Collections Authenticity: Determining What’s “Real”

As museums, we are expected to have “the real thing.” Our reputation as trustworthy sources of learning depends upon it. But what if we aren’t sure? What if we have an object that “might be” or “could be” and how do we deal with these pieces? My goal is to introduce you to the tricky subject of authenticity through one particularly interesting artifact from the History Center’s collection – a few strands of George Washington’s hair.

Authenticity has always been somewhat of a hot topic in the museum world. No museum wants to be in possession of a fake and the public isn’t particularly eager to see a fake even if it is “a really good one.” Would any of us go to the Louvre to see a really nice copy of the “Mona Lisa?” Of course not; we expect to see authentic pieces of history and place our trust in museums to be clear about what is authentic and what are replicas or reproductions. For collectors, there is even more on the line. Their investment may be worthless if what they hold it is not an authentic piece.

But what about museums? If we aren’t concerned about the monetary value, what do we care about? The difference is that museums are storykeepers and storytellers. To us, a good, true story that teaches us about the artifact is what really matters. Stories help us relate to the past and out of those relationships come those special light-bulb moments when we understand something new about the world and our place in it. Exposure to authentic objects and the stories behind them is the vehicle through which museums deliver these experiences to the public.

So how do we determine if “Object #682 – a lock of Gen. Washington’s hair” is the real thing? The first step is to look at the documentation. In the earliest, hand-written logs, object #682 is described as:

“Lock of George Washington’s hair; given to Rev. F. W. Vandersloot by Miss Ricketts, niece of Gen. James B. Ricketts of the Civil War”

The lock – really a few strands of hair – was donated to us sometime prior to April 3, 1903, when we were known as the Historical Society of York County. Unfortunately, that’s where our information on the piece ends and the search becomes broader.

Around the period of Washington’s death and even up until the Victorian Age, it was common to take locks of hair to keep as mementos or to fashion into hair jewelry or ornaments. Mount Vernon has a locket containing Washington’s hair that Martha Washington cut and gave to their dear friend Elizabeth Wolcott in 1797. There is also information that suggests a large quantity of Washington’s hair may have been was taken at the time of his death in 1799. Martha commissioned several groupings of miniatures containing plaited hair for the one year anniversary of his death, and documents describing his re-interment in 1837 clearly state “we saw no hair,” making it very possible that most if not all of his hair was kept. So how do we know these pieces are authentic? We know this because they have clear documentation – referred to as provenance – showing how the Mount Vernon and Martha’s commissioned pieces trace back through the generations to their original owners and the original source.

Clear provenance is what we’re lacking when it comes to the History Center’s Washington hair. We can trace our strands back to General Ricketts but are missing information on how he came into possession of the hair and any way of linking the strands directly back to Washington. Hearsay is never enough for the History Center to formally declare them to be his. While it is entirely possible that Martha or one of their many descendants could have given these strands to Ricketts, we’ll have to be satisfied for the time being with referring to them as “attributed to” or “possible” Washington hairs.

While searching for documentation is the first step, using science often comes as a close second. With DNA testing, it could be possible to compare our hairs with known hairs if not for one missing element. DNA is found only in the root of the hair. Since our strands appear to be clippings, DNA testing is not an option. Therefore, we have to rely on the documentation we have and hope that new information will surface detailing how Ricketts came to possess the hairs.

So, as truthtellers and keepers of history, what should we do? While we can’t claim to have a piece of America’s first president, we do have several options and duties as an institution that holds items in the public trust. First of all, we can continue to properly house the object – making sure the conditions are stable and we do everything possible to slow deterioration. Second, we can continue to keep accurate records, which detail everything we do know about the piece, any research that has been done, and any changes that may occur over the years. Even though we cannot be 100% sure it is authentic, we will still treat it as if it is, with the hope that new information may become available. We have a duty to preserve this object for future generations, and we take this responsibility very seriously.

We can also improve our collections by sharing the story of ambiguous pieces like the Washington hairs with the public. It’s amazing what information tends to surfaces when museums reach out to the communities they serve. Maybe a Ricketts or a Vandersloot descendent will come across the missing piece while doing research in our Library & Archives or while leafing through their own family records? We are here to share history with the public, and we hope you’ll share what you know with us just the same.

Our final option is to use examples like this one as a tool – both to discuss the issue of authenticity and to better understand the collection practices of past generations. Gone are the days of museums accepting anything and everything. We collect to our mission, and when an object doesn’t have York County provenance, we help the donor find it a better and more appropriate home. When new pieces are offered to the museum, we carefully consider their fit with our mission and do our research before accepting a piece. We have to feel confident that we are doing what’s best for the collection and that our own documentation and practices help to eliminate any future ambiguities.        –Rachel Warner, Curatorial Collections Manager

Link to Mount Vernon’s Washington hair accessories:

Link to auction of authentic Washington portrait with hair plait:

Link to an interesting article about Washington’s tomb and a plot to steal his bones:

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