By Ruth Minshull
Both cats eagerly circled around my legs as I dished up their morning treat. I placed the bowl on the floor and they began munching enthusiastically. There was nothing unusual about the dry food I gave them—except that it was a different brand than their regular fare—and I gave them a small amount every morning after my breakfast.
I could probably reverse the procedure. That is, give them the “special” food regularly and reserve the “regular” food for “treat” time. It wasn’t the food that mattered; it was the routine. The ritual. And, most of all, the significance. It’s treat time!
As a child I played make-believe with two playmates. We used scraps of paper for money; marbles became gemstones; and certain flowering weeds were transformed into rare orchids. I remember passionately bargaining over the “moonstone”, the “cats-eye” and other coveted jewels. I can’t recall just how we managed to get extended play out of this commerce, but we did. When we finished for the day, the box of gems became mere marbles; the money was again useless paper; the wilted blossoms were tossed aside.
Their significance was gone.
Today we still play the game of attaching importance to objects. Sometimes it’s meaningful only to us as individuals—a keepsake, a reminder of good times. Perhaps it’s significant to a group or a nation (a flag, a monument, the location of a past event). And often the significance is more universal: gold, diamonds, money. These are valuable because we all agree that they are. We assign this significance to them.
If we found ourselves alone on a deserted island, a pocketful of money would be worth nothing (except, perhaps, to use with kindling for a fire). Our “currency” would become food, shelter, survival skills.
But in our affluent society today we assign great significance and value to all sorts of inanimate objects.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of collectibles.
I work part time as a Website analyst for a large auction house, and I am repeatedly amazed at the value collectors place on items such as old books, manuscripts, coins, currency, comics, paintings, decorative art, furniture, sports memorabilia, political artifacts, stamps, antique jewelry, timepieces, movie posters, entertainment and music memorabilia.
Different degrees of significance are attached to each lot. Condition, rarity, demand and provenance all play a part in determining the value of any collectible.
Between the 1970’s and 1980’s you could buy movie posters for $10 to $20. Theater owners often threw them out. But in more recent times, Hollywood collectibles have been discovered. Last year a Carole Lombard poster (purchased in 1994 for $4,600) sold for $47,800. But that’s just pocket change if you consider that another poster, a rare one for “Bride of Frankenstein,” went for a $335,000.
A serving bowl from a set of china once owned by James Madison went up for auction. The service was purchased in 1806 when Madison was Secretary of State and was believed to have been used in the White House following reconstruction (after the British burned it in 1814). The bowl sold for $17,925. One bowl!
A hat worn by Babe Ruth fetched $131,000, and a jersey worn by the Babe went for a whopping $657,000. A comic book sold for $179,250. An astronaut’s flight suit patch was purchased for $56,750. A fielder’s glove used by Sandy Koufax brought in $74,688. A rare Michael Jordan baseball card realized $7,170.
Recently I read the words: “The soft rosy glow feathers out of the delicate lavender and melts into shimmering gold near the border…” Was this the description of a gorgeous sunset? No. It was the catalog listing of a rare coin and its colorful patina. In plain words, it was an old, tarnished piece of metal, originally worth one dollar, but would now sell for several thousand. Incidentally, if the coin had been cleaned of its oxidation by some clueless ignoramus, it would be valued at only a fraction of the toned example.
Rare coins range in market price from a few dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the condition, demand and rarity. Now and then, however, one coin will have a special significance attached to it. Such a coin is the 1804 Silver Dollar, called the “King of Coins” which sold recently for $2.3 million. While other coins are rarer (This one has a population of 15 known.) and a few have fetched more money, this is the most famous coin ever struck at a U. S. mint—a fact that has been documented for more than 150 years. B. Max Mehl (a well-known numismatist) once wrote: “In all of numismatics of the entire world, there is not today and there never has been a single coin which was and is the subject of so much romance, interest, comment, and upon which so much has been written and so much talked about and discussed as the United States silver dollar of 1804.”
Why? Well, significance, I guess.
Civil War memorabilia are highly prized. The personal battle flag of Confederate General Jeb Stuart sold at auction for $956,000.00. While some might see it as a tattered old rag, others, obviously, do not.
A Bobby Hull championship ring is being offered for an expected $2,000-$4,000, even though it has a “faux” diamond. In fact, it’s a faux ring—made up as a salesman’s sample. Mr. Hull never wore it. (Note: as the price of an object goes up, “fake” turns to “faux”.) Still, it’s considered a steal at that price. The real champ rings generally go for around $100,000.
When it comes to a game-worn jersey, condition (as with most collectibles) is the major issue. In this case, however, we’re not looking for pristine or “uncirculated” (as we would with a coin). No, we want to know it was worn. “Wear is light, but definite” denotes the optimum acquisition. One jersey is expected to sell for $8000-$12,000. The description enthuses: “Wear is fantastic…turn the jersey inside out and you’ll find a dozen little patches of team repairs…” For hockey players, the jerseys that show signs of blade cuts and scuffling add considerable panache (and fetch a better price)—especially if worn by a well-known player, such as Marcel Dionne.
While perusing a historical auction site, I was looking at various fossils when I learned that even dung is worth something—if it’s old enough. They were offering “fossilized excrement,” although it had been sanitized by a new word: “coprolite”. I managed to restrain myself from exploring all the possible comments I could make on this subject. That is, until I came to the next lot, which offered: “massive dinosaur droppings.” How could anyone resist a bid or two on such a treasure? That would certainly give you bragging rights among your friends. How many people do you know with such a coffee table “conversation piece”?
Most of us have some things to which we have attached great significance.
One summer my son and his wife brought up a huge box of toys for their boy’s entertainment while on vacation here. My grandson, however, found a piece of driftwood that he employed in countless make-believe games. “Don’t throw that away, Grandma,” he warned, “that’s my gun.” He played with that driftwood every day of his stay. Abandoned on the day he left, it lost the special significance, and once again became a lowly piece of driftwood.
Some years ago, I was helping my mother-in-law pack for a major move. As I was cleaning out a buffet drawer, I picked up a battered pencil stub and prepared to throw it away. “Oh, don’t throw that out!” my mother-in-law cautioned. The ugly little stub, it seemed, had belonged to her uncle, a composer, and he had used it in writing music. Oops! I guess one woman’s rubbish is another woman’s precious memento.
I saw a TV drama about a wealthy man who purchased a costly painting and had a skilled painter make two duplicates. The painter placed a tiny clue in each of his creations, which allowed him (and only him) to identify the fakes. As the various plot twists centered around the paintings being stolen, recovered, switched and fought over, I marveled at the manner in which the same painting could be considered a treasure one minute and rubbish the next—depending on whether it was believed to be the original or a mere duplicate.
In real life, it seems, some museum curators have been fooled by fake “masters”. To their chagrin, they ultimately found that their priceless acquisitions had become worthless overnight. So, even when it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it could be only a cheap decoy.
I should have saved those old marbles. They’d be antiques now, and that “moonstone” could be worth more than the real gem.
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©2010 by Ruth Minshull