The celebrity memorabilia craze

People seem to love what are known as collectibles, items that have no functional use but they want to own either because they see it as an investment that they think will grow in value over time and/or because they attach some significance to it. In the case of the former category, one has thing like works of art and jewelry and people have been collecting them for a long time. Aesthetics play an important role in this market.

But more recently there has been a surge in people seeking out items whose only value is that they were once owned by a celebrity. In the March 25, 2024 issue of The New Yorker, Rachel Monroe takes a deep dive into this world.

One evening last November, Julien’s Auctions took over a private room at the restaurant for a three-day sale in honor of the company’s twentieth anniversary. There was a spotlighted stage full of objects that musicians had worn or touched or played: a scratched amber ring that Janis Joplin wore onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967; Prince’s gold snakeskin-print suit, small enough to fit on an adolescent-size mannequin; ripped jeans that had belonged to Kurt Cobain.

In the past year, the fine-art market has cooled, owing to uncertainty about the economy, but prices for celebrity-adjacent objects keep going up. A few weeks before the Julien’s event, Sotheby’s had auctioned off Freddie Mercury’s estate, drawing the most bidders the house had seen in two decades. “There was zero rationality to the valuations,” Chase McCue, the director of memorabilia at Hard Rock International, told me. “His mustache comb went for almost two hundred thousand.” The sale brought in more than fifteen million dollars, nearly quadruple the high estimate.

The items that people are willing to pay large sums for boggles the mind.

Fanatics, the sports-collectibles juggernaut, has been particularly ingenious at capitalizing on the fandom economy. The company sells collectibles featuring small slices of balls, bases, pucks, and nets from N.H.L. and M.L.B. games; for fifty dollars, you can buy a Yankees-branded pen that comes with a sprinkling of “authentic game-used dirt.”

Nolan spoke about the machinery of sports-memorabilia sales with some envy. “Players are sometimes wearing a different jersey each quarter,” he said. “It’s sent off and available in the market tomorrow.”

Julien’s has begun encouraging the musicians it works with to think of their clothing as a commodity. “We encourage, we educate them: ‘When you get done with the concert, put the jeans, the shirt, the shoes in a bag with the date and the city to put in the archives, because that could be ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars,’ ” Julien said. “It’s like printing money for a lot of these celebrities.”

In Nashville, I chatted with Ricky Limon, a genial, tattooed man who’s worked at Julien’s since the Neverland Ranch days. He was idly looking through the auction lots online, scrolling past the guitars to the items with three- and four-figure estimates: Elvis’s Phillips 66 charge card, Elvis’s membership card from the International Kenpo Karate Association, Elvis’s father’s Bible. In Limon’s years at Julien’s, he has bid on and won a handful of items, including David Hasselhoff’s leather-lined trenchcoat and a scepter that once belonged to Marlon Brando. There’s a talisman for every taste: Joan Didion’s collection of pebbles and seashells (recently sold at auction for seven thousand dollars); Paul Newman’s pocketknife (eight thousand dollars).

So what is driving interest in what some (like me) might see as useless discards? It seems like these collectors think that they have a sort of mystical relationship with items that had once been touched by their idols.

According to George Newman, a professor of organizational psychology and marketing at the University of Toronto who has studied celebrity auctions, the psychological principle driving buyers is the idea of contagion, sometimes summarized as “once in contact, always in contact.” On some level, we are convinced that a person’s essence passes into the objects that he handles. “It’s nothing material—it’s more like a magical belief that these objects have acquired . . . something,” Newman told me. “And that belief seems to have a real effect on the amount of money people are willing to pay.” A researcher who interviewed members of the Central Midwest Barry Manilow Fan Club in the nineties found that their most valued items were “things in the collection that actually touched Barry”

Mary Desjardins, a professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth, compared such items to saints’ relics. “Something like Elvis’s gas card—that has little value to someone who’s a historian or a scholar of Elvis,” she said. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with his talent, or his history as a performer. It’s just because Elvis touched it, because it belonged to him. It’s a bit of a fetish object. And the way fetish objects work, they’re sort of magical, in that the proximity to them, the touching of them, gives you some sort of power or sense of self that can’t be acquired otherwise.”

It seems to me a little like the way that some Catholics feel about the relics of saints.

I personally have zero mystical connection with items that have been touched by famous people. When I was retiring from the university, the library curator, knowing of my interest in evolution and admiration for the achievements of Charles Darwin, took me into the Special Collections room that had a lot of the original letters written by him. While it was fun to leaf through them, I felt no special tingle that I was touching something that Darwin had once touched. It was just pieces of paper, that I saw as only valuable to historians and archivists. A colleague of mine, a theater professor, was incredulous at my blasé reaction and that the only thing I took away from the experience was the knowledge that Darwin had terrible handwriting.

Collecting celebrity memorabilia is mainly harmless. If people want to spend money to buy things that are of value to them, that is their business. Problems only arise if it becomes some kind of an addiction and they start to spend money that they cannot afford and deprive themselves and their families of more important things in life.


  1. ardipithecus says

    This seems akin to psychics wanting a thing touched by the lost kids to help them find them; or to voodoo rituals that need something from the victim’s body (hair, nails etc.).

    I, too, am bereft of this sense. I wonder if it is something one can learn (I’m doing just fine without it, so I’m not going to try)? IME, people either have it or don’t and it does not change in their lifetimes.

  2. Tethys says

    I don’t collect memorabilia, but I would happily own multiple objects that were in the Freddy Mercury auction.
    He had excellent taste and had amassed a fine collection of gorgeous furniture and artwork.

    His mustache comb, nope ew, that’s not something I would want to own.

    I would have geeked out at Darwin’s actual letters, and felt very honored to be given the chance to handle and read them, though no desire to possess them.

    It’s not often that you can hold history in your hand.

  3. Katydid says

    It’s not just Catholics who like their relics (though when all that was going on, there were no Protestants so it was just The Church). Think of the shrunken heads created, collected and traded by various populations in the Amazon, and in Ecuador and Peru pre-Conquista. Or the Jesus-on-toast collected by Southern Baptists. Or all the memorabilia (tea towels, cups, plates, spoons, etc.) collected from Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and the marriage of Charles and Diana.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    In the episode of Black Adder where prince Edmund is appointed archbishop, he sets Baldric the task of ‘relic merchandising’ with the level of ethics that is usual for the series (if Trump was a fictional character he would surely be a descendant of Edmund. Or -more plausibly- Baldric).

  5. moarscienceplz says

    I grew up in a very small town in southern Arizona (pop. 4200) that, thanks to a federal education grant, had a TV station that broadcast over the local cable system which I worked at as a high school student. We were always looking for interesting people to interview, and one we found was a collector of Abe Lincoln memorabilia. As I recall, he had a pair of Lincoln’s eyeglasses, and a death mask, among several other things, and I remember thinking, ‘Just how many pairs of glasses did ol’ Abe own that some random guy in Arizona has one?’
    This experience made me highly dubious of the whole memorabilia racket.

  6. robert79 says

    Some memorabilia *are* valuable, just not in the mystical sense.

    I teach applied maths at an applied sciences university. A couple of years ago I taught a history of mathematics course, (not my specialty, but I do enjoy history) the students earned credit by writing a paper about a mathematician of their choice.

    I mostly got badly translated wikipedia copies.

    One student though, teamed up with her roommate (who actually studied history) and visited the Leiden university library where some letters by Descartes (iirc) were kept… (in a view only, probably atmosphere controlled room, fairly controlled…) she could only look at them, as she couldn’t read French or Latin (not to mention handwriting from centuries ago is also a puzzle!) Her paper was still mostly wikipedia fluff, but she got a good grade, mostly for just surprising me by going well above and beyond the assignment and telling a great story about how history is really done.

    In a sense those physical letters are memorabilia… they’ve long been transcribed, translated and digitised… but the originals are still worth something!

  7. Dennis K says

    At an expo a few years ago I touched a chunk of the Titanic that had been hauled up from the seabed. It felt much like cold, weathered steel. Nothing tingled and I experienced no visions of the dead or anything fun like that. My primary concern was to wash my hands given the line of tourists ahead of me who had just fondled the thing. My wife enjoyed the experience so I guess it was worth it.

  8. John Morales says

    There was a story in the news from not long ago:

    Tourists in the northern Italian city of Verona have once again created a hole in the right breast of a statue of William Shakespeare’s heroine Juliet.

    The bronze statue sits beneath the balcony in a tiny courtyard where Romeo is said to have wooed Juliet, attracting hundreds of visitors each day who flock there for a selfie and to touch the breast as part of a ritual that is believed to bring luck in love.

    But the sweat from their hands is believed to have caused a small hole to develop, the local newspaper L’Arena reported.

    This is the second time the abundance of touches have disfigured Juliet. In 2014, the original statue, which had stood in the courtyard for more than 40 years, was replaced with a copy costing €15,000 (£12,800), which was funded by a Catholic association.

    Juliet was at the centre of controversy in December after the headteacher of a school in Tuscany slammed the breast-touching ritual as “sexist”.

    “The damaged statue must be repaired, and there is little doubt about that,” journalist Enrico Ferro wrote on the local news website, il Mattino di Padova.

    “However, we also need to consider the future. Is it right to continue allowing tourists to touch Juliet’s breast? Or would it be perhaps more appropriate to accept the argument by the headteacher who judged it to be sexist?”

    Seems to me to be the same sort of thing, only cheaper.

  9. says

    Civilisation came barely the blink of an eye ago, on an evolutionary timescale; so we should not be at all surprised that humans still carry certain instinctive behaviours that would be desirable for survival as wild animals, either in packs or as solitary predators, or that these behaviour find a way to manifest even in spite of the things we have tacked on such as clothes, money and flushing toilets.

    An instinctive behaviour that would lead to storing surplus food to mitigate against future shortages certainly seems like the kind of thing that would be reinforced (or, to put it another way, populations where it was entirely absent might well be short-lived). But if you grew up in a town surrounded by high-quality food and all you had to do to get it was to hand over some shiny discs of metal, that collecting instinct might easily end up transferring itself onto something else instead.

  10. SailorStar says

    It sounds like #11 has hit on the reason.

    In medieval and renaissance times, knights going off to battle would request or provide a token (piece of cloth, etc.) to a woman they admired.

  11. Katydid says

    Speaking of memorabilia…on the way home from work, I stopped at a store that sells stuff for pets. They had baseball jerseys for pets, front and center. The cashier asked if I “forgot” to buy a jersey for my pet. No, my pet doesn’t need a $30 sportzballz jersey, just like I don’t need a $150 sportzballz jersey from my “favorite” sportzballz team…but there are entire stores dedicated to nothing but sportzballz memorabilia and knock-offs.

  12. Katydid says

    …and I didn’t finish my thought in 13 (long day). People buy sportzballz memorabilia to feel like they’re part of the team. In the UK the football hooligans will fight and die for their team. In the US, the (American) football and basketball fans will riot and burn down the town if their team wins/doesn’t win.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    @Katydid, 13:

    The cashier asked if I “forgot” to buy a jersey for my pet.

    I don’t think I’d have been able to resist asking if they “forgot” to offer it to me for free. What an insulting sales pitch.

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