The Couch Surfer: 'If Significant Objects is a cynical marketeer's scam, then consider me conned'

Tim Walker: eBay proves that even a worthless item can acquire value if it comes with a good story

It will be 10 years this October since eBay first banged its gavel in the UK, almost 15 since the auction site was founded in California. In that time, husbands have used it to sell their wives, and wives to sell their husbands' cars.

Water from a cup once sipped by Elvis went for $455, a toasted cheese sandwich bearing an image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000. During the country's economic meltdown last year, someone tried to sell Iceland – not including Björk – for 99p (eBay shut the sale down when it reached £10m). In January John Harris, a writer for satirical newspaper The Onion, auctioned a joke or, as he put it, "less of a joke and more of a dated, Capote-esque cocktail party bon mot, but more feeble." Bidding closed at $365.

eBay has proved that even an apparently worthless item can acquire value if it comes with a good story, and this is the principle that US writers Rob Walker and Josh Glenn have harnessed for their new website, Significant Objects (significantobjects.com). The pair spend their spare time hunting for tat in charity shops and jumble sales, picking out and purchasing the most useless and unsightly objects they can find. Next, they commission a respected fellow writer to create a story around said objects, lending each an imagined significance that will potentially recommend it to a real-life reader.

To test the theory, Walker and Glenn then flog the object on eBay (making clear that the story is fictional), and present the winning bidder with the object and a printout of the accompanying story. The proceeds from the sale go to its author. Among the items already sold are a china mule tugging a cart (original price $1, final price $14.50), a tray in the shape of a duck (original price $3, final price $71), and a Fred Flintstone Pez dispenser (original price: 50 cents, final price: $5.50).

The lengthening list of esteemed contributors includes Luc Sante, who imagined a cheap ashtray into a one-page diamond heist comedy thriller, thus boosting its value by approximately 1,800 per cent. Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil and Sunnyside, conjured from a kitsch figurine a fictional talisman that could, were its owner so motivated, be used to summon Lucifer himself.

At the time of writing, novelist Nicholson Baker had turned a defunct meat thermometer to gold – well, to $51, so far – with a mere four sentences: "Everything had a temperature in those days. Cheese was cold. Avocados were warm. My heart was a piece of hot meat pierced by love's thermometer."

Walker writes a column for the New York Times Magazine about product marketing and consumer behaviour, and is the author of I'm With the Brand: the Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. Glenn's last book was called Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance. Both, then, are well aware of how and why things sell: how the sentimental, subjective value of inanimate objects frequently bears no relation to their objective, quantifiable value. Significant Objects is a variation on the theme played by any ad man, brand manager or Argos catalogue caption writer.

But Walker and Glenn can hardly have started the site to make their fortunes. As of their last blog post, a month after the project began, their trinkets had collectively cost $29.01 and earned them, "post-Significance", $462.33 – a net profit of $433.32, or about £130 each. If this is a cynical marketeer's scam, rather than a mildly romantic social experiment, then consider me conned. Significant Objects combines one of the oldest of all media – the near-improvised short story – with the reinvigorated writer-reader relationship afforded by Web 2.0. What a thrill to be the nominal owner of a tale told by a favourite author, and to possess the very thing that inspired them – even if that significant object is too darned ugly for any sensible person's mantelpiece.

***

What happens when the internet breaks? Google occasionally suffers from outages. On Thursday, Twitter was forced offline for two hours by a cyber attack on a Russian/Georgian blogger, leaving me bereft of updated information on Demi Moore's bottom and the recording of John Mayer's new LP. And the previous week, Wikipedia went down. In that heart-stopping half-hour, as one office wit observed, students, speechwriters and subeditors across the world must have been tearing their hair, crying: "Quick! Somebody tell me five interesting things about eBay! And what the hell is the capital of France?!"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice