The Miami Herald
Mon, Sep. 03, 2007

Relics of Che Guevara's capture and death for sale

BY LUISA YANEZ

The Miami exile who helped capture and bury Che Guevara is auctioning a lock of the rebel's hair he has kept secret and under lock and key for 40 years

The Miami exile who led the mission to capture Ernesto Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia is auctioning a treasure trove of memorabilia from the iconic figure's last days.

Among the items for sale: a lock of Che's long, wavy hair snipped minutes before the rebel leader was buried in a common grave 40 years ago.

''It's time for me to put the past behind and pass these on to someone else,'' said Gustavo Villoldo, 71, a now-retired grandfather who led the joint CIA-Bolivian army mission to stop Che's aspirations to duplicate a Cuban-style revolution.

Villoldo has preserved a large scrapbook of his controversial assignment, but one he is proud of.

Villoldo, a Bay of Pigs veteran whose role in Che's demise is confirmed in unclassified secret documents, considers Che a cold-blooded killer partly responsible for his father's shattered life and suicide in the wake of the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro and Che, his right-hand man, to power.

Villoldo has joined forces with Heritage Auctions of Dallas, the world's largest collectibles auctioner, to stage a first of its kind, international sale of his Che scrapbook on Oct. 25 and 26.

They hope to attract bids in excess of six figures.

Besides the thick strand of Che's sunburned hair, the auction winner inherits:

The original map used by Villoldo and the Bolivian army to hunt down Che and his band of rebels, including the famed Tania. All had come to Bolivia to spark another Cuban-style revolution.

Telegrams Villoldo received from then-Bolivian President Rene Barrientos about the progress of the mission.

Photographs of a dead, shirtless Che on display in a laundry room sink in Bolivia. Prints and copyrights are included.

Intercepted messages between Che and his rebels, which eventually led to their deaths after gun battles with the Bolivian army.

And one of two sets of Che's fingerprints taken before burial. Villoldo kept one; Cuba has the other. Che's hands were eventually severed to prevent Cuba from identifying him easily.

Tom Slater, director of the Americana Department for Heritage, expects the bidding -- which can be done in person, online, by phone, fax or by mail -- to be lively for the one-of-a-kind scrapbook.

PRICE UNPREDICTABLE

Slater says it's hard to predict how much the scrapbook will net -- there's nothing comparable on the market. But Slater said the items have great historic value and Che's bearded and bereted mug is among the most recognizable on the planet.

''We cannot recall ever having seen artifacts relating to Che's dramatic career and death appearing on the auction market, and we expect this offering to excite broad bidder interest,'' he said.

At a recent auction at Heritage, for example, a sword once presented to Ulysses S. Grant, fetched $1.6 million.

But Grant is no iconic sweetheart -- and that is encouraging to Slater.

''On any given day in the world, I estimate 20 million people are wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt,'' Slater said. "He is one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century, whose swashbuckling revolutionary persona has remained an enduring presence in popular culture.''

Whatever the winning bid is, the auction house will keep between 15 to 19 percent of the proceeds. Villoldo gets the rest for his slice of history .

The old-fashioned scrapbook is being sold in its entirety, not piecemeal. Slater thinks the bidders attracted will be multi-faceted.

''Some will come for the historical value of the items; others may simply collect the hair of famous people,'' he said.

Paula Belanger, who appraises collectibles at Showcase Antique Center in Sturbridge, Mass., said the Che sale sounds "very interesting.''

''Without looking at it, I would say some people may be gaga over the lock of hair, but the more historical items, like the map and the fingerprints, may generate some interest, too,'' she said.

International interest may have already been sparked. Back in March, Villoldo caused a stir when he revealed to The Miami Herald that he had secretly kept the lock of hair -- and thus Che's DNA -- all these years.

He had hoped the hair would help debunk Cuba's claim that the remains of the island's 1959 revolution hero had been unearthed and flown back to Cuba in 1997, where they now rest in Che's popular museum in Santa Clara.

Last month, Cuban officials said they have again certified that the right man rests inside the right tomb.

Granma, the island's official government newspaper, said several features of the remains of Guevara ''left no room for doubt'' they were authentic, including the pronounced bridge over the eyes and brow and prominent frontal lobe of the skull that ''characterized'' Guevara, the article said.

The article did not say whether any new DNA tests had been performed. Villoldo had offered to give a strand from his clump of hair to compare with the DNA from the remains in Cuba. He wanted Che's children to know where their father was buried. Neither Cuban nor Bolivian government authorities have contacted him.

In the meantime, Villoldo has received offers for the scrapbook and decided to sell it.

He also attracted the attention of the BBC, the British news service, which is currently filming a documentary about Villoldo's role in the capture of Che.

LAST DAY OF LIFE

The end for Che -- and the birth of his mythology -- came days after his capture by Bolivian soldiers and execution the following day, on Oct. 9, 1967, in a schoolhouse in La Higuera, a small village.

Che's body was then flown to headquarters in Vallegrande, where Villoldo, the only U.S. advisor on site, along with other high-ranking Bolivian military personnel, had to decide what to do next.

By then, news of Che's death had spread across the globe.

Scores of international photographers flew to Bolivia to snap proof that Che was dead. His body was put on display in a laundry room in a hospital in Vallegrande.

Disposing of Che's body, and keeping Cuba from recovering it and turning Che into a martyr, became Villoldo's problem.

BURIAL PLAN

Quickly, a plan was hatched with Bolivian officials to secretly bury Che and two of his men in an nearby airstrip under construction. It would be done in the middle of the night, while reporters slept.

In the wee hours of Oct. 11, 1967, Villoldo and three Bolivians carried out the burial with the help of a pickup truck and a front-end loader.

It took Cuba another 30 years to find and claim it had found Che's body. But there was a problem. Cuba said it had found six men buried in the same grave along with Che, which made Villoldo suspicious.

''We buried three men that night and four more ended up in the same grave? That's hard to believe,'' said Villoldo, who continues to have his doubts.

No matter, Villoldo is moving on with his life.

He's just keeping one thing about Che's death to himself: the coordinates of where Che and his comrades were buried.