Lone Bidder Buys Strands of Che’s Hair at U.S. Auction
October 21, 2007 - NYTimes

More on Che: Che Remembered 40 Years After Death

(above) The hair from Che Guevara, along with his fingerprints and pictures of his dead body, that were sold Thursday in Dallas. photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters


DALLAS, Oct. 25 — The hair itself looked unexceptional, dark with sun-burnished tips, perhaps 100 strands, wrapped in a piece of notebook paper. But when the final gavel fell Thursday in a bizarre auction conducted under high security here, the hair and the sheaf of historical documents that accompanied it sold for $100,000, the minimum bid.

The lock of hair on auction was taken 40 years ago from the corpse of Che Guevara, the famed revolutionary and cultural icon, by one of the men who had tracked him down and, after he was killed, buried him.

The lone bidder was Bill Butler, 61, a Texas bookstore owner and collector of ’60s memorabilia. After making the bid, Mr. Butler told reporters by telephone that Mr. Guevara was “one of the greatest revolutionaries in the 20th century” and that it was “a great feeling” to own the items, which he said he would display in his bookstore.

The lock of hair was trimmed from Mr. Guevara’s body by Gustavo Villoldo, a Cuban-born C.I.A. operative who helped Bolivian troops capture him in 1967. He took the hair from Mr. Guevara’s head shortly before he and some of the soldiers buried him in an unmarked grave.

Mr. Villoldo, now 72 and a Miami resident, said he told few people about the lock until arranging to sell it this year. He said he took the hair out of spite while Mr. Guevara’s body was briefly displayed for photographers and examined by Bolivian doctors before burial.

“I basically took it because the symbol of the revolution was this bearded, long-haired guy coming down the mountain,” Mr. Villoldo said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “To me, I was cutting off the very symbol of the Cuban revolution.”

Mr. Villoldo was not present at the auction. His involvement with the C.I.A. has been corroborated by declassified American government documents.

The house that conducted the auction, Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas, in April sold the diaries of Anna Nicole Smith, the celebrity who died of an accidental drug overdose. Mr. Villoldo said he heard of that sale and decided to sell his material as well.

Along with the hair were a map used by the Bolivian military to track down Mr. Guevara in the remote jungle region where he was captured, fingerprints taken from his corpse, grisly photographs of Mr. Guevara and his comrades after their deaths and various other documents.

By selling the lock of hair, Mr. Villoldo said he was closing a chapter in his long effort to end the rule of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Mr. Villoldo took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and spent years after that tracking Mr. Guevara, Mr. Castro’s most famous and charismatic associate, around the world.

The hair and the documents were part of Mr. Villoldo’s personal scrapbook, he said, which he would pull out from time to time to relive the old days.

“This is some of the most macabre memorabilia of the history of the cold war that’s ever gone on the auction block,” said Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, an organization at George Washington University that stores and chronicles declassified government documents.

Academics continue to debate the role of the C.I.A. in Mr. Guevara’s death. Not in doubt is that agency operatives aided the Bolivian Army in tracking him and his small band of guerrillas. But the order to kill him appears to have been made by the Bolivian Army brass, and possibly from the president at the time, Gen. René Barrientos Ortuño.

A declassified memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson from a senior adviser, Walt Rostow, dated Oct. 11, 1967, called the decision to kill Mr. Guevara “stupid” but “understandable from a Bolivian standpoint.”

General Barrientos’s son, who teaches math at Miami Dade College and uses the same name as his father, said it was his understanding that his father gave the order for Mr. Guevara’s killing, although he never discussed the issue with his father, who died in 1969. The decision was justified, the son contends.

“There is no basis to admire him,” Mr. Barrientos said of Mr. Guevara. “He destroyed a lot of lives. Those are the facts.”

As for the auction, Mr. Barrientos said he found it surprising that anyone would pay for such memorabilia. “Why anyone would want to buy this kind of stuff, I don’t know,” he said. “I would find better uses for my money.”

But Mr. Kornbluh said the material was historically significant.

“If I had $100,000, I’d buy it,” he said. “It’s not just about the hair. It’s the other documents, intercepts. It all deserves to be in a museum.”

Mr. Butler, the buyer, paid a total of $119,500, including a 19.5 percent buyer’s premium.

There had been widespread speculation that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, an admirer of Mr. Guevara, planned to bid. The auction house received a call from Caracas recently asking that a copy of the catalog to be sent to Venezuela via overnight mail, but no telephone bid came.

This was not the first time that the auction house had sold off hair, although the price broke all records. Earlier this year, three strands of Abraham Lincoln’s hair sold for $11,095, and a lock of Lincoln’s hair drew a winning bid of $21,510. What was described as a large lock of hair from J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate general, garnered a winning bid of $44,812.

“I don’t care what other people think,” Mr. Villoldo said of his decision to sell the items. “I have a clean conscience. I’m 72, am getting older, and my kids don’t care about this like I do. I see this as history and I want someone else to take care of this.”

As for what Mr. Villoldo will do with the money, he said he had made no definite plans. A portion of the proceeds, however, may go to make a political point.

Mr. Villoldo said if he could make contact with the widows of the 55 Bolivian soldiers who were killed by Mr. Guevara’s guerrillas, he would use some of the money to help them out.