A Hairy Situation - Victorian Hair Works & A Primer on Spotting Fakes

A Hairy Situation - Victorian Hair Works & A Primer on Spotting Fakes

I can still remember the days when wreaths, jewelry, and keepsakes made from human hair were either repulsive or unknown to the general public. It wasn't the sort of thing dealers would proudly display- You had to ask specifically for it, and the dealer would disappear wordlessly to a back room or to the boot of their car to retrieve whatever they'd been keeping aside for random eccentrics like you.


Collectors who appreciate hair work are still very much a niche audience, but I have been watching with bewilderment and surprise as this Victorian custom has caught the interest and imagination of a larger market over the past decade. A Victorian hair wreath seems de rigueur among those who are still clinging to the "oddities" bandwagon, even though the wheels began to come off some time ago. As a result of this newfound popularity, good pieces started growing scarce and prices skyrocketed. The current state of the market is an absolute mess: In an effort to keep up with buyer demand, I've noticed a great many dealers buying wreaths from other sellers or palette work from France at retail and then trying to get double in their own shops. There is no reason for a small, plain, gimp worked hair wreath in a shadow box or frame to cost $800, nor a good reason for a 6 inch, ordinary palette work to cost over $200. Nevertheless, I see the same, overpriced pieces sitting on Ebay and Ruby Lane month after month, even year after year.


People have figured out that there's money in hair, and the scarcity of these pieces has driven some sellers to bend the truth. My mother, also a dealer, always told me when I was growing up not to believe everything other dealers say and to be wary of fakes. Hers was the era of country antiques, artifacts from colonial America, and so-called "primitives." At the time, the retail prices for those kinds of pieces were comparable to the prices MCM commands now, and they were pretty easy to fake because to the untrained eye, they look a bit shabby to begin with. She warned me that certain unscrupulous dealers would bury things in their yards and leave them there for weeks to make them look worn and old, and that things like documents and paper could be tea-stained. Even with this in mind, the last thing I ever expected was for sellers to start faking Victorian hair works. I can think of dozens of more efficient ways to make a dishonest living. And yet, here we are.


Lest you think this post is going to turn into a juicy exposé, I'm not here to out anyone or come for anyone's business. I'm not the Hair Police, first of all, but also, I realize that most people are driven to dishonesty in business because we live in an unjust society where people are struggling to survive. I've worked tirelessly to build my own business on kindness, honesty, and trust- I don't need to knock anyone else down to boost myself higher.


What motivates me to address you is that many collectors have told me they're no longer buying hair works because they have been burned, and are afraid of getting burned again. I have personally spoken to about two dozen people who have been duped into buying fake Victorian hair works in the last few years, including advanced collectors many years my senior, other dealers, and even a student pursuing her doctorate in this subject at a prominent university. This breach of trust- a foundational aspect of the antiques business- is negatively impacting all dealers during an economically unstable time. Moreover, if people stop collecting hair works, they won't be around for future generations to learn from and enjoy. It's largely through the custody of people who love them- dealers and collectors- that these things are found and preserved.


So what can you do? How can you tell a fake from the real thing?


Like so many other areas of collecting, you must learn to evaluate quality and construction. It helps tremendously to know how these things were made, and to compare those facts to the piece in front of you. Let's run down the different kinds of hair work you are likely to encounter so you can recognize what they are: All photos except for one (which is mentioned) are from my collection.


The good news is, the best pieces involve techniques that are so specialized or complex, no one is faking them:

Wreaths and bouquets like this are known as gimp work. Tiny loops of hair were intertwined with wire, which could then be formed into shapes like flowers. It's not that hard to do, but requires enough patience, leisure time, and attention to detail to make it a completely pointless pursuit for a counterfeiter. This kind of work was mainly done by upper middle class and upper class white American women in the mid to late 19th century- though I have seen examples from the UK and Europe, and pieces that date into the early 20th century. The instructions were available in the ladies' books and journals at the time. The most common forms for gimp worked hair are small, circular or horseshoe shaped wreaths, but they can be as tiny as a palm-sized floral bouquet or as large as a 4-foot cross!


The gimp work gaffs I've seen are predominantly larger wreaths that have been cut into smaller pieces, put into frames or globes, and sold as though these frame jobs are Victorian. There's nothing wrong with selling salvage: I once scored a hair wreath that came with a number of leftover flowers that were never incorporated into the main piece. These can be excellent buys for new collectors who are still saving for their first, larger hair wreath. There's also nothing wrong with telling your buyers, "Hey, I found this small hair bouquet, and I put it in this frame so you can hang it up and enjoy it for years to come." Just be wary of contemporary frame jobs being sold as true antiques: You can usually tell because the wire is unfinished and the frame is somehow wrong: Either it's the wrong date for the hair work, or the wrong size or shape relative to the hair work inside.


Be wary also of how much you're spending on a single gimp worked flower: Why give a greedy seller $85 for ONE flower, shoddily mounted inside a tiny, contemporary glass dome, when you could get a whole wreath with MANY flowers in its original shadow box for $300? Sometimes even less?



Palette worked hair was more common in Europe (especially France and Belgium) and involves arranging the hair on a flat surface and fixing it with glue. You'll find both framed pieces and jewelry, and the most common motifs were simply curls. As you can see from this stunning willow from my collection, much more elaborate forms were possible.

 Sheets of hair were created by gluing single strands side by side, which could then be cut into smaller shapes to make flowers, willows, letters, etc. These pieces were glued onto glass or ivory and mounted inside a frame, sometimes with domed glass to accommodate 3-dimensional shapes. Kits were sold so that ordinary people could make these at home, but there were also many jewelers and artists who could do this for you, and offered a variety of pre-set patterns and designs you could choose. Needless to say, no one is out there faking this technique. It requires a great deal of practice and skill. However, there are many talented artists who are keeping this tradition alive, and who can make a hair memorial or keepsake for you just like the beautiful antiques we love to collect. Victorian Hair Workers International does a great job featuring these artists.

 Hair woven into three-dimensional shapes and worn as jewelry is known as table worked hair, after the contraption in this illustration. These are the very first table work instructions for hair jewelry to appear in an American women's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book for December, 1850. The process is similar to bobbin lace making, wherein a certain number of strands are grouped together, held down with small weights, and crossed in a particular pattern. As with other hair work techniques, most of these were made by women at home and then taken to a jeweler to have hardware added, but jewelers could also make these pieces to order from catalogs of available designs. Just like palette work, this technique requires so much labor and skill that the only contemporary people participating in it are skilled artists who take commissions and sell their wares above board.

The kinds of hair works that require a skeptical eye are the ones where little to no "work" is involved at all: Photos, framed pieces, and ephemera that somehow involve locks of hair. Very few people have mastered traditional Victorian hair work techniques, but absolutely anyone can take a lock of hair and stick it in a frame, a cased photo, a locket, etc. and then use that hair to justify a high price for an otherwise ordinary item. As a matter of fact: A colleague who also specializes in this subject, whose name I will keep anonymous, told me that an Ebay seller approached them to say he needed help finding hair to put in his cased photos so he could up his prices. That seller was reported and is not currently active, but this proves my suspicions of tomfoolery and fakery are correct.

Since keeping locks of hair was common practice well into the 20th century, you'll frequently see family collections like this, sold earlier this year by another dealer on Ebay:


Sometimes these things come with paperwork and you're able to research the family, but other times you just find a box or envelope with locks of hair inside and you have absolutely no idea where they came from. Also widely available on the market are antique hanks of hair for wig making, single braids of hair that were family keepsakes, locks from a baby's first haircut, and doll wigs. I suspect that this is where certain unscrupulous sellers are getting the hair that they sneak into places where they really don't belong.

You will genuinely find locks of hair in all kinds of unexpected places. Yes, I have picked up a Victorian book in a dusty attic estate sale and found hair inside. Yes, I have found hair inside cased photos and frames. This said, the number of times this has happened is few and far between. I'm able to regularly stock Victorian hair of one kind or another because I actively look every day, and have others looking for me, but you'll notice I'm never overloaded with pieces. That's because they're rare. Consider a seller's overall inventory: If the seller has a seemingly endless supply of something you know is scarce- especially if the rest of their inventory consists of entry-level pieces- that's suspicious.

Consider also how the seller is presenting the item to you: It's important to know that you very rarely find a single, random, cased photo or framed picture that has any kind of provenance. Your mostly likely, best case scenario is that a family member or descendant wrote a name on it somewhere, and you're able to learn a few basics about that person by researching the name online.

If the seller is telling a long, involved story about the person in the photo but there is no documentation to prove it, they're probably making it up. And, I'm sorry, spooky types: No reputable dealer will claim that their item is haunted, or try to sell you on a macabre backstory they cannot prove. Remember that the vast majority of hair works are purely sentimental and NOT mourning pieces or memorials, so if the seller is laying it on thick with a sob story but nothing about the piece indicates it's a memorial? They're probably spinning a yarn. I am very leery of edgelords: Ask yourself, is this seller more concerned about their image, or do they let their antiques speak for themselves?


Because anyone can stick a lock of hair anywhere, it can be very hard or even impossible to tell at first glance if the hair was original to the piece or added recently. Thus, you have to look for evidence of tampering and consider whether or not a lock of hair is likely to be there. I'm noticing a lot of cased daguerreotype and ambrotype photos with locks of hair underneath the glass. Most of the time, the hair is underneath the plate at the bottom of the compartment, or pinned to the velvet pillow opposite. That's because daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are so fragile that removing the photo from its layers of protective materials and fooling around with it can lead to damage. People did do it, of course- so if there's something under the glass, there's really no way to prove when it was added unless the material is clearly ahistorical.


Tintypes are pretty resilient- Hence, only the earliest ones were cased. Protective cases were phased out altogether as more processes were invented that made photos cheaper, quicker to produce, and easier to handle. This half plate tintype from my collection came with a memorial poem that has a lock of the deceased's hair sewn to the top. This piece of ephemera was underneath the plate.


Sometimes you also see empty cases with locks of hair inside, as in this example:

I feel confident that the hair is contemporary to the case because of the note inside, which I can tell from the ink, the style of handwriting, and the age of the paper is Victorian. Look out for modern materials and media like clear glue, fabric, inks, paints, or a modern style of handwriting. This is especially true for works on paper. The most obvious fakes I've seen used modern watercolors and crayon- the kind they give to kindergartners. But the best- that is to say, most duplicitous fakes I've seen use real Victorian paper with Victorian handwriting. Make sure all the elements add up. Does that memorial for a child who died in 1830 have die cuts glued on it from 1890? How is the hair fixed to the paper? In most of the genuine examples I've handled, the hair is sewn or pasted down with gummed die cuts, as you can see in this page from my Victorian hair album. Notice also the age staining on the paper and the correct handwriting.

Because these things were assembled at home by ordinary people, the quality of the work varies widely depending on how talented the maker happened to be. Fakers of not only hair works, but of any antiques that are handmade, take advantage of this fact and will throw things together that look "naïve." Be advised that even if the maker of a genuine piece wasn't particularly skilled, the work is rarely messy. And, well... Why would you spend your money on something that's messy when there are better pieces out there?

For framed pieces, inspect the back. If the piece was professionally framed and the back is sealed, is the paper ripped or torn? Does the wear on the back seem commensurate with age, or does it look like it was disturbed recently? Are the photo and the frame even from the same time period? A customer recently showed me a piece where a Victorian bouquet of hair flowers was put into an oval Victorian shadowbox... With a photo of two women from the early 1920s. The seller claims it's a (deep breath) "lesbian mourning piece."


If all this seems like a lot to hold in your mind at once, don't worry. The more time you spend looking at and handling these things, the more familiar you'll become. When you've trained your eye, you can trust your eye. Frankly, as you advance as a collector, the less appealing a random thing with a lock of hair thrown in will be to you. I always advise new collectors to save your money for the best of what you can afford. When every piece in your collection is special, you'll always be satisfied with what you bought. Try to attend good antique shows in your area, even if you know everything is out of your price range. There's no substitute for seeing things in person. Any good dealer will be happy to show you things, let you handle them, and answer questions candidly. Usually we're just excited someone else wants to share our interest!


Lastly, keep in mind that not every dealer who ends up with a gaff is dishonest. Everyone I know has goofed at some point or other- I certainly have. Even the appraisers on Antiques Roadshow get things wrong every now and then. My hope is that this quick primer will make you feel empowered to choose the piece that's right for you and to delve into further research. Happy hunting, hunties!


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