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?!"

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