The memory factory: Memorabilia collection goes from a hobby to an industry
Thanks to disposable incomes, internet ‘cult’ures, and simple human dispositions
A woman spots her husband cosying up to another woman at the football stadium. He is clearly cheating on her. She heads home and coolly sells his football memorabilia worth $45,000 collected over 15 years for $50. We do not know if the couple divorced after this or not, but as far as the man is concerned, his worst nightmare has come true. And, that isn’t even his wife finding out about his little affair. Or leaving him. For any collector, this would be tantamount to a death blow. In fact, one doesn’t even have to be a proper collector. Have we all not felt our hearts stop when our PCs or hard drives crashed? Have we all not despaired, and grieved over years of favourite music, movies and photos lost? Have we not Googled every trick on the net and frantically knocked at many technicians’ doors to see if our respective collections could be salvaged?
To own is to know
We are frantic because collected objects represent memories and thereby ourselves. Losing a collection is verily like losing ourselves. Collecting behaviours can be traced way back to our ancestors, when a nomadic- pastoral existence gave way to a more settled, agricultural way of life. Hoarding practices that probably began as a means to ascertain survival have also been linked to a search for potential mates. It’s no different from checking bank balances even now, is it? But collecting, like all human behaviours, is a complex one and motivated by a number of factors. Freud theorised that this was a manifestation of the anal-retentive phase, when a person counters the anxieties of involuntary loss (excretion) by collecting certain things, thereby resuming control. Some researchers have proposed that we start collections to justify our excesses and wasteful behaviours; when we come to own more than one piece of the same kind of object, we tend to start collecting. It is also motivated by the more obvious factors of pleasure, challenge, habit, learning, social interaction and prestige, and sometimes even altruism (by way of donating personal collections in the end). This is true of most amateur collectors. The additional aspect of profit-making comes in with professional collectors.
Cabinet of curiosities
The first well-documented instances of collections start with the ‘cabinet of curiosity’, populating which was a common pastime for the European aristocrat. As the world opened up post the Industrial Revolution, men of knowledge and abundance started travelling to new shores. In these strange and wonderful lands, they would collect things and creatures hitherto unseen and keep them in special cabinets and cages. These cabinets and mini zoos in sahib homes what were open to guests for flaunting purposes became the first prototypes of public museums. But personal collections continue to be relevant even today. Today, there is an astonishing range of things that people are known to collect. From the usual suspects that are stamps, coins, art, antiques, books, fridge magnets, jewellery, vinyl records, rocks and crystals, vintage fashion, and action figures, to wildly unusual things like old handsets, underwear, bottle caps, soaps, matchboxes, food labels, signage, and even sex dolls! There may be dozens of varied, personal reasons for people to start collecting objects, but there is a singular reason that unites collectors of memorabilia. While memorabilia can be of close family members and friends, it is usually assumed to be associated with a celebrity. Fandom is the strongest factor that drives people to collect celebrity memorabilia that includes everything from the usual autographs, photographs, clothes, shoes, accessories, sports gear, and posters, to bizarre objects like unfinished toast (Justin Timberlake), X-ray plates (Marilyn Monroe), used pregnancy tests (Britney Spears), teeth (John Lennon), hair (Justin Bieber), and even kidney stones (William Shatner)! A combination of loyalty to a personality/cult, kinship with fellow fans, and hero worship often makes people go to great lengths to acquire objects once used by their favourite celebrities — to feel famous by association. This is what is called the ‘Contagion Effect’, when people collect celebrities’ belongings, as they are seen to be imbued with the person’s essence.
The business of memories
For many, exchanging collectibles starts in childhood with trading cards. But today, thanks to professional collectors, memorabilia trade has grown to become a thriving industry. Acquiring, cataloguing, conserving, authenticating, and auctioning are some of the key steps in this trade chain that is based pretty much on emotional capital. Some of the most expensive star memorabilia ever sold include Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President dress’ ($4,800,000), the original Batmobile ($4,500,000), Babe Ruth’s jersey ($4,415,000), the Cowardly Lion costume worn by Burt Lahr in The Wizard of Oz ($3,080,000), John Lennon’s Rolls Royce ($2,229,000), John Travolta’s dance floor in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ ($1,200,000), and Superman’s costume worn by Christopher Reeve ($115,000) among others. Christie’s and Sotheby’s that sell such memorabilia alongside high art are household names today, but there are many other auction houses, websites and underground sources that are in the business of selling memories. In India, for example, there is a Mumbai-based auction house, Asta Guru’s. Their recently-concluded auction on June 20th had an array of interesting memorabilia on offer, including Michael Jackson’s guitar, a Sachin Tendulkar-signed bat, Muhammad Ali’s autographed boxing boot, a Christian Bale-signed Batman mask, an autographed jacket of Salman Khan’s, and a signature specimen of Mahatma Gandhi among other things. Other auction houses such as Saffron Art (multi-city), Osian’s (Mumbai, New Delhi), Art Bull (New Delhi), Bid & Hammer (Bangalore), Murray’s (Chennai), and Pundole’s (Mumbai) to name a few, have become havens for Indian collectors and drivers of this new hobby-turned-business. Naysayers may naysay, but collectors will find not just justification, but joy in American writer Elie Wiesel’s words: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilisation, no society, no future.” Here’s to cleaning out celebrity closets very carefully.