Cast-offs with the 'contagion of celebrity' fuel a growing market

Psychologists say collectors of showbiz items hope some of the glamour rubs off on them
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The Independent Online

To the original owners, it is little more than clutter to be discarded. But to the fans who pay over the odds for the detritus of celebrity life it is precious beyond reason. Now, new research claims to explain why.

Fans bidding to get their hands on cast-off rock guitars, once-worn dresses and even old spectacle frames are hoping that a little of that megastar magic might rub off on them. Social scientists at Yale University have dubbed the phenomenon "celebrity contagion" and believe it outweighs other factors, from emotional to financial, that prompt bidders to spend record sums on items as seemingly obscure as the Walther air pistol held by Sean Connery to publicise the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love, which fetched a record £277,250 at auction last year.

Indeed, the cult of celebrity is being credited for fuelling the vibrant market in superstar memorabilia that has sprung up during the past two decades. Neil Roberts, head of popular culture at Christie's, said yesterday: "It's big business now. There are many professional dealers out there."

George Newman, a psychologist at Yale who co-wrote the study, due to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, said he had been "surprised by the degree to which contagion plays a role [in boosting what someone will bid for an item]".

He added: "When a person comes into physical contact with an item there's some transfer of a person's moral or psychological characteristic – some transfer of their essence. People see an object as containing some remnant of that individual."

According to the study, an object is most likely to fetch serious money if it retains the "celebrity's essence", meaning that a dress that has been dry cleaned would be worth less.

Somewhat bizarrely, there is even a market for replicas, as demonstrated by Fender's mass-produced Signature Series of guitars. Professor Newman cited the "law of similarity": broadly, a belief that things which resemble each other have similar powers. "Cultural practices such as burning voodoo dolls to harm one's enemies are consistent with a belief in the law of similarity. An identical Clapton guitar replica, with all of the dents and scratches, may serve as such a close proxy to Clapton's original guitar that it is in some way confused for the real thing. Of course, the replica is worth far less than the actual guitar that he played, but it still appears to be getting a significant amount of value for its similarity," he added.

One of Europe's most avid collectors, William Doyle, who lives in Ireland, said the popular appeal of celebrity memorabilia had prompted him to open an entire museum dedicated to cast-offs. He has "invested" £3m in the past six years to build up a collection that spans the black cocktail dress Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1963 film Charade to the only two garments previously owned by Grace Kelly that do not belong to the Grace Kelly Foundation. More than 350,000 people visited his Newbridge museum in Co Kildare, just south of Dublin, last year, including Judy Garland's daughter. "People are fascinated by the fact that these icons actually wore these pieces," Mr Doyle said.

Tom Fontaine, a collector of rock and pop memorabilia from Indianapolis, said he had around 2,500 pieces, including two pairs of Buddy Holly's glasses. "There is a monetary value to all this, but it's the history that's important. You're sitting on stuff that the artists were a part of. If you want the 'there', you're now 'there' when you hold these items," he added.

Additional reporting by Paul Bignell