How much would you pay for a nutcracker James Dean used — precisely how, we can't guess — to pleasure himself? Or a cow-shaped creamer that once belonged to Norman Rockwell during a particularly dark period of his life?
Neither of those things exists, actually. But that's not the point. Rather, it's this: what gives an object its worth? Is it simply the cold calculus of market value? Or is it the irrational, talismanic properties with which we humans sometimes imbue our most random inanimate possessions?
Rob Walker, author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are (Random House), suspects the former. Josh Glenn, author of Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance (Princeton Architectural Press), leans toward the latter.
So, they started an experiment, Significant Objects (still ongoing; results logged at significantobjects.com), which works thusly: a tchotchke is bought for a buck or two at a thrift store. A writer (many of them quite well known) is told to craft the trinket's fictional back-story. The object is listed on eBay with that tall tale as its descriptor (its fictitiousness is plainly stated). The winning bidder gets the object, and a printout of the author's story; the proceeds of the sale go to the writer. The curio's purchase price is compared with what it — and its life story — fetches on the online marketplace.
Whether it's "about branding and marketing" or the "weird and crazy ways supposedly enlightened modern people still attach significance to objects," the Boston-based Glenn argues that an object's worth ultimately "has to do with telling stories."
So far, Significant Objects has given us some corkers. Take Colson Whitehead's explanation of how a worn wooden mallet will allow its owner to enter a spatiotemporal rift over Laramie, Wyoming, in 2031 and "become the supreme ruler of the universe." (So long as he or she has also completed the "8 Labors of Worthiness," which Whitehead is concurrently listing on his Twitter page.) Or Luc Sante's description of the mixed-up role of a Sanka ash tray — bought at a Savers in Dedham — in a botched Beverly Hills diamond burglary.
The marquee names — Stewart O'Nan, Kurt Anderson, and Ben Greenman among them — have obviously upped interest in these particular auctions. And, in fairness, they may be artificially inflating some of the prices. Many bidders, says Glenn, are confessed fans of the authors.
Still, it's nice to imagine a bathrobed housewife in Wisconsin surfing for bargains late one night and quietly having her mind blown when she stumbles onto these stories, in what is essentially "a literary magazine [published] through eBay."
The plan for Significant Objects is to auction 100 items. "We just passed the 50 mark this week," says Glenn, who notes that "we also passed the $1000 mark last week."
That's $950 in profit on about $50 worth of garage-sale junk. The highest seller so far? A Russian doll — author Doug Dorst dubs him "Vralkomir of Dnobst, the patron saint of extremely fast dancing" — sold for $193.