Christa Allen has two of George Washington's hairs secured under glass in a gold locket. Two more hairs are in an envelope.
She has always known they were from Washington's head because her father, William Allen, told her so. The former Philadelphia lawyer also said he had the proof. Only he was a pack rat who didn't much believe in safe-deposit boxes. So he hid things in his old house. Then he forgot where they were.
Thus begins the story of Christa Allen's search for proof. She needed the proof because she needed the profit. And besides, proof would lead to vindication, confirming that the family heritage was everything she thought it was.
It would lead her back home, and then to New York, to Cincinnati and all over the Internet. In the end, she would not choose to let the established sellers of collectible Americana auction off her prize. She would choose eBay, which has been known to sell purported locks of Washington's hair for as little as $5. She would do it because the online auction house that will list 1.8 billion items for sale this year is everybody's auction house, and Washington belongs to everybody.
She would do it because she needed the money a whole lot faster than Christie's of New York or Cowan's of Cincinnati would auction her piece of American royalty.
Sitting in her home, surrounded by antique armoires, a vintage Victrola and what appears to be live ordnance, Allen thumbs through documentation she has assembled in the past five years.
It all started sometime in late 2000, when her father, in failing health, handed her the watch with the hair (along with a Revolutionary War map and an antique land deed) and told her to search the house for what he knew were two pieces of proper documentation to establish the hair's pedigree.
For the first, he advised, look in the "far left-hand corner of the house attic in a small cardboard box with various other papers." The second document, he assured her, "is located somewhere inside the house."
The 35-year-old single mom did as directed. She looked under floorboards, under eaves, in ceiling cracks, in the moldy boxes in the basement and in likely places for burial in the yard.
Her father was not exactly organized. She found Christmas stockings mixed in with hand grenades, the family Bible in with the liquor. She found his uniform from World War II. She found stones he'd picked up on vacations long ago. She found her baby book. She found her father's baby book, complete with a piece of his umbilical cord.
When she was done, there was no documentation, but there were 13 Dumpsters full of stuff on the curb.
In 2001, she called Christie's. They told her she needed to find some proof.
As her father's health, after five heart surgeries, rapidly declined, she regularly went to Langhorne, Pa., to see him, and every time, she searched the house. Finally, in April 2003, she brought him home to stay at her house in Kentucky. His bills mounted, and he continued to exhort her to find that documentation and sell the hair to help defray the costs of his health care.
She went back to his house, along with her uncle and some friends, and the box appeared -- stashed in a reproduction of George Washington's desk in the family room. The documentation inside was as her father said: a note typed on March 8, 1928, by Flora Jones, the secretary to a nephew of Job Roberts Tyson, a member of the Pennsylvania legislature who may have been in the nation's capital at the time of Washington's reburial.
The typed note included an in-the-margins handwritten chronology of how the hair was handed down -- from Job Roberts Tyson to Neville D. Tyson to Walter H. Cooke to Ellen Newbold Cooke Jacobs to Harry J. Alker Jr. (Then from Alker, a family friend, to Allen's father to Allen.)
She went back to Christie's. "They called my documentation hearsay and said I needed more to back it up," she said.
Christa Allen had already looked for the holy grail in her father's house. She decided she'd look one more place: the Internet.
She verified the names and relationships between each of the people the hair is passed to, as per the typed note. She found a connection between Job Roberts Tyson, the first name on the list, and the undertaker at Washington's reburial. She found evidence that at that entombment, on Oct. 7, 1837, the coffin of the great man was opened, and his hair, which had been on his head on a casket pillow since his death in late 1799, was snipped for posterity.
She did more. Much more. She discovered how hard it is to verify by DNA any hair that is without a follicle. She found out that there are people who collect famous hair. She found out -- thanks to a diligent curator of historical collections in Montgomery County, Pa. -- that this very hair was displayed at the county's Centennial Exposition held in Norristown in 1884. It was loaned to the expo by Walter H. Cooke, one of the owners in Allen's chronology.
She presented her evidence to officials of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pa., who gave it their own once-over, then gave her their backing.
"Based upon the research I have conducted on behalf of Ms. Allen," writes Jeffrey McGranahan, collections manager, "I can conclude that she may be in the possession of hair from George Washington."
Allen found out how much Christie's got for a similar lock of Washington's hair when it was teamed with a miniature portrait he had commissioned for his wife, Martha, on the day of their marriage. It was $1.2 million for the set. You can imagine her excitement.
Still, she fretted. Was this enough documentation? Was it irrefutable?
She found one small hitch. From the Internet came this: a document that suggested the hair is not what it's supposed to be. Some of Washington's descendants maintain that during his reburial, his leaden casket remained unopened and, therefore, no new hair samples could have been obtained.
It was a stumbling block, but sure enough, more documents seem to refute the refutation. It was time to find a professional.
Allen contacted Ted Sunderhaus, an appraiser of Americana at Cowan's Antiques in Cincinnati. He spent some time with her pile of papers, and said, "While it's not unimpeachable, it's fairly conclusive evidence." He added that the fact that it is said to have been taken from Washington in death may "make it a bit macabre, but might actually add to its value."
Which is exactly what?
He said she could get upward of $100,000, if the documentation is enough for the serious collector and should the bidding be competitive.
Allen needs it to be competitive. She says she needs the money so badly now, and she decided to put it on eBay last week.
Sunderhaus thinks that's a bad idea, but Allen is undeterred. She doesn't have medical insurance, and her son has recently been in the hospital, and "as a parent, you do what you have to do."
The magnitude of the find is now left in the hands of the very thing that upped the ante: the Internet. She needs it to work its magic again.
She is a great believer in magic. Teamed with the Revolutionary War map her father gave her, the hair carries a $750,000 starting bid.
She says she knows the right bidder is out there.
She needs only one.