Significant Objects: A Doll With A Story

On this day, the Sunday before Christmas, when shoppers are in overdrive, there's an intriguing experiment going on: Joshua Glenn and his collaborators are trying to see if they can take junk — say, an ugly, plastic Russian doll with a big cloth mustache — and turn it into something valuable by simply adding a back story. And it seems to be working. They hired a writer named Doug Dorst to come up with a story for that little $3 doll — and they put it up on eBay. The winning bid? $193. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has the story.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, while Disney's marketing campaign for the film and the merchandise is massive, with millions of dollars behind it, one of our producers, Selena Simmons-Duffin, came across an entirely different way to market gifts, gifts you might normally call, well, junk.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN: On a frosty afternoon in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, writer and editor Joshua Glenn unpacks his research subjects.

Mr. JOSHUA GLENN (Significant Objects Project): Here is a coconut carved into the shape of a pirate - a little earring and an eye patch. This is just an ugly, tacky bear with a tie-dyed vest and little peace glasses, and he's making a peace symbol and is sitting in the lotus position. Here is a salt shaker, which is in the shape of a bag that holds a bowling ball.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: As junky as they may seem, Glenn calls these things significant objects. They're part of a project he's doing with New York Times magazine columnist Rob Walker.

So here's how it works. They buy a knick-knack at a thrift store and match it with an author, from big names like William Gibson to up-and-comers. The writer invents a story about the object, which then gets posted for sale on eBay. Glenn and Walker are trying to see whether adding a story raises the object's price.

Take this little, plastic Russian doll with a big, cloth moustache that's mounted on a little piece of wood.

Mr. GLENN: It's just an ugly, homely little thing that I bought, but Doug Dorst wrote a very funny story, claiming this is a woodcutter named Vralkomir, who during a particularly bad blizzard, when everybody in his village in Russia were freezing to death, danced so hard on a little piece of wood that it burst into flame.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So, do these stories really pay off?

Mr. GLENN: According to my facts here, we sold $128.74 worth of insignificant doodads for $3,612.51. So it was a 2,706 percent increase.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That Russian doll he bought for 3 bucks at a thrift store? It sold for $193, and the added value is not just about the price.

Mr. GLENN: As the kind of curator of the project, I thought that I would be immune to the stories, but I had a really hard time letting go of some of the objects. So there is really something hardwired in us to want things to be meaningful.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The Significant Objects project is also about finding magic in unexpected things, like this Conair portable hairdryer from the 1970s. Writer Douglas Wall(ph) concocted a story about an experimental musician who used it as an instrument in his final performance.

Mr. GLENN: I think we should plug it in and play it.

(Soundbite of hairdryer)

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Music? Maybe not, but it's more than just hot air.

For NPR News, I'm Selena Simmons-Duffin.

(Soundbite of music)

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