CHICAGO ― Collectors and auctioneers are getting flush off the lavatories of the rich and famous, which isn’t just a play on words. It’s also a chance to make a bunch of money by selling somebody else’s toilet.
If recent months have taught us anything, it’s that dead celebrities’ stuff can hold great value. Among the memorabilia sold since June: John Lennon’s toilet ($15,000) and Marilyn Monroe’s chest X-rays ($45,000). In late 2009, a lock of Elvis’ hair went for $18,300, thank you very much.
Wait, it gets creepier. There were the tools used in the embalming of Lee Harvey Oswald ($4,000), the “death mask” surreptitiously formed from the face of John Dillinger’s corpse ($3,700) and Oswald’s first casket ($87,000). Because, really, whose living room doesn’t beg for the rotting pine box of a notorious assassin?
And Lennon’s wasn’t the only celebrity toilet offered for sale. Rick Kohl Sr., of We Buy Treasure in Kernersville, North Carolina, listed J.D. Salinger’s for $1 million last summer. Really, a million-dollar commode?
“Do you know of any other toilet that J.D. Salinger possibly wrote ‘Catcher in the Rye’ on?” Kohl asked, demonstrating both the subjectivity of such appraisals and the necessity of laptop computers.
What in the name of Holden Caulfield is going on? With the market for dead people’s stuff growing so lively, the popularity of these items is clearly on the rise.
“I don’t know if it’s a rise in popularity,” said Mary Williams, of Chicago’s Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, the firm that handled the Elvis hair. “The buyers who are buying them now have always been there. With auctions being more visible, you’re seeing a lot more. The press is covering a lot more of these sales.”
I couldn’t really argue, being both a member of the press and a novice in the area of celebrity toilet trafficking. But there must be something else at work, a reason the prized potties and the rest of this morbidabilia is coming to market.
“I don’t deal in morbidity. I deal in historical, relevant items,” said Nate D. Sanders of LA-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions, which conducted the Oswald sales. “If it were another super-famous person and there were some other items related to the death of that person, I would handle it.”
That said, Sanders recalls a hair-appraising experience of his own, the only one of its kind he says he has done.
“I’ve had Princess Diana’s hair that she gave to Princess Margaret’s driver, David Griffin,” Sanders said. “I guess the driver was teasing Diana that the blond wasn’t her real hair color. So she cut a swatch of her hair and taped it up to a greeting card so he would have the hair as proof.” Sanders estimated that the royal shedding went for $7,500.
At this point it was clear ― to understand the fascination, I’d have to speak with someone who doesn’t peddle used body parts.
“There’s an emotional heat to it. Isn’t that what it’s really about?” said Irv Rein, a communications studies professor at Northwestern University and a teacher of pop culture for 41 years. “It’s not like buying an iPad or a Mercedes-Benz. There’s a personalization that you’re getting from it. You have a piece of history and a piece of that person, in a sense.
“The envelope is being pushed here in terms of what people will pay high prices for, and the question is why. I still think it’s about kind of freezing that moment for that person. It has that emotional component that other things don’t have.”
We all fit into one of two categories: the famous, and everybody else. But your stuff could also become valuable, say, if you win “American Idol,” or get featured on “Hoarders” because your house is full of all the stuff you hope to sell when you become famous. That could be worth a lot of money to you one day, especially if you’re dead.
But some sales aren’t meant to be. When word of Salinger’s purported porcelain reached the author’s family, Kohl says, the Salingers sued. A settlement led to the toilet’s return and a reimbursement to Kohl of the $2,000 he’d paid the current owner of Salinger’s one-time home, who’d abdicated the throne.
A similar fate befell the embalming tools used on Elvis, which went to auction at Hindman with the King’s hair but were later pulled amid questions of rightful ownership.