Saturday, August 04, 2012

For What It's Worth

Sitting on a shelf in our finished basement are books, some dried flowers and a few random objects. Some might call them knickknacks, some tchotchkes, some simply junk. One in particular is a three-inch high sculpture of a gazelle-like creature with its head tucked back, made out of some kind of resin. It was given to my wife by a business associate who brought it back from Africa more than 20 years ago. Regardless of the original cost, were we to have a garage sale, someone might take a shine to it and offer us a nickel to take it away. 

But pretend for the moment that there was a story associated with it. Not a different provenance, mind you, just a literary connection. Let's say that I told you that it originally belonged to a young English girl named Eileen. Back in 1849, she had ventured with her father, the Duke of Waterford-on-Thames, to Cameroon after her mother had died. There she became friends with a small boy name T-ku-s'more, the son a powerful tribal chief. He gave her the small gazelle as protection. He told her if any bad spirits or rival tribes accosted her, she need only show it and they would understand that she was there as a guest of his father and leave her alone. She kept it with her always. Eventually she went back to England, keeping the gazelle as a reminder of her time with T-ku-s'more. 

I could go on. But here's a question: would this elaborate story make a difference to the gazelle's value? Would it now be worth more than a nickel? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. At least that's the upshot of a fascinating "literary and anthropological" experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. Called "Significant Objects," it started in 2009, and has blossomed into a recently published book of the same name. The idea is to take an item, and invest it with significance by creating fiction about it. According to their hypothesis, "the object should acquire not merely subjective but objective value."  

You can say it's hogwash, but the results says otherwise. To see for themselves, the two "curators" started by buying various castoffs at thrift stores and garage sales, never spending more than a few dollars on each. Then they paired each object with a writer, and asked them to create a story in any style or voice than involved the object. Finally, to test if the object is now "significant," they listed each for sale on eBay. As they say in their ground rules, "care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author's byline will appear with his or her story." 

The results are fascinating. A paper fan which originally cost $1.00 fetched $21.50 when accompanied by a story by writer Lakin Kahn. A one-paragraph description by Colson Whitehead boosted the original price of a 33-cent scuffed wooden mallet to a value of $71. And a small Russian figurine, which originally cost $3.00, when paired with a story from writer Doug Durst, finally went for $193.50. All in, the first wave of $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk brought $3,612.5, which went to the contributors. Subsequent outings have raised sums which were split between the writers and various literary-related charities, such as "Girls Write Now," the first organization in the United States with a writing and mentoring model exclusively for girls. 

By themselves, it's likely neither the object nor the fiction would probably fetch much. So why do they conjure up a buyer together? Perhaps the best explanation comes from a write-up in The Independent of London: "If this is a cynical marketeer's scam, rather than a mildly romantic social experiment, then consider me conned. What a thrill to be the nominal owner of a tale told by a favourite author, and to possess the very thing that inspired them – even if that significant object is too darned ugly for any sensible person's mantelpiece." 

As a writer, it's nice to see that there's value in the words. Or more correctly, the words bring value to something else. And so if you like the story of Eileen and T-ku-s'more, I'm happy to flesh it out. And then, with my wife's permission, I'll package it with the gazelle for your enjoyment. All I ask is that bidding starts at $1000.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been writing for a long time, usually for nominal value. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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