Todd Mueller’s keeping mum about astronaut Neil Armstrong’s haircut.
But the 39-year-old Black Forest memorabilia dealer does have a few tales to tell about Katharine Hepburn’s garbage.
An autograph dealer by trade, Mueller last year paid $12,500 for trash collected from in front of Hepburn’s New York apartment every week for six years.
Inside plastic grocery sacks he found treasure mingling with the detritus of everyday life – torn-up drafts of correspondence to friends and fans, a letter from a video-store owner asking for her signature, a draft of her autobiography, clothing and hair.
Lots of hair.
Letters in Hepburn’s distinctive hand, made shaky by old age and Parkinson’s disease, can be pieced back together and sold.
The hair may be cut into bits no longer than three-sixteenths of an inch long, packaged with a photo of Hepburn during her starlet days, and offered as an affordable memento.
It’s the type of thing Mueller intended to do when he paid an Ohio barber $3,000 for the salt-and-pepper hair shorn from Armstrong’s head in 2004.
Mueller has traded sports memorabilia and autographs since he was 13 but went pro in 1990 after he finished college and a stint playing baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system.
A few years ago, he started dabbling in tiny fragments of celebrity history. Hair and other celebrity relics account for about 1 percent of his $3 million to $4 million in annual revenues.
He sells slivers of wood left over when Shoeless Joe Jackson’s broken bat was repaired; tiny chunks of a plastic fishing lure author Ernest Hemingway used in Cuba; small pieces of Babe Ruth’s jersey; a little swatch of Muhammad Ali’s silk robe; and locks of hair from the famous and infamous divided into affordable little pieces.
“We have hanks of hair, but when we sell it, we don’t sell it like that,” Mueller says.
It’s too valuable cut up.
Mueller’s friend John Reznikoff, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for his giant celebrity hair collection, sold three, 1 1/2-inch-long strands of Abraham Lincoln’s hair at auction for $7,700. Mueller says a little snip of one strand of that might sell for $800. Historical Hair and Collectibles in Grosse Pointe, Mich., put a fragment of Lincoln’s hair, framed in a tiny gilt frame, for sale on eBay for $1,300.
It’s a current that runs through the memorabilia industry: People who can’t afford to own a whole hunk of history will settle for a small piece.
“Most people can’t afford a Babe Ruth baseball, which can run $10,000 to $100,000 depending on condition,” says Jeff Rosenberg, president and chief executive of TriStar Productions, a trade show producer and sports memorabilia manufacturer. “So maybe you start looking at a card with a bit of Babe Ruth’s jersey at $50 or $100. It’s the closest you can get to owning something like that.”
Like others who peddle historic hair, Mueller says he’s merely improvising on a collecting tradition.
Dating at least to the Victorian age, locks of hair have been clipped and saved as a memento of a friend or loved one. Politicians sent their supporters locks of hair. Hair was clipped from the heads of the dead and woven into mourning jewelry.
“I bet your mother has a lock of your hair in your baby book,” says Mueller, who moved to Colorado from Dallas about 18 months ago with his wife and five children.
Collectors probably would be lining up to purchase a bit of Armstrong’s hair were the case not tied up in legal woes.
In May, Armstrong’s lawyer demanded the astronaut’s barber return his shorn hair or donate the $3,000 Mueller paid for it to charity. The barber has until Friday to respond.
For now, the potentially valuable hair is locked away.
While he waits for a resolution, Mueller is plotting a new line of limited-edition collectible cards he expects to market for $300 each.
The Relic cards will pair high-quality photos of historical figures and stars with a fragment of an appropriate relic. Jack Kerouac’s card will include a fragment of one of his plaid shirts. A card for aviator Amelia Earhart may include a bit of canvas taken from her plane before it was lost at sea. A photo of Marilyn Monroe will be paired with a tiny fragment of a silk stocking she once wore.
Mueller bought six of Monroe’s stockings for $7,500 at a Christie’s auction. He sold all but one half of one stocking to an English collector for $60,000.
The remaining half is far more valuable chopped up.
Mueller says he has no qualms about parting out lesser relics. Like one of the pairs of size 5 ruby slippers Judy Garland wore only in rehearsals for “The Wizard of Oz.” The pair that appeared in the film sold in 2000 to another collector for $660,000.
Mueller paid $1,000 for Hemingway’s fishing lure and probably could have resold the chunky, ivory-colored piece of plastic whole for $1,500. “But could I get $5,000? Yes, but I had to cut it up.”
Mueller says he is fastidious about making sure the memorabilia he markets is legitimate. He also admits he occasionally tests the market with P.T. Barnum-like aplomb, but is careful a good-humored offer doesn’t cross over into a con.
He sells a few grains of soil from Transylvania with a laser-print copy of a portrait of Vlad the Impaler, whose ruthless acts were the model for the fictional Dracula. And once, he grabbed a handful of grass from the Grassy Knoll in Dallas, from which conspiracy theorists believe the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963 were fired.
“I sold it on eBay for $75,” he says with a laugh.
With some items he just can’t deal …
Offers to purchase a lot of weird stuff land on Todd Mueller’s desk. But even a guy OK with buying bags of celebrity garbage finds stuff he won’t touch. Some he rejects for ethical reasons. Other things just do not make good business sense.
A human body
Mueller was offered the mummified remains of a Chicago-area serial killer executed in the 1920s or ’30s. The killer’s family refused to bury their criminal son, so the state of Illinois embalmed the body and sold it. The body, now encased in a shadow box that includes articles about the man’s crimes, resurfaced a few years ago. “It was grotesque. I would never, ever touch something like that.”
J.D. Salinger’s fence and wood stove
Fans clamor for a glimpse of the reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” but Mueller said no to the offer of the fence that used to bound his remote Cornish, N.H., home. “It doesn’t relate to his craft.”
After selling a nudie photo of Vanessa Williams for $1,200, Mueller realized sex sells and did a few photo signings with porn stars, including Ginger Lynn. He still has some signed photos in his archive that date to the early 1990s, but he doesn’t market them, won’t do signings with adult-film stars and rejects offers to purchase collections that include porn. “I do have kids.”
Terms of a long-ago transaction in Texas left him holding title to a retired circus elephant. He thought it was a pretty sweet deal until he realized the pachyderm’s upkeep was going to run him $1,000 a month. “I gave it back.”
Here are a few things that have been in Mueller’s inventory:
Marilyn Monroe’s rubber falsies, retrieved from a garbage can at the mortuary where the starlet was embalmed. Mueller was disturbed, but sold them for $5,600. “I never touched them. They came framed. I sold them framed.”
10,000 copies of a Titanic photo signed by survivor Millvina Dean. Mueller was watching the film “Titanic” and was inspired to contact the survivors. Dean, then 89, was the only one to respond. He expected to sell only 250 copies of the autograph, but within 24 hours, orders for 10,000 had stacked up. Dean was paid $17 for each photo and was able to buy her first home. Mueller pocketed $1.3 million.
Liberace’s shoes. A pair of turquoise canvas shoes, decorated with amber-colored beads and jewels languishes in Mueller’s cluttered office, in a zip-lock bag, a cue ball signed by pocket billiards champion Willie Mosconi tucked between them. – Dana Coffield
Originally Published in the Lifestyle section of the THE DENVER POST: June 15, 2005 at 9:22 am | UPDATED: May 8, 2016 at 9:44 am