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One definition for the word, “contagion” is: the ready transmission or spread as of an idea or emotion from person to person. It appears that scientists from Yale University have concluded that people place a higher value on items if those items have been possessed, worn, played, or otherwise touched by someone they admire, such as a celebrity.

In Yale University’s study, it was noted that celebrities are well regarded, and people may experience positive emotions when they think about them. In turn, an object that belonged to that celebrity is valued because it serves as a physical reminder that helps people to relive those pleasurable emotional states.

We think everyone would agree that a bath towel once owned by Elvis would demand much more at auction than just anyone’s bath towel. In fact, it’s almost a certainty that the Elvis bath towel would demand widespread, significant interest.

Yet, what about a bath towel the same fabric, texture, color and monogram of an original Elvis bath towel? Would such a replica demand a premium over just any other bath towel?

The Yale University study also concluded that a replica’s appeal is related to another form of thinking called the law of similarity; a belief in what is also called imitative magic: things that resemble each other have similar powers.

In other words, a replica Elvis bath towel would be worth more than just any bath towel due to the replica having similar powers as the original, and imitative magic? Apparently so.

Is this an important topic for auctioneers, and auction customers? It certainly is.

One has to look no further than the January, 2011 news reports about Barrett-Jackson selling the President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963 ambulance at auction. What is the value of such a vehicle? As the auction grew closer, many questioned if this was the actual ambulance, or the other, alternate ambulance used that day.

Why would it matter? It matters because the actual ambulance would have the contagious properties which would allow the owner to relive President John F. Kennedy, even if those memories included his assassination. The alternate ambulance would have increased value due to imitative magic — much more than another such ambulance that was in Indiana on November 22, 1963 — but not the value of the actual ambulance used.

Unfortunately, buyers must beware. Although not often, a few auctioneers have used the powers of contagion and imitative magic to mislead bidders. Some time ago, an auctioneer advertised items at auction that belonged to Perry Como — when actually, those items didn’t.

And, look at this auction advertisement which we deemed misleading: https://mikebrandlyauctioneer.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/misleading-auction-advertising/. Items from the Estate of a famed Hollywood producer? Why would that be important? More curious, however … are they actually?

In summary, auctioneers are to endeavor to research and properly publicize ownership (the provenance) of property for auction which might suggest positive emotions in buyers; in this way, sellers are benefited by higher prices. Buyers with interest vested in either contagion and/or imitative magic should endeavor to ensure stated provenance is accurate; in this way, buyers can bid with confidence.

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, Keller Williams Auctions and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. His Facebook page is: www.facebook.com/mbauctioneer. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at Columbus State Community College and is Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School.