Jun 11, 2019

Why humans value certain objects

How story behind an object determines its value and cost


What is the price of a secondhand German harmonica? 10 or 20 dollars? Its cost price is even lower. We will tell you a story about a harmonica which the owner paid $ 5,000 for. No, it’s not made of gold or platinum. It’s made of a base metal.

The price of this amazing musical instrument is 99% information. Moreover, it’s information that, quite likely, will never be confirmed. The musical instrument in question has been purchased from the «Memorabilia» section of one of the famous auction houses. Attached to the harmonica was a note certified by a notary from the Bronx.

The notary certified that Mr. Smith, who provided enough evidence to prove his identity, told him that this mouth organ had been handed to him by Jimi Hendrix himself. Yes, by the world-famous guitarist from the Club 27, who visited Mr. Smith, according to the latter’s words, at his place a long time ago. In the presence of Mr. Smith, as he stated, Hendrix tuned his guitar with the help of the harmonica. Moreover, according to Mr. Smith, who allegedly quoted Mr. Hendrix, this instrument was presented to him by Mr. Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as cult musician Bob Dylan.

It is definitely not a notary’s job to figure out whether this story is true or not. He heard a legend – there are hundreds of them to be heard from the art community members – and simply wrote it down.

But the fact remains: even information that is very difficult to verify can make the cost of a simple object skyrocket by 250 times. Five thousand dollars for an urban legend, a tale … Not bad, right?

And if such an effect is achieved by providing some unverified facts, how much would reliable information cost? If one day we came to Bob Dylan’s concert, and then, taking a chance, asked him about the mouth organ. And what if he answered: “Don’t think twice, everything is all right! This is the very harmonica that I gave to old Jimmy”. Which numbers would the price of this story reach and the humble musical instrument on the side?

Bob Dylan with Joan Baez during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., 1963


One of the .ART team members, living in California, found this case of the (allegedly) Bob Dylan’s mouth organ quite curious. He took two porcelain bowls, presented to him for the wedding, and a lithograph by the famous French artist Fernand Leger, invited a notary and asked him for a “letter of authenticity” that would contain a record of the stories related to these objects. As it was in case of the harmonica, the notary simply verified the identity of the narrator and recorded what he heard.

The story of the lithograph by Fernand Leger was told to its current owner by an art dealer during the sale of artist’s works. According to this version, the picture was presented by the artist’s wife Nadia Leger to Georges Bauquier, her close friend who, following the death of Fernand, has become her husband. He was an artist as well, so they worked together on the project of the Fernand Leger Museum. One can see the signature of Nadya on the art object, which together with the story made it a more expensive lot at the sale.

The second story – of the blue and white porcelain bowls – was recorded from the words of a seller who worked at the auction house where they were purchased. These bowls, as he stated, were discovered in a shipwreck on the shores of Indochina (now Vietnam) without official declaration or certification of their origin. Nevertheless, art experts have suggested that these bowls were made in China during the ruling of the Ming dynasty. This assumption formed the basis of the appointed price.

In both cases, as in the story of the mouth organ, the value of the items is made up of information.

Information, in other words, is a kind of asset, like oil or precious metals, although being a matter of a different nature. The price of any art object is the price of its history, or it’s story. The information may be erroneous, appear as a result of malicious intents or be absolutely reliable. In any case, it has a value which correlates with the credibility of its source.

Whether to trust certificates of authenticity and pay $ 5,000 for an old harmonica is a private matter. But for anyone who believes that they own a valuable object, it’s obvious that there is a need to write down and certify its story.

Our employee spent 4 hours and $ 59 on the whole process of notarization. Now, if he decides to sell the items at an auction, he will have something to attach to the lots. Moreover, thanks to certificates, those stories seem to have gained additional weight.

Today digital environment offers an even broader range of opportunities. The Internet is the main repository of information, the “universal memory” where, in turn, only domain names can become a real asset.

Also published on Medium.