The Magical Law of Contagion

Why people pay silly money for strange celebrity memorabilia.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
A Harley Davidson jacket by owned by Elvis Presley at a press preview at a Christie’s auction in 2008.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

A broken toilet, two slices of half-eaten French toast, a pair of used boxer shorts: How much would you be willing to pay for these items? $16,027, $1,025, and $5,000 respectively, it turns out, if they happened to belong to John Lennon, Justin Timberlake, or John F. Kennedy.

Aside from providing fodder for endless listicles, celebrity memorabilia is a serious—and booming—business. You can put your money into a boring old government bond, or you can invest in one of Madonna’s used bustiers with Marquee Capital, an investment firm specializing in Madonna memorabilia, and watch it smash auction records.

The prices, of course, are just proxies for the emotional value we place on celebrity-touched items. Our talismanic feeling about Elvis’ tighty-whities has to do with a phenomenon scientists have dubbed “the magical law of contagion,” the belief that when a person comes in contact with an object, some part of his soul or essence rubs off on it. Basically, when you’re buying Scarlett Johansson’s used tissue (ew) you feel like you’re getting a little piece of ScarJo herself.

The theory that magical contagion drives diverse cultural practices isn’t new—anthropologists have noted that contagion explains centuries-old beliefs in things like voodoo dolls. But new research is revealing that the contagion effect is far more complex and far-reaching than one would ever suppose. The specific value we attach to celebrity-owned items, according to work by George Newman, a psychologist at Yale, depends on a surprising array of factors: the nature of the owner’s celebrity, the way in which that person interacted with the item, and even the culture you were raised in, dear eBay bidder.

We don’t value all the contents of a celebrity’s storage locker equally. By studying auction results from the estates of JFK and Marilyn Monroe, Newman found the items they came into actual physical contact with, like clothes or toothbrushes, wound up selling for far more than objects they rarely or never touched, like a chandelier or a library globe. 

Intuitively, it makes sense that collectors would haggle over sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe’s delicates, but what if it’s serial killer Aileen Wuornos’ pajamas we’re talking about, or a lock of Charles Manson’s hair?

A recent auction of Hitler’s personal effects—yes, this really happened—fetched record prices. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, the seller, a military-antiques expert named Craig Gottlieb, revealed that it is individual collectors, not museums or libraries, who are the primary buyers of Hitler’s personal possessions. So what’s up with all the Voldemorts lining up to buy the Führer’s shaving mug?

Newman and his team tried to answer this question by studying the auction results from Bernie Madoff’s sell-off, mandated by the government to reclaim money from one of the greatest financial frauds in history. The researchers found that in the case of evil celebrities, people are still sensitive to the issue of contagion, but it translates to less contact being a good thing. Buyers were willing to pay more for objects the infamous pyramid-schemer had little physical contact with. Madoff’s bed linens and clothes sold for lower amounts than expected, while relatively cootie-resistant things like a leather bull foot stool with the tail broken off fetched 10 times its presale estimate of $250-$360.

“There’s a kind of ‘ick factor’ associated with the personal contact,” Newman explained, “but then other market factors explain why they are actually interested in owning this item.” Newman can only speculate as to other nonfinancial, psychological reasons someone might pay $550 for a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies Charles Manson had in prison: “Maybe there’s some kind of benign masochism involved in the desire to own something that belonged to someone dangerous and powerful.”

In general, though, Newman found that the kinds of people likely to put a premium on either positive or negative celebrity memorabilia are also susceptible to other forms of magical contagion. They are, for example, likely to refuse to eat soup that has been stirred by a “used, but washed, flyswatter” and to have had a sentimental attachment to things like teddy bears or blankets in their youth.

Regardless of how much you are willing to pay for exactly 12 strands of Michael Jackson’s hair or Brangelina’s exhaled oxygen, chances are the person bidding against you comes from the West. Survey participants from the United States and India valued natural rarities like moon rocks and dinosaur bones equally. But people from India (who psychologists typify as belonging to a more “collectivist” culture) are not nearly as stoked that so-and-so contributed some magical BO to this particular Uniqlo shirt.

(Speaking of BO, on a practical level, Newman strongly recommends that if you do win George Clooney’s button-down on eBay, you refrain from dry cleaning it. His experiments reveal that people attribute less value to celebrity items once they have been “sterilized.”)

Our superficial, Western belief in the juju-enhancing power of celebrity apparently operates on a surprisingly abstract level as well. For instance, the person in question doesn’t actually have to be a celebrity per se—just anyone culturally agreed upon as morally good or bad. Nor does this person have to touch the item in question. Suppose a Buddhist monk designs a computer named “Happle” that automatically converts every spam message you receive into a beautiful haiku. Even though the monk himself never actually touched your machine, you will still feel like your Happle has a bit of the monk’s secret sauce in it. Weirder still, you will feel like the Happle itself is somewhat of a sacred object. And you will continue to believe your Happle is a magical monk delivery device, even after it breaks and you are once again the target of Canadian pharmacies shilling Cialis.

All of this leads one to fear the psychological sway of goods marketed based not on their quality but on the power of celebrity suggestion. Like G-Spirits, a German company that sells limited edition NSFW liquor that is bottled after being poured over the breasts of international models. Or maybe soon we’ll be paying top dollar for an artisanal soda that tastes like breakfast cereal based on an idea that came to Miley Cyrus in a dream. Before that happens I will have to book myself a ticket to Goa for some serious karma cleansing. Maybe those Indian people are on to something—I don’t know about you, but personally I’d rather have a complete Diplodocus skeleton in my living room than wear William Shatner’s kidney stone on my finger anyway.