Objective Value in Markets

I have written about the experiment going on at Significant Objects before. They buy things at garage sales and thrift stores, make up stories about the objects, and then sell these objects on eBay, with the stories attached as the objects’ descriptions. The premise is that “the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!”

I think the experiment is interesting, and I am deeply committed to understanding those brackish waters between the sweet rivers of culture and the salty sea of markets. But there are some flaws here that seem about to be brushed under the rug in favor of the ‘measuring the objective value of culture’ story line. First, a typical description on eBay looks something like this:
Description of the 'significant object' on eBay

The final line reads:

Note: The significance of this object has been invented by the author; see SignificantObjects.com for details. (Winning bidder also receives a copy of Cintra Wilson’s story about this object. Opening price represents the free-market value of the object prior to its invented significance…

And to me, the implications of that last line is where this whole thing falls apart.

First, there is a small but real element of misdirection here. People come to the objects from two sources: 1) from eBay itself, and 2) from SigObjects, Design Observer, BoingBoing, or any number of other culturally-hip blogs/feeds/twitters.

For people in the first category, the item is listed under sporting goods > team sports > basketball > other. And the notice that the “significance has been invented by the author” is small and unusual enough to be unclear to some people coming to the object. So it may not be clear exactly what one is purchasing when one is bidding on the object. My guess is that this accounts for a handful of bids (and maybe not more).

For people in the second category, it is also mis-categorized. Because it should not be under ‘team sports’, it should be under Contemporary Art. This is where the project is something of a failure. Because for people coming to the object via the Significant Objects site or some other culturally in-the-know place, bidding on the object is participating in performance art, and purchasing the object itself is more akin to purchasing a piece of contemporary art.

It’s for the same reason that this is not a big plywood box of Cornflakes:

Andy Warhol's Kellogg's CornFlakes

It would be unusual for us to subtract the cost of the materials Warhol used to construct this piece (silkscreen ink on plywood) from the hammer price of the piece ($482,500) in order to somehow acquire the ‘objective’ value of significance. Unusual because it implies a kind of hedonic pricing model: that the object’s overall price can be derived by combining prices of its individual attributes – cost of materials + time + signficance. And it is possible to do so, and to thus come up with an ‘objective’ value of significance. With these measurements, so far significant objects has created and measured significance that has increased market value by almost 2300%. But as Brayden once said a long time ago, in the art world hedonic value falls to something more like transcendent value.

There’s a longer comment about the validity of lots of alternative pricing models, which depend not so much on specific notions of efficient markets (sociologists’ favorite straw argument), but on the notion of objective value. In the meantime, I think the significant objects project is completely interesting, but well, not quite significant.

Comments are disabled for this post