Weird And Wonderful Auctions: Why we go crazy for celebrity items

Those of you who follow the BBC News Instagram page – maybe, like me, in an attempt to keep up with the intellectual sparring that happens over seminars and lunch tables at university – will have had a peculiar occurrence highlighted to you over the last few months. Perhaps in an attempt to intersperse lighthearted nuggets amongst the more grisly aspects of current affairs, the BBC team has posted the bemusing outcomes of various celebrity-owned-item auctions. 

In March, the shirt Colin Firth wore in Simon Langton’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was listed as part of the ‘Lights Camera Auction’ sale. Despite the apparent confusion of headlines as to whether to describe the (now, presumably, very dry) shirt as ‘wet’, I’m sure you know the one – the subject of longing sighs and titillated shrieks in living rooms across Britain circa 1995. The one that arguably set the scene for 21st-century male sex symbolism – it walked so Daniel Craig could stride, in slow motion, out of the sea eleven years later. So clearly, a culturally significant item – yet, in practicality, a used cotton shirt. It sold for £25,000.

The sale was part of an auction of various costume pieces from the past 20 years of film, with the money going towards The Bright Foundation, which promotes accessibility of creative pursuits for children. Other pieces in the collection included a cerise taffeta ball gown worn by Madonna in Evita, lofty velvets from Downton Abbey, and an irreverent and dapper three-piece worn by a Peaky Blinder (although, sadly, minus the eponymous hat).

Costume design does indeed remain a fundamental pillar of modern cinema. Just think of the inescapable Barbie pinks of last July, Jacob Elordi’s yellow linen shirt sashaying across TikTok in November, and Bridgerton’s pastel taffetas splashing across our screens in May. But beyond the pieces’ role in costume history, what drives the prices up is their close adjacence to celebrity. This is demonstrated by other sales of this year: in May, a guitar used by John Lennon sold for $2.9 million and a watch owned by Winston Churchill went for £76,000. 

This is not a new phenomenon. Many items have previously raised remarkable amounts purely through their relationship with a famous individual. These range from the inane to the disgusting: Jackie Onassis’ tape measure sold for approximately $48,000, a piece of bubblegum chewed by Britney Spears famously sold for $160, and a tissue used by Scarlett Johansson went for $5300. So why do we go bananas for any celebrity item, including the ones that are useless or unpleasant?

One contributor is of course market value: buying an item in the hope that its value will increase, and can therefore be sold for profit later. But, this is perhaps an outcome rather than a cause – how is this market value generated in the first place? The scarcity of a commodity by itself, without an association with a famous individual, isn’t enough to drive a market in dysfunctional bric-a-brac used by you or me.

One prominent theory is that it relates to the concept of ‘contagion’. This idea holds that a person’s ‘essence’ – their assets, traits and individuality – can be transferred to an object purely through physical contact. A superstar can wander the world imbuing objects with their sparkle; a villain, on the other hand, leaves behind things infected with depravity. In the laboratory, individuals are reluctant to even try on a sweater owned by Hitler but become keen to if it has so much as brushed against an attractive salesperson. 

This ‘contagion’ is one strand of ‘magical thinking’; human beliefs about the universe persist despite a lack of causal evidence (other examples include superstition and ‘everything happens for a reason’). Although individual people vary on how strongly they exhibit contagion beliefs, they are consistently reported by anthropologists across many cultures, and seen relatively early in human development. So this persistent belief that an object can take on human qualities with a kind of buzzing, ephemeral energy seems to be relatively innate.

These contagion beliefs may be particularly powerful at inducing behaviour regarding celebrity culture due to our evolved survival tactics. Showing neurotic, meerkat-esque vigilance towards individuals with prestige and resources is adaptive because it promotes vicarious learning and survival. If we pay enough attention, our brain thinks, we too could achieve such status and riches. Accordingly, brain scans show differential activation when someone outperforms us at a task, including activation of areas related to emotion and decision-making. If you want to embrace full-throttle determinism and claim your genes made you trip, fall and scroll through the Snapchat celebrity columns, go for it.

This tendency to fixate on those performing ‘well’ in society combines with the human need for social connection to form a heady cocktail: the parasocial relationship. The potency of such relationships was demonstrated neatly in one of the most recent celebrity auctions: The Cinema for Gaza Auction. This admirably raised £261,000 for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians. Its smorgasbord of offerings did include physical items, like those mentioned above; Annie Lennox’s handwritten lyrics to Sweet Dreams, and a Doctor Who clapperboard. But this auction also featured purchasable interactions with celebrities themselves: within the padded safety vest of Zoom, they could sell a dream of a few minutes in their presence. If you had always dreamed of receiving a ‘porridge tutorial’ from Josh O’Connor, a bedtime story read by Tilda Swinton or a cup of tea with Joseph Quinn, you were in luck.

This list of ‘items’ demonstrates how celebrity interaction has become a marketable commodity. Parasocial relationships are money-making not just through marketing power but as a product in and of themselves. So how far could this go? Are we lurching into a dystopia – or utopia? – where the selling power of celebrity can cure the world’s suffering? Will World Peace be funded by Sabrina Carpenter giving personal espresso-making tutorials or a Teams call with JoJo Siwa on how to cast karma spells through the power of dance? Maybe not. But it is unequivocal that celebrity holds powerful sway over us due to our biological and social make-up- and technology has both strengthened and commodified this relationship. This power, and its potential implications on everything from voting to purchasing behaviour, should not be underestimated in today’s society.

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