Locks on the Block: Mozart & Beethoven's Hair on Sale

A lock of Mozart's hair.
This lock of Mozart's hair, encased in a gilt locket, is expected to sell for at least $15,000 at auction. (Image credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's, London)

How much would you spend on a few strands of a dead man's hair? How about $15,000? That's how much you'll have to shell out if you want to take home a bit of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's mane.

The 18th century composer's blond locks hit the auction block Thursday (May 28) at Sotheby's auction house in London, where they're expected to fetch between $14,800 and $17,800 (10,000 - 12,000  pounds). Also for sale: a few of Ludwig van Beethoven's gray hairs. Beethoven's locks are expected to sell for between $3,000 and $4,500 (2,000 - 3,000 pounds).

These strange, personal artifacts are part of Sotheby's "Music, Continental and Russian Books and Manuscripts" sale, which also features handwritten musical scores and original correspondence of some of the greatest musicians, authors and artists of the 18th century onward. [Creative Genius: The World's Greatest Minds]

Beethoven's gray hairs will be sold alongside this invitation to the great composer's funeral. (Image credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's, London)

Apart from Mozart and Beethoven's hair, auction attendees can bid on a signed letter from the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his publisher in London. The auction lot also includes a handwritten letter from Sigmund Freud to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig about his encounter with the young surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí (Freud wasn't impressed).

But the strangest items in the upcoming sale are definitely the ones that used to sit on top of Beethoven and Mozart's heads. Mozart's hair, tied up with a green thread, will be sold inside a gilt locket that also contains a tiny note explaining how the composer's tresses ended up inside a piece of jewelry. John Collet, an English civil engineer, wrote the note. It details how his friend, the conductor Karl Anschütz, gave him the locket sometime between 1848 and 1851.

Anschütz had received the strand of Mozart's hair from his mother who, in turn, was gifted this strange prize by Maria Constanze Mozart (Mozart's widow). In 1890, Collet passed the strands down to his daughter, Edith, who was marrying the English composer Arthur Somervell. The locket containing Mozart's hair has been a Somervell family heirloom ever since.

The story behind Beethoven's hair isn’t as well documented. The gray strands, which are being sold alongside an invitation to Beethoven's funeral, were likely cut from the composer's scalp shortly before (or after) he died in March 1827. Other strands of Beethoven's hair have been previously sold at auction, including one lock that Sotheby's London sold in 1994 to members of the American Beethoven Society for $7,300 (£3,600).

That lock was apparently cut from Beethoven's head as he lay on his deathbed, according to the Beethoven Center at San José State University in California. Other strands of the beloved musician's hair can be found at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the British Library in London and the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany.

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Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.