Yard sale shoppers are often treated to a bit of back story about the objects being sold, which can really be good or bad. Sometimes the owner’s sentimental attachment causes them to price it unreasonably high. Or they might tell you something that makes you decide to put the item back down. (“Those belonged to my skanky ex-girlfriend.”)
Other times, the added information makes you more interested in the item. Once I decided to buy a $3 shirt only after learning that the seller had bought it in Paris. Another time I’d already bought a small wood table, but I liked it even better when I learned of its previous history as the “kitchen table” in a school bus which housed the seller’s family when she was a child.
But what happens when the information about an object is completely made up? The Significant Objects project is an attempt to find out. Curators Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker buy things at thrift stores and yard sales, then get writers to create completely fictitious stories where the object plays a prominent role. The item is then put on eBay — with the story as its sole description. And sure enough, the objects sell … for much more than their original purchase price. (Winning bidders also receive a printed copy of the item’s story.)
The stories in the auction listings are clearly marked as “invented.” In some cases this is a good thing: who would really want to risk the curse of Mark Frauenfelder’s miniature bottle or Jason Grote’s creepy dome doll?
In other stories, you almost wish they were true. Shelley Jackson’s charming tale of a crumb sweeper, previously the property of a fastidious werewolf, manages to transform an object that’s frankly somewhat icky into a lovely souvenir. And how much cooler is this coconut cup when you imagine that it really did come from Space Beach?
As someone who spends too much time looking at unwanted yard sale objects, it’s fascinating to see such items injected with invented meaning. The stories do add significance to the object in question, and maybe even others of their kind. I wouldn’t have thought twice about passing up this Missouri shotglass at a yard sale, but if I see it around now, you can bet I’ll buy it … purely because I dug the story Jonathan Lethem created for the one that was part of this project.
With the completion of Phase 1’s 100 stories, the project’s curators are examining the data collected through the auctions. They’ve created charts and discussed various factors — timing, story themes, type of object, visual appeal, etc. — in search of trends that might help explain why some objects sold for more than others. Author fame seems to be a factor in some cases (the person who bought Colson Whitehead’s Wooden Mallet is presumably a fan, later getting him to sign it). But some of the highest-priced items had stories written by less famous writers. And while most buyers probably found the auctions from the stories, I’d love to know how many people stumbled upon these auctions by accident. What if some dalmation lover was browsing for a “spotted dogs figurine” and ended up finding the listing with Curtis Sittenfeld’s poignant description?
Maybe there are discrete factors that will be shown to affect the price of an object, but it seems to me that the actual significance of an item is based on something less quantifiable. Something about its story gave the object more resonance. What is it? Only the person who spent that much knows for sure. (Or maybe not. How many times have we bought something just based on a vague feeling that the object is somehow calling to us?) A more “qualitative” research phase is coming up soon, so maybe we’ll hear more from some buyers to find out just what they were thinking when they placed their bids.
And meanwhile, Phase 2 has begun: a 50-story charity fundraiser, with all proceeds going to the very worthy nonprofit group 826 National. So far, the stories are equally fascinating (with similarly yard-sale-reject-worthy items) — a few of my favorites are the “Women & Infants” Glass, Hippie Bear Ornament, and even a forlorn-looking Pincushion Owl (which, according to Margaret Wertheim’s story, is holding together the very fabric of the universe. Who knew?)
And this is where I come in! I have contributed a story about this object.