BUFORD, Ga. — Dark had nearly fallen by the time the auctioneer called out: Who will offer $200 for General Custer's hairbrush?
A crowd was gathered Saturday for the liquidation of the Atlanta Museum, an obscure, sentimental collection that for years was housed in a Victorian mansion on Atlanta's Peachtree Street.
On the block were such curiosities as a chunk of the tree under which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, a fragment of rope allegedly used to hang Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and a glass jar President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to relieve himself during the night.
The collection was amassed by James Elliott Sr., an Atlanta antique dealer who so prized his antiquities that every time he made a sale he would "have to go to bed for a day or two," said his daughter-in-law, Mary Gene Elliott.
For decades, Elliott charged $2 to visit the house, where there were signs urging guests: "Observe Closely Objects of Historical Rarity."
Locals remember Elliott's museum as a mysterious, musty, exciting place where they were as likely to run into a fun-house mirror as a historically significant napkin ring. The stories behind the curious exhibits, written in Elliott's spidery handwriting, sometimes stretched credulity, said John Sexton, a local appraiser.
"Nothing in here is fake per se," said Sexton. "It's just the provenance is questionable."
That didn't keep Sexton from bidding $3,000 on a locket said to contain a swatch of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair. Of course, he reasoned, there's always a chance it's real.
Elliott's collection was part of a tradition of private Southern museums, where families would preserve twigs from Civil War battlefields or the sweat-stained uniforms of long-dead soldiers. By the time Elliott died in 1975, Atlanta had turned away from Old South nostalgia in favor of progressive boosterism.
In the final years the museum was open, "no one paid it any attention. No one visited," said Steve Slotin, whose auction house arranged the sale. The museum closed its doors in 1996 and is in the process of being sold.
"Atlanta has just moved on," Slotin said, "even though the rest of the Southeast has not."
But at the sale, buyers from all over the country leapt at Elliott's treasures. John Lamb, a Texas businessman who was born in Georgia, paid $76,000 for a cotton gin believed to be Eli Whitney's prototype.
Lamb flew into Atlanta just in time for the auction after reading about it in the Wall Street Journal.
After he made the purchase, people applauded. A waitress poured him a large plastic cup of Jim Beam.
"It's not that I wanted it for myself," said Lamb, 52. "I just didn't want someone in California to get it, you know?"
A dark-haired woman holding a phone, representing Ripley's Believe It or Not, bid $4,000 for a lock of President Andrew Jackson's hair and $6,250 for the Napoleon locket.
Ripley's placed winning bids on at least 10 items, including one of the most bizarre and bloody: a curtain tie from the room where Tojo, then the Japanese prime minister, tried to commit suicide by shooting himself after World War II. Tojo survived, but not for long; also included in the collection is a piece of rope that was eventually used to hang him.
All day, as they waited for the auction to begin, people milled around with expressions of surprise and puzzlement.
Durwood Pepper, 43, held up a jar containing a dried up piece of apple pie said to have been made by FDR's personal cook at Roosevelt's Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga. It was curved and black, like the insole of a boot. "Now, wouldn't that be nice to have at your house?" he said brightly.
A New York dealer, who had driven much of the previous day to reach the auction, grumbled about authenticity after examining several pieces of silver. He would drive back empty-handed.
"If that's Paul Revere, I'm Barry Bonds," he said.
Elliott received many of his exhibits from members of other Georgia families passing on treasures from their attics, and often relied on their accounts to establish provenance. That may have been an error, said one local collector, who refused to give his name out of fear of causing offense.
"In the South, when people are talking about the Civil War, there are an awful lot of colonels and generals that find their way into their families," he said.
Elliott also benefited from the turn-of-the-century habit of saving bricks or handkerchiefs or other mementos from the sites of historic events.
After Lee surrendered under a tree at Appomattox, curiosity-seekers "literally took that tree apart," cutting pieces out of it for souvenirs until they cut all the way down to its roots, said John Elliott, James Elliott's grandson.
James Elliott's chunk, along with two sketches of Lee, Lee's mother's sewing kit and a drinking glass Lee used, sold for $1,600. Sexton, the appraiser, said it was a fair price as long as the collector believed the story behind it.
"What's a chunk of wood worth?" he asked. "It doesn't matter!"