the authenticators for the sale, was actually happy to keep it. It was always one of his favorites.

When the Barry Halper Estate auction was announced by REA last year, we immediately received a call inquiring about the whereabouts of the Ruth hair. The framed display had been hanging on Barry’s “Babe Ruth wall” ever since the 1999 auction, just as it had for the previous twenty-five years. When we picked up the Halper Estate Collection from the Halper home to process the collection for the April 2007 auction, we had put the framed Babe Ruth hair display with the material that we were, for one reason or another, not including in the upcoming sale. The caller was disappointed, but we explained that we don’t know how to authenticate hair, and if the two Ruth signatures are secretarial, as was our understanding, then it just wouldn’t make it into the auction. The caller wanted to buy it anyway. We were unprepared for this in every way and told him we’d have to get back to him.News of the Halper Estate Collection was spreading.

Within days we got a call from another collector. “The hair - where’s the Babe Ruth hair?” “What are you talking about?” He had read about the Halper Estate auction and all he wanted was the Babe Ruth hair display. After going through this same explanation at great length again, we once again had to fend off private buying interest. We were getting puzzled. We knew that this framed display was well known, but we really had no idea that there was this kind of interest. Days later we were speaking to an autograph dealer who also happens to specialize in celebrity hair, and he, too, asked about the Babe Ruth hair display. This was getting downright bizarre. We explained about the secretarial signatures, and knew he would appreciate the unusual situation this fact presented to us. He responded “I’d really like to buy the display anyway.  Is there any chance that I could purchase the hair display privately from the Halper family?” Like raising a white flag, we asked “If we put this item in the auction, properly described of course, will you guarantee that you will open it a minimum bid of $1,000?” The answer was an enthusiastic yes, and he made clear that the display was actually worth a lot more than $1,000 to him, though we could not quite understand exactly what made this piece so desirable to him and so many other people (pretty much everyone we talked to), other than its fame and prominence in the legendary Barry Halper Collection.

So this piece went from the “rejected auction items pile” to the auction pile, and we prepared a detailed catalog description that would accurately and effectively communicate the history, merits, and, perhaps most importantly, the shortcomings of the display. One positive was that it was the opinion of our autograph authenticators (James Spence Authentications) that signed letter and envelope were “non-malicious classic secretarial” Ruth signatures, as opposed to malicious forgeries, suggesting that the hair was actually Ruth’s, but really, how could we or anyone know for sure? We could make no guarantees. We figured that it would be an interesting lot with an interesting description, and that it would sell for at least $1,000. And when people called in the months ahead, if anyone else asked “Where’s the hair display?” at least we’d have a simple answer: “It’s in the auction.”

Well, they did continue to call. By the time the catalog was ready to mail, REA’s Tom D’Alonzo and Dean Faragi were predicting the possibility of as much as $10,000 on the hair. Scans were being sent out. (Closeups of the hair.) Plans were made for special viewing for particularly interested bidders. Estimates of how many strands were requested. It was insanity.

Bidding for the auction opened on April 9th.   At the end of the first day, bidding was up to $1,500. Calls were fielded. “No we really don’t know if its Babe Ruth’s hair.” “No, the signatures are not real, that’s correct.” “Exactly -we didn’t auction this in 1999 because the signatures are secretarials. They’re still secretarials. They’re not actually signed by Ruth.” “We’re not sure why everyone wants it, but they do.”

By the end of the second day, the Ruth hair was at $7,500. It stayed there for the next two days. We thought it was done, or close to being done, even though the auction didn’t close until April 29. We were wrong.

 On April 12 a bidding war broke out on the hair, jumping it up to $17,000. This was still very early. Some of the greatest baseball treasures in the entire collecting world, represented by other lots, had yet to even open, or had just a single bid. This auction was being paced by the Babe Ruth hair. People began calling “What’s with the hair? What’s going on?” “We don’t know.”No bids on April 13. This was almost a relief. Were we going to forever be known as “the Babe Ruth hair auction house?”

On April 14, the answer to that question appeared to possibly be “yes” as bidding soared to $27,500. Was this some cruel joke? Were we on a reality TV program and didn’t know it? The bidders were good, so they would have had to be in on it. There was no question that the bidding was real.

Soon an avalanche of bidding was unleashed on the other 1593 lots in the auction. Bidding stopped on the Babe Ruth hair display and hundreds of other items took center stage. The $27,500 level for the Babe Ruth hair still stuck out, but many other items started to reach crazy levels of their own. The hair seemed to call less attention to itself as it became surrounded by numerous other items selling at far higher levels. We thought it was done. No more bids.

Until April 26. Two more bids came in on Wednesday April 26, 2007, pushing the hammer price up to $32,500. And that’s where it closed. With the buyers premium the total purchase price was exactly $38,187.50.  

So, is there a moral to this story? Not really, but it just goes to show that how collectors think can’t be predicted and doesn’t always have to make sense. If the Babe Ruth hair display went up for auction again, it might bring more! (or maybe not). And no matter how we think items will do at auction, the market has a mind of its own. We always tell people who ask us to predict exactly what something is going to sell for that we can try to guess but that so far, over the past 35 years, we’ve never been right. And that’s how it should be.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the Babe Ruth hair display. It’s one of those collecting stories that can’t be fully understood just by looking at the auction catalog and the result. For most collectors this was just one of many hundreds of interesting lots, but sometimes lots have additional interesting background stories about them, especially from our perspective. We hope you will enjoy reading occasional stories we will post about the card and memorabilia field, and the auction business.  Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Sincerely,

Robert Lifson

President

Robert Edward Auctions, LLC

www.robertedwardauctions.com



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