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.