The Lure of Celebrity and the Price of Guitars

Clapton's guitars

What would you pay for your favorite singer’s T-shirt or a movie star’s ballpoint pen? Who would pay almost $50,000 for a tape measure that used to belong to President John F. Kennedy? Why do people spend outrageous sums on items that were once owned, or even just touched, by celebrities?

A recent auction of legendary rock musician Eric Clapton’s guitars and amplifiers caught the attention of Yale University sociologists who were interested in these questions. Not only were items owned by Clapton attracting extremely high bids, but a replica of a favorite Clapton guitar was expected to fetch at least $20,000. The sociologists see a resemblance between such modern-day phenomena and ancient social practices called imitative magic: things that resemble each other have similar powers. A belief in imitative magic is believed to have inspired prehistoric cave paintings of hunting scenes: that is, to paint the scene of a successful hunt was thought to make the outcome more likely.

The same principle accounts for such diverse practices as sticking pins in voodoo dolls and eating walnuts to boost intelligence (because of the nuts’ brainlike appearance). It also leads to what has been called contagious magic—the notion that talent or some special quality can be associated with an object. It is just such a belief, whether conscious or not, that prompts an aspiring musician to think that he or she can play better on an instrument once used by a particular performer. For example, one musician claimed his own performance improved when he started using old guitar strings that rocker Duane Allman had thrown away.

AP Photo/Charles Sykes

Related Links


  1. Sonali says:

    What would we all do without the magnificent ideas you talk about on this web site? Who has the tolerance to deal with crucial topics just for common visitors like me? I actually and my pals are very happy to have your web blog among the ones we usually visit. Hopefully you know how significantly we get pleasure from your work! Best wishes through us all.

  2. sandy says:

    hey are you talking to me

  3. sandy says:


  4. kayann says:

    thats kool

  5. jackeline says:

    i love music

  6. ryan says:

    who would pay that kind of money for a stupid item

  7. Me says:

    I used to play the guitar then I realized that I sucked so I stopped

  8. Gohan says:

    I agree totally ryan. Ballpoint pens, come on now!

  9. PopRo says:

    I’d buy a ballpoint pen for exactly how much it’s supposed to cost, even if it WAS owned by a celb. But not if it didn’t have any ink.