Marelise van der Merwe: The Other News Round-Up: Bizarre auctions going once, going twice
In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the stranger happenings in South Africa and further afield. This week: the world’s oddest auctions.
You may have read in First Thing recently that two local pigeon farmers forked out nearly R5-million for one of the world’s most expensive racing pigeons. The bird, regally named Golden Prince, beat the previous record of Bolt, a pigeon who had been purchased for around R4.5-million in 2010.
Different strokes for different folks, I guess, and South Africa has been panicking over the possibility of more stringent internet laws. If we are regressing, you could almost say an investment in faster pigeons is an investment in faster “internet” of the future.
No? Too soon? Sorry. Of course it’s not the first noteworthy auction in history. Goods have been going to the highest bidder since time immemorial, from the sale of the Roman Empire in 193 AD to Bill Gates’ historic purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester journal in 1994 (he distributed it digitally after that). Even a single strand of Napoleon’s hair didn’t escape the hammer.
The most entertaining auctions are usually tied to history, religion, criminal trials or celebrities. Sometimes the really rare collector’s pieces, like this egg laid by the extinct elephant bird, barely feature or aren’t sold. Other seemingly useless items, like this rubber cast made of Casey Anthony’s face, inexplicably fetch millions.
“Halloween is only a few months away,” the ad for the mask ran. “Forget Freddy, Jason, Meyers, here's your chance to scare the *#&% out of everyone and win every costume contest with this amazing Tot Mom latex rubber mask, possibly the most frightening mask on the planet.”
The seller, who described it as “one heck of a conversation piece” – can’t argue there – auctioned it off as a “priceless” costume (and threw in free shipping) after Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. And then, just in case anyone mistook him for an unfeeling sod, added: “Let’s never forget poor Caylee.”
Coincidentally, Casey recently made headlines again for stating in an interview that she “sleeps pretty well at night”. She and the seller both, huh. Which leads us to…
Besides the Casey Anthony mask, by far the most intriguing crime-related item auctioned off has to be the remarkably well-preserved 400-year-old letter detailing the case of the unfortunately named Ursula Grimm, a suspected witch placed on trial in 1603. So heinous was Mrs Grimm’s alleged conduct that her husband was ordered to pay for her execution, which seems like the obvious choice when you consider the watertight evidence that she gatecrashed a wedding with six other witches and the devil himself. (Not so cocky now, are you, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn?)
Of course no rundown of notorious auctions would be complete without bizarre celebrity memorabilia, and eBay and other auction houses (online and offline) have sold everything from Michael Jackson’s fedora to a piece of Britney Spears’s chewing gum and even Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s breath in a jar. Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten breakfast was sold by a radio DJ after he appeared on said DJ’s show; a piece of Royal Wedding cake dating back to 1947 was auctioned off for several hundred pounds, which ought to shut my partner up about last year’s leftovers. Elvis Presley’s iconic black locks sold for a whopping $115,000 in 2002, after it emerged his hairdresser had been saving the trimmings for years (cue Hitchcock soundtrack). Here’s a semi-related fact: Larry Geller’s job description in The King’s entourage was “hairdresser and spiritual adviser”.
It’s never nice to mock someone’s faith, but I’d venture to say I’m not the one making a mockery here. A grilled cheese sandwich that allegedly came out with the Virgin Mary’s face on it also never went mouldy after a nearly decade, the seller claimed. (I’ve been unable to confirm whether the sandwich remained pristine. The sale blurb did neglect to mention, though, that the seller, Diane Duyser, had kept the holy sandwich in her freezer for nine years.) Duyser told media that the sandwich had brought her luck, which is true if you count the fact that she scored a cool $28,000 dollars off the sale. However bizarre this phenomenon, it’s unlikely to go away: scientists have found that we are hard-wired to recognise faces in inanimate objects. The same buyer who bought Duyser’s sandwich also bought a Dorito shaped like the pope’s hat for around $1,200.
There’s no fan like a sports fan, witness the sale of Andre Agassi’s ponytail and Baseball Hall of Fame star Tom Seaver’s toothpick (found in his pocket 23 years after he last used the jacket). When it comes to macabre memorabilia, baseball fans lap other buyers by a country mile. Examples include Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Jeff Nelson’s auction of bone chips from his arm after surgery and base baller Curt Schilling’s bloodied sock (the latter fetched over $90,000). Perhaps most bizarre is Joe Canseco’s offer to sell his finger on Twitter, which he later claimed was a joke – not that that stopped his Tweet from garnering interest. Meanwhile Football fan Gary Baur wins the prize for most expensive put-down, after buying NFL team owner Art Modell’s toilet for $2,700. “I wanted to see where Modell made all his bad business decisions,” Baur explained.
Some matters of the soul transcend religion. Faced with an inner darkness, one Ian Usher put his “entire life” up for auction, including his house, personal belongings, his friends and a trial period at his job. He sold the lot for $384,000. Twenty-two-year-old Georgia Horrocks might have been able to strike a deal with him on the friend sale, having been advised by her psychiatrist to sell her imaginary friend, Bernard. She described him as in “very good health” and offered to send him by imagination. Barring that, they may have been able to figure something out with a North Carolina man who discovered the meaning of life (spoiler alert: it’s not 42) and sold it for a very reasonable $3.26.
Who you gonna call?
One enterprising gentleman put up a jar he claimed contained a ghost for auction on eBay, on grounds that it was terrorising him. Saying he “would not be held responsible” for any escapes of the “Black Thing” from the jar, he went on to describe how he had caught it one night at a cemetery. Emphasising that he would consider serious bidders only, the seller eventually received bids in excess of $50,000 – though the final buyer never paid up. Equally mysterious was a haunted rubber duck that allegedly had the power to possess children (I'm willing to bet the seller has limited experience trying to get a toddler out of a bath). The owner – who emphasised they would not “field questions” or “explain its mystique” – added that they would not be held responsible for any duck-related incidents post sale. Thankfully for the buyer, who purchased it for $107, there has also been a Ghostbusters-inspired proton pack and ghost trap on sale.
Perhaps the strangest of all is delivered by sites like disturbingauctions.com, a user-driven catalogue of the world’s oddest auctions. You’d think the sale of Justin Timberlake’s spitty sandwich or Britney Spears’s gum was the strangest possible investment, but you’d be wrong. I’d love to tell you it’ll give you an insight of some sort into the human condition, but there’s no more rhyme or reason to it than a junk shop. Analyse this: An “I love pigs” sign (always good to nail your colours to a mast); a Saddam Hussein hand puppet (why?); a dead alligator in a wedding dress; a set of eight disembodied Farah Fawcett heads (what did she do to you, bud?); a snuff mull made out of an actual ram’s head and adorned with silver. On wheels.
Confused yet? Me too. The clutter, the expenditure, the just plain ick factor. But if you find someone who’s willing to spend $50,000 on a ghost or wants a dead alligator in bridal garb on their mantelpiece, send them this way. I have so many questions. DM