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Celebrity touch makes big bucks at the auction house

Charlotte Todd stands next to the dress she designed, and which was worn by Kate Middleton during a charity fashion show in 2002.

Alastair Grant/Alastair Grant/AP

What's the value of a celebrity's touch?

As evidenced by all the Elizabeth Taylor memorabilia on sale on eBay this week, an item that has come in physical contact with a celebrity can be sold for a significant premium. A 1960s blue jacquard dress worn by the late actress, for instance, is selling this week for $500 (U.S.), while a similar vintage dress of uncertain pedigree is up for sale on the web site for $49.24 (U.S.)

Earlier this month, many balked when a see-through garment worn by Kate Middleton was sold for £78,000 (about $122,500) to a mystery bidder at a London auction.

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"Some people must have more money than sense!!!" one commenter wrote on The Daily Mail's web site.

Splurging on an item simply because it was used by a celebrity seems irrational. Yet auction houses and web sites like eBay do brisk business selling off mundane and often unusable items whose values are boosted by the sheer star power of their famous - or in some cases, infamous - previous owners.

A lock of Justin Bieber's hair, for example, was sold online for more than $40,000 this month, and if not for the famous head from which they sprouted, the trimmings would have wound up as garbage.Consider also the glittery, rhinestone-studded glove once worn by Michael Jackson in 1983, which was auctioned off for more than $350,000 in 2009. (A cheap knockoff can be found on for $7.99.) Or think back to the household tape measure from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's estate, which sold for $48,875 at a Sotheby's auction in 1996. (The highest-priced tape measure at Canadian Tire sells for $34.99.)

A recent study by Yale researcher George Newman revealed that buyers are often influenced by contagion, or the idea that a celebrity's "soul" or "essence" can be somehow transferred through physical contact. The study involved a series of experiments that asked more than 900 participants about their willingness to purchase various celebrity items.

In instances where a celebrity such as George Clooney is well liked, the researchers found that would-be buyers tend to be particularly motivated by contagion.

"For instance, if you said something like, 'We sterilized this object, so all of George Clooney's physical remnants were rubbed off of it,' suddenly, people didn't really want it any more," says Dr. Newman, who studies consumer behaviour at Yale's School of Management.

Possessions of infamous people are popular as well. However, the idea of contagion deters buyers from making physical contact with the objects. "People didn't want to touch evil people's cooties, if you will," Dr. Newman explains.

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In these cases, his research suggested that more pragmatic concerns are in play. Possessions of celebrities are rare, and that scarcity drives up their value, he says.

One of Saddam Hussein'smilitary uniforms, for instance, reportedly fetched around $16,000 at an auction in 2006. But Dr. Newman believes the sale prices of such items would plunge dramatically if there was no perceived market demand for them.

"If you tell people, 'Well, you can buy this object, but you really can't sell it to anybody else,' suddenly they don't want to purchase those types of objects."

Dr. Newman speculates that like contagion, a similar type of magical thinking may be at work with sales of replica items. Buyers might believe they can capture a celebrity's essence if they purchase the same dress or article of clothing, he says.

If that's the case, Ms. Middleton's essence appears to be a particularly hot commodity these days.

Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew couldn't keep up with customers' demand for the blue Issa designer dress that Ms. Middleton wore at the official announcement of her engagement to Prince William in November. Barbara Atkin, the retailer's vice-president of fashion direction, says the company's stock of 80 dresses sold out within a week, and Holt Renfrew currently has a list of buyers waiting for the next shipment.

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"We as consumers are obsessed, as much as we hate to admit it ... with celebrity culture," she says, explaining that owning a celebrity item injects a bit of glamour into one's life. "I think we like the dream and the fantasy. I think we want to relive that and we want to be them."

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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