Beethoven's hair has been a big ticket item for years, auctioned for thousands — turns out it didn't all belong to him
Researchers published a paper this week revealing findings from new DNA testing on hair from Ludwig van Beethoven.
The tests revealed a genetic risk for liver disease, as well as hepatitis B late in life.
It also revealed some locks considered to Beethoven's that sold for thousands, are not actually his.
For nearly 200 years since legendary musician Ludwig van Beethoven's death, dozens of items from his life have been auctioned for thousands of dollars — including hair that recent DNA testing revealed may not actually be his.
Famous samples of the composer's hair, likely clipped as remembrances around the time of his death in March 1827, have sold for a total of nearly $140,000 in the last 30 years.
However, new genetic testing on eight hair samples thought to be Beethoven's revealed that at least one high profile sample may not have come from the legendary composer. The testing is part of a study into his life and health issues, published this week in Current Biology
The easiest to rule out was a sample known as the Hiller lock, named because it was given to composer Ferdinand Hiller around the time of Beethoven's death. The most famous sample used in the study, the Hiller lock was determined to actually be from a woman. It was last sold for $7,300 in 1994 and has been displayed for decades as authentic Beethoven hair.
Several other locks — with mixed authenticity — used in the Current Biology study were sold in the last ten years, according to a database of auctioned Beethoven memorabilia compiled by San Jose State University:
-- A lock, reportedly given to opera singer Ludwig Cramolini sold for nearly $10,300 in 2015, but researchers said it's unlikely that it was Beethoven's.
-- The Stumpff lock sold for about $14,700 in 2016, and the researchers determined it most likely was authentic.
-- A lock said to have been given to pianist Anton Halm for his wife while Beethoven was still alive, also was verified as authentic by the researchers. It last sold in London in 2019 for about £35,000, or $42,700.
The Current Biology study also revealed that Beethoven had a genetic predisposition for liver disease, and a hepatitis B infection late in life. Both likely contributed to his death, which historians largely agree was from liver failure. But the report did not provide definitive answers about his lifelong progressive hearing loss.
Advancements in DNA testing over the last 20 years have inspired researchers and Beethoven enthusiasts to take a new look at other hair samples identified as his.
Other hair not included in recent genetic testing has been auctioned as authentic, including a lock said to have been taken at Beethoven's deathbed by composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, which sold for about $15,300 in 2008. In 2000, a lot that combined Beethoven's hair and hair from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold for more than $55,700.
The Hiller lock was the basis of a book tracing its history from Beethoven's era to testing for information about the composer's life and illnesses. The book, "Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and A Scientific Mystery Solved," was published in 2001 and later turned into a documentary.
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