Would You Pay More …

… for a Sanka ashtray if Luc Sante made up a story about it? Apparently at least a few people would, as Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker found when they launched a project called Significant Objects, where they paired up creative writers with objects bought at garage sales and asked them to make up a story about the objects. Each object is for sale on eBay, where anyone can bid for it. So far, a Candyland labyrinth game bought as a thrift shop for $0.29 — with a story about it written by Matthew Battles — now has a top bid of $9.50. Does that supersonic premium reflect the quality of Battles’s story, the value of participating in an interesting project, or perhaps some new Candyland scarcity? [%comments]


Maybe it just reflects the difference in consumer base. (...not that I disagree with the idea that publicity increases the perceived value of an object.


...Didn't you just artificially inflate demand and mess up their experiment by giving the item special publicity on a popularly viewed website?


I'd probably pay someone $9.50 to take our version of Candyland out of our house so I never have to set foot on that God-foresaken primary-colored path ever again. I might even pay another $9.50 not to hear a story written about it.

Ben D

How long did it take to write the story? This doesn't sound like a very attractive business model unless the stories don't have to be unique for each trinket. I'm not a writer, but I image it would be tough to make a living writing $9 stories.

David Fischer

We've known this for years, thanks to Seinfeld's "J. Peterman" character and his catalog with outlandish tales of his (fictional) adventures.


"I'm not a writer, but I image it would be tough to make a living writing $9 stories."

Now that newspapers and magazines are imploding, ex-journalists will take anything they can get!


So long as other people accept these fake provinces, I'm all in. After all, what's the difference between a regular pipe and one used by Einstein?

"My author fried says this chair dates back to Louis IVX and has a rather amusing story relating to how he acquired it."

"Sounds good to me, let me fetch my checkbook."


A good tale can do wonders for bidder activity - whether or not they cough up is not always clear. See below for an excellent example of this phenomenon



I, personally, love this concept. I mean, come on! We fall for it all the time already! Only the "story" in this case happens to be of the written word instead of those told by designers to the fashion elite and those who aspire to be. After all, why else would any one in their right mind pay nearly $500 for a designer t-shirt (oh yes! they exist!) when everyone knows the $5 Hanes will perform just as well over the long run?

Who's telling the story now?


The story on Trade Me (the New Zealand version of E-bay) garnered a heap of media attention, and the machine ended up being bought by a washing machine selling company.

Check it out and you will be entertained. The amount paid of $5160 paid exceeded it's usual value by about $5000

(Note to anyone who might think people really believed in aliens - this story comes from New Zealand, where the art of irony is alive and well)



I'm sorry, but don't think this has anything to do with the story that the author wrote about his Ebay item. I think this just shows how prices are very arbitrary in many cases. Nobody knows how much one should pay for a used Candyland game. Most people have nothing to use for comparison - no way to make any sort of rational decision about it. In this case, whoever bid $9.50 just knows that they want Candyland and someone else bid $8.50. They don't know that it could have cost them only $0.29.

Also, I don't know if there is a term for this, but I believe that there is a certain threshold below which people don't think or care about price... maybe below $5 or $10 for most people. For example, when I want milk I go to the store and buy it without stopping to see whether it is $2.50 or $4.00. That's a 60% price difference but it just doesn't seem like a big deal because the total is less than $5. I'll bet that demand for any item is very inelastic until the price goes above whatever people consider to be a "significant" amount of money. If you can determine that threshold you can get away with selling very cheap items at an obscene profit margin.


Bas Schmitz

I think in a case like this, the buyer is saying he values the story at $9.50, as opposed to the physical game itself.

It probably made him laugh to think someone had gone to all that trouble to write a story to sell such a small item.
Now, every time he picks up his newly acquired Candyland game, he will most likely remember how he got it and laugh again.

Also, he has a great story to tell his friends and family, which will also make them laugh.

The more I think about it, $9.50 was a pretty good deal!

S. Salyer

You are paying for an object of inspiration but I'm sure the quality of the story and the author's fame index contribute.

Eric M. Jones

Wouldn't you like to have a sports jacket custom made for Bernie Madoff? How about a key ring or a pair of cuff links?


What about the story of the groom who was left at the altar who auctioned off the absent bride's wedding dress on ebay? The difference was that he was wearing the dress in the picture and he told a story about it. The dress sold for around $13k if I remember correctly. All he wanted was $500k. Any advertising 101 course will tell you that you can siginificantly increase the perceived value of something with a little work.

Lela Graybill

It was with much interest that I read of the Significant Objects project. Last year the collaborative art duo Goatsilk—Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters—launched a nearly identical project, not as writers, but as visual/new media artists. This is from their project statement:

For 20 working days in June 2008, Goatsilk excavated discarded objects, sites and histories from the lands around Earthquake Lake in southwest Montana. With a series of docu-dramas we envisioned the life of each item, subsequently placing them for auction on eBay. The project unfolded in real-time on our blog, eBay, Facebook and YouTube, creating a linked circuit between 3 of the Internet's most visited sites and our own virtual outpost.

Daily Treasures: Living off the Land! experiments with the possibilities for elevating the real value of these all but forgotten objects by restoring some significance to the reality of their loss and decay. The significance we help bring to each item may be expressed in several ways: financial capital produced through eBay sales, symbolic capital accrued with Internet popularity, and the artistic capital derived from the labor and creativity required to realize the project on a daily basis. Weaving history and memory, sentiment and satire, fiction and reality, Daily Treasures evokes the possibilities—and limitations—of “living off the land.”

I think the parallels to the Significant Objects project are evident, with a difference of profile. My own area of scholarship is not in contemporary art, and I'm making no claims for the relative strengths or weaknesses of either project (full disclosure: Bloch and Peters are friends). But there's no denying that name recognition and access to major media outlets plays a vital role in the value that the objects in either project are able to accrue. In truth, the issues raised here are not so much about financial capital, but about artistic and symbolic capital (as the comments above begin to suggest).

As an art historian (in the midst of preparing for a course on “Art and the Public Sphere”) these questions are very much on my mind. In the Eighteenth century (my area) a burgeoning media culture was the key component in creating even the possibility for art as we know it now, but the ideals of democracy/meritocracy replacing aristorcracy were, of course, far from realized. I love the internet, love web 2.0, love the fact that complex projects such as Significant Objects and Daily Treasures exist. I also wonder where the limits to that complexity lie, something that contemporary scholars and critics have examined far more actively than myself. But if projects such as this can raise the question of limits, I suppose we're on track.

Lela Graybill
Asst. Prof. of Art History
University of Utah



perhaps the demand curve of thrift shop customers is significantly different than the ebay customer demand curve

Robert H. Heath

Why do folks get so fixated on percentages?

A $9.21 premium is 1 hour and 16 minutes at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. Surely the author has invested this much time in the story-telling. In all likelihood, quite a bit more.

What's so puzzling about this?