The Contagion of Collecting

A lock of John Lennon’s hair just brought $35,000 at auction. The crusts of Justin Timberlake’s French toast sold for $3,154. A mucus-filled tissue used by Scarlett Johansson on The Tonight Show garnered $5,300.

Have you ever wondered why collectors pay such outrageous sums for items that most of us would throw in the trash? Sometimes, when I read auction results, I sit and shake my head in disbelief. What drives this sort of behavior?

Collectors have long believed that an object’s cachet “rubs off” onto an owner. I prefer to believe that ownership of such items merely offers “bragging rights.” My mother called it something else; to her, such objects were displayed as “conversation pieces.” Apparently, the truth is not that simple.

Yale University psychologists Paul Bloom and George Newman assert that a sub-conscious belief in magic is responsible for paying such high prices. Celebrity cachet is contagious, they say, and you catch it by owning items that celebrities have touched. Want to be as cool as Justin Timberlake? Buy his leftover breakfast. Want to write songs like John Lennon? Run your fingers through his lock of hair. In love with Scarlett? Own her essence. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, simply click your heels together three times, believe, and bid.

Say Bloom and Newman:

”Contagion is a form of magical thinking in which people believe that a person’s immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred to an object through physical contact.” Their findings suggest that “magical thinking may still have effects in contemporary Western societies.”

In the cases of JFK and Monroe, Newman and Bloom found that there was a direct correlation between the amount of contact an object received and a higher-than-expected auction price. In the case of Madoff’s goods, the opposite was true: items he touched brought less than expected. Once a scumbag, always a scumbag, it seems, and no one wants to catch the dreaded scumbag disease.

Think of “cachet contagion” in the way you would think of contagion by germs, which are commonly transferred by hand contact. Any object that might have been handled enough to absorb bodily fluids—blood, sweat, tears, saliva, dirt, etc.—raises value. More intimate contact means more value for positive celebrities, less value for negative celebrities.

To check their results, Bloom and Newman asked 435 volunteers to hypothetically bid on a sweater. Some were told the sweater belonged to a celebrity they admired, and others were told it belonged to someone they disliked. Still others were told that the sweater had been changed in one of three ways: it had been sterilized, moved or could never be sold again.

If the theory held true that a celebrity’s essence rubbed off onto an object, then the changes (especially sterilization) should negatively impact price for favorite celebrities and positively for despised celebrities. That’s exactly what happened: participants bid less for a sweater that had the positive mojo washed out of it, but more for a sweater that had its bad vibes cleansed.

What do these findings mean for you as a collector? There are a few takeaways:

For starters, cachet contagion is a placebo. It’s as true as voodoo. It works for you if you believe it. If the provenance—whether true or false—suits your mood, then so be it. You can entertain all your guests with the fabulousness of your find.

But, if you expect a profit when you sell, you’d better have good documentation to support your purchase. Bloom and Newman’s theory breaks down once prices cross the $10,000 threshold, so the more you paid the better your documentation will have to be. Plus, the market for used snotty tissues will have to hold.

When bidding on an item that once belonged to a celebrity, ask yourself if the luminary is viewed positively or negatively and how much the offered item might have been handled. You can bid more for well-handled items that belonged to an upstanding star.

The farther removed an item is from contact with a celebrity, the less it’s worth. Neil Armstrong’s ball cap sold for $12,000 but I doubt that Mrs. Armstrong’s cap would have brought that much money.

For now, that’s all I have to say on the subject. I’m going to go fix some French toast. Will consider all offers for the leftovers; shipping and handling extra.

Originally published by WorthPoint:

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