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5 of the Most Bizarre Auctions in History

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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