Gordon Smith

Yale Proves Why We Covet Trinkets of Dead Celebs (and Saddam Hussein)

(Marilyn Monroe Dress)

The stuffed shirts at Yale University have figured out why we’d pay $6.5 million for a dress. It’s worth it, if it’s got a bit of that Monroe contagion.


Think of your most expensive piece of clothing. Even accounting for your splurgiest of splurges, you’re probably tapping out at a few hundred dollars, at most.

How about 6.5 million dollars? What if I told you the dress was owned by Marilyn Monroe, worn as she sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President” to JFK?

Still no?

Psychologists at Yale University have found that people are driven to spend big on the possessions of our dearly departed stars—the famous and the infamous—because it has what is called “contagion.” It’s a belief that a person’s “essence,” what researchers define as a person’s immaterial qualities (think of it like the belief in a soul), can be transferred to an object through physical contact.

Of course, this means that the more something has been touched, the more of someone’s “essence” will be transferred. More essence, more value. This is what makes celebrity clothing as in-demand (and somewhat disgusting, if you really think about it) as it is in auctions across the Internet.

Thankfully, the concept of celebrity touch driving up buyer desire is just one of three theories as to why exactly there is a market for the items celebrities once held dear. Or wore. Or sat on.

Another theory is that of association between the item and a memory, or feeling of nostalgia. Seeing a jacket your favorite actor wore in the 1990s will make you recall the 1990s and the joy seeing that actor gave you.

But then, this doesn’t account for items that belonged to people who were celebrities for all the wrong reasons. The psychologists’ cheery example is that of Saddam Hussein, who you would hope no one remembered fondly.

If it is the association between the “celebrity’s” item and the actions of that “celebrity” being remembered in a positive light which lead to nostalgic purchasers, surely no one would be snapping up the dictator’s buttocks or the rope that hanged him?

Except, people did. Remarkably, the rope used to hang Hussein went to auction at a massive 7 million U.S. dollars. Even more remarkably, Hussein’s bronze “buttock”—taken from his equally bronze statue—also found its way onto the bidding scene.

It failed to sell, receiving a £21,000 bid, well below the entirely reasonable reserve price of £250,000. With it, a major opportunity for post-modern artistic interpretation missed.

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The final theory is as cold as it is most likely: market value. Celebrity possessions are often one-of-a-kind and therefore a very rare find. Recognizing this scarcity and the significance the item may hold for those that fall in the association (or touchy-feely contagion) camp, connoisseurs buy up in order to sell high.

Like any good chicken/egg theory, there’s a train of thought derailing paradox. After all, what is it that makes buyers want these items anyway? There has to be an emotional factor, either in the attachment to the item itself or a sentimentality for the former owner.

Of course, human beings aren’t weird. You wouldn’t pay more for a T-shirt you saw a stranger try on in a store just because they’ve touched it. In fact, you probably don’t want it at all. For contagion to play a role, you have to have liked the person and had an admiration for them at a significant length. That’s why you would be more likely to buy that T-shirt if you were served by a salesperson you found very attractive, according to a study by the Association for Consumer Research.

That an Iraqi tyrant’s booty could be even considered for purchase kind of shoots this in the foot. You might see Hussein as being a part of history, but it’s very unlikely you see him in a nostalgic way.

The “why” behind buying what was once a dear celebrity’s armchair remains a mystery, in combination with supply and demand and subjective desire. Some auctions, like that of Monroe’s dress, are sold to organizations who wish to display them as a piece of historical information. That I can understand. But buying burnt strands of Michael Jackson’s hair? Or Elvis Presley’s soiled underwear? Not so much.

In the end, I’m not a millionaire, so I probably can’t put myself in their shoes. But maybe a few million would do well in buying a new house or a few hundred cars—or, dare I say, being given to charity.

Or maybe the thought of sitting where President Kennedy did is just too good to pass up.

On a still-living note, Britney Spears’ already-chewed gum sold for roughly $14,000 and apparently is one of many wads that regularly make an appearance on eBay. Disgusting, yes, but she too will pass one day.

Wad of gum today, wad of cash tomorrow.




Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the bigwigs in government to account.

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