We pay a whole lot of money for celebrity memorabilia; Steve McQueen’s jacket from Bullitt was expected to go for up to $800,000, last we checked (and then stopped checking, since that’s a tad out of our price range).
So what gives? Why not just get a replica, which is pretty affordable? Well, some scientists think that people believe that objects that have been in close contact with someone might transfer some of that person’s qualities to their new owner, much like Harry Potter wands. Scientists call it “contagion”. Sounds silly? It is, but a recent study published in PNAS backs the idea up (that people believe in it, not that it works).
Scientists looked through the public auction records of the estates of some very famous people, including JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Some there party participants then rated each item one through nine, based on how likely they though the item might have close personal contact with its owner. Example: JFK’s cigar cutter probably saw a lot of personal contact, whereas his wedding china probably didn’t. Then, the scientists compared these ratings with the eventual prices items got at auction, and found that items thought to have had more personal contact did indeed get sold for more money. Furthermore, the effect held up even for ordinarily inexpensive items.
In a second test, scientists asked how much they’d pay for their favourite celebrity’s sweater. When they asked again, this time explaining that the hypothetical sweater would be sterilized before the sale, the price dropped dramatically.
In a third test, the scientists found that contagion works the other direction too. They repeated their first test, except they examined the estate of noted scumbag Bernie Madoff, and found that people were willing to pay less money for his stuff if they assumed he’d had some contact with it.