5 of the Most Bizarre Auctions in History

Looking for a bargain on Roman soldiers and carrier pigeons? Fire up the time machine and hit these auctions.

1. Ronald Reagan’s Blood

In May 2012, a collector put a sample of Ronald Reagan’s blood on the auction block. What might seem sacrilegious to some made perfect sense to him: “I was a real fan of Reaganomics and felt that President Reagan himself would rather see me sell it.” For his part, the Gipper hadn’t expected his blood work to trickle down; the lab sample had come from the president’s hospitalization after a 1981 assassination attempt, and his family hadn’t authorized the release.

Although the seller initially offered the item to the Reagan National Library, when the institution declined to purchase it, the vial wound up at public auction. The listing’s highlight: “a quarter-inch ring of blood residue at the end of the inserted rubber stopper.”

Demand was high. Bidding on the vial hit $30,086 before the public outcry persuaded the seller to donate his find to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. “We are grateful to the current custodian of the vial for this generous donation,” a spokesman said. Particularly, since it “[will keep] President Reagan’s blood remains out of public hands.”

2. 180,000 Mummified Cats

The accidental 1889 discovery of a massive cat burial site in Egypt’s ancient Beni Hasan cemetery was not a high point in archaeological preservation. The mummified felines, estimated to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old, had once been bred and embalmed as four-legged offerings to the gods. Modern times proved less reverential. The local urchins who discovered the mummies staged mock cat fights in the street, sending fur and bandages flying. The Liverpool auction firm James Gordon & Company saw a more practical use for the relics: It shipped 180,000 of the cats to Britain to sell, with the thought that more might follow.

Sadly, the February 10, 1890, auction quickly devolved into farce as the gift-wrapped kitties crumbled in people’s hands. As the Bristol Mercury drolly reported: “Some amusement was evoked over the sale of the hindquarters of a cat.” That particular relic fetched five shillings. Needless to say, the overall sale was not a success. Most of the felines were sold for fertilizer—or “fur-tilizer,” as the British press dubbed it. One lot was unloaded for just under £6 a ton, and according to reports, the auctioneer unceremoniously gaveled the sale “using one of the cats’ heads as a hammer.”

3. The World’s Rarest Library

On August 10, 1840, the small Belgian town of Binche was the only place for a book collector to be. Auction catalogs announced the sale of the collection of the late Count J.N.A. de Fortsas, a man who had collected only books so rare that no other copies existed. If he discovered another copy, he’d dispose of his—even penning Destruit! (“Destroyed!”) into his ledger. At just 52 volumes, his library was minuscule—and priceless.

As the auction date drew near, bibliophiles poured into Binche, eagerly seeking such catalog listings as a volume on phallic hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt and a lost tome of 14th-century Flemish songs. A princess allegedly sent an agent to pay “any price” for an embarrassing volume. But come auction time, a problem arose: No one could find the auction. In fact, nobody in town had heard of the late count.

Before long, the truth dawned on the buyers: They’d been had by Renier Chalon, a mischievous French antiquarian who had baited them with titles he knew they couldn’t resist. In a touch Chalon would appreciate, the Fortsas catalog itself is now a prized collectible, with one copy fetching $1,320 in a 2005 auction.

4. Military Pigeons, Gently Used

On December 25, 1901, a New York Times headline announced THE NAVY PIGEONS TO GO, before explaining, “Fifty-five birds at the Brooklyn yard will be sold on Monday next.” For years, the Navy had been using message-carrying homing pigeons for ship-to-shore communication. But with the advent of the Marconi wireless, Navy posts around the country started selling off their flocks.

Unfortunately, there was one detail the Navy hadn’t thought through: The homing pigeons were trained to fly back to the shipyard from wherever they took off, making the birds significantly less useful to everyone who was not the Navy. At the Norfolk, Va., Navy yard, 150 birds—which had originally cost $8 each—went for just $30 dollars total for “trap shooting purposes.”

Oddly enough, the Navy had jumped the gun on retiring its winged troops. Pigeons still worked in conditions that overwhelmed primitive Marconi wireless sets. As a result, Allies continued to deploy hundreds of thousands of birds during both world wars, with the only Nazi defense being pigeon-eating falcons.

5. The Entire Roman Empire

193 CE began promisingly for Rome. A new emperor, Pertinax, was set out to reform his notoriously corrupt bodyguards, the Praetorian Guard. The Guard’s response? Impaling his head atop a spear. Then the Praetorians hit upon a better (and more lucrative) succession scheme: auctioning the throne.

Only two men had the nerve to bid for it. In the end, the politician Didius Julianus won the seat with a last-minute offer: 25,000 sesterces apiece (enough for a new horse) for each of the 10,000-plus guards. As the delighted new emperor took his empire for a spin, dallying at the theater and throwing elaborate feasts, outrage grew over news of the auction. Governors and senators plotted against him, and citizens protested. Roman consul Cassius Dio recorded the inevitable result: “Julianus came to be slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; he only had time to say, ‘Why, what harm have I done? Whom have I killed?’” The unlucky emperor had reigned for a little more than two months. As they said in Rome: caveat emptor.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Now go download our new iPad app! Or get a free issue of mental_floss magazine via mail.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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