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Reagan blood sample vial for sale, controversy included

The auction of a tube that held blood taken after President Reagan was shot in 1981 draws interest from collectors of celebrity relics and opposition from the Reagan presidential foundation.

May 23, 2012|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • A sample tube contains blood taken from President Reagan after he was shot in 1981. The seller says his mother worked in a biological lab and asked to keep the sample after the lab was through with it.
A sample tube contains blood taken from President Reagan after he was shot… (PFC Auctions )

It's called Lot 160, a 5-inch glass tube that's unremarkable in every way — except that it purportedly held blood drawn from President Ronald Reagan as he lay struggling for life after an assassination attempt.

The vial, partially coated with a ring of a residue, is being offered for sale by a British online auction house where bids Tuesday reached nearly $15,000. A label and an accompanying document identify it as having contained a blood sample taken from Reagan at George Washington University Hospital on March 30, 1981, the day he was shot outside aWashington, D.C., hotel.

Officials at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in Simi Valley issued a statement denouncing the prospective sale.

"If indeed this story is true, it's a craven act and we will use every legal means to stop its sale or purchase," said John Heubusch, the foundation's director. "We've spoken to GW Hospital and are assured an investigation as to how something like this could possibly happen is underway. Any individual, including a president of the United States, should feel confident that once they enter into the care of a medical system their privacy and rights are held inviolable."

The auction provides a glimpse into a strange niche of the collecting world, where aficionados pay big bucks for locks of hair from the famous, empty bottles that held the pills of addicted celebrities and, sometimes, traces of the blood that pumped through presidential veins.

"Collectors are very interested in blood relics," said John Reznikoff, whose University Archives in Westport, Conn., is a leading dealer in historic artifacts. "Anything to do with assassinations is fascinating to collectors."

Reznikoff, who has an extensive collection of celebrity hair, said his inventory includes a bloody sheet that was used to wrap the head of the dying Abraham Lincoln. He said reputable auction houses have sold blood-flecked pieces of the leather back seat from the limousine that carriedJohn F. Kennedy as he was driven through Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The Reagan vial's unidentified seller on pfcauctions.com said in a statement that the tube came from the Columbia, Md., laboratory that analyzed blood samples for the hospital. The seller's mother, who worked at Bio Science Laboratories, asked the lab director whether she could take the tube home once the tests were complete.

"It has been in my family ever since," the seller said, adding that "the head" of the Reagan library earlier this year declined to buy it, urging instead that it be donated. After checking with the Secret Service and the National Archives, the official gave his reluctant OK for a sale, according to the seller's account.

"Since 30 years had passed by, he thought that it was simply something that was of no importance at this time and that I was free to do whatever I wanted with it," the seller wrote.

Melissa Giller, the foundation's spokeswoman, said the seller may have contacted the library, but did not approach the foundation. Started by Reagan to preserve his legacy, the nonprofit raises funds for the library and owns the right to the Reagan "name, likeness and image," Giller said in an email.

"President Reagan's blood would technically belong to his estate, which the foundation helps to control," she said.

The legality of the sale is an open question.

"It would raise an issue of concern with me inasmuch as this is a body part of the president of the United States, who had it extracted while serving as president," said Steve Proffitt, an Alabama attorney who writes frequently about auction law. "It's a body part, not a piece of separate personal property."

Darren Julien, whose Los Angeles auction house sold Marilyn Monroe's chest X-rays for about $40,000, said the problem is more moral than legal.

"It's not a piece we would have sold," he said, pointing out that Reagan died relatively recently, in 2004, and his widow, Nancy, and children are still alive.

Reznikoff, the Connecticut dealer in historical items, said the Reagan camp was indulging in "ridiculous saber-rattling and misguided self-righteousness."

"If they had it, it would go in a file cabinet somewhere," he said. "But this is a relic related to an important event in American history. There's nothing whatever disparaging about it."

On the auction house website, the anonymous seller, an Army veteran, echoes the sentiment: "I was a real fan of Reaganomics and felt that Pres. Reagan himself would rather see me sell it rather than donating it."

Reagan recovered from his chest wound but his press secretary, James Brady, was permanently disabled, and a police officer and Secret Service agent were wounded. The gunman, John Hinckley Jr., was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains in a psychiatric institution.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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