Significant objects

A fascinating exploration of the the intersecting values of thing-ness and story-ness: thrift store junk given invented backstories and resold. At the Significant Objects website they’ve got detailed analysis of just what sort of narrative strategy seems to yeild the greatest increase in value at auction.

MIL: Where did the original idea come from?

Both Josh and I already spend too much time thinking about value and objects, I guess. There is one minor detail of interest in the back story of S.O.: I broke a coffee cup I’d bought as a souvenir on a trip with my now-wife, early in our relationship. I was very sad to have ruined it, but I realised it only had value to me—it was just a coffee cup from some diner—because of the story behind it. This got me thinking about whether stories for worthless-seeming objects could be invented, and whether that would increase their value. That led to conversations with Josh that culminated in Significant Objects: We would buy cheap thingamabobs from yard sales and thrift stores and the like, recruit creative writers to invent stories about them, then put the object up for auction on eBay with the invented provenance as its description. (It’s important to note that we were explicit about the invented nature of the Significance; there was no hoaxing.)

MIL: Are you surprised by the results?

We expected that the stories would increase the value of the objects—but we were very surprised by how much. The first round involved 100 objects/stories, and in the end we sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. (The money went to the writers in Volume 1, by the way.) That’s a Significance Markup of more than 2,700%. While nothing we bought cost us more than $4 (and most were a buck), several objects sold for more than $100. We did not think the prices would go that high. I still have old e-mail exchanges between Josh and me from the first week, as we were very excited to see auctions reach, say, $15.

from “Rob Walker, Consumer, Thingamabob Connoisseur,” by Ariel Ramchandani, More Intelligent Life, 8 Februrary 2010

Originally published at

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