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What Things Are Worth

Posted By Cody Wiewandt On October 24, 2011 @ 1:30 pm In Big Idea | 7 Comments

The Buckner ball is up for sale, and apparently current owner Seth Swirsky’s asking price is in the neighborhood of $1 million (he bought it in 2000 for $63,500 from Charlie Sheen, who paid $93,500 in 1992).  It’s easy to get why it’s valuable, but I don’t know how easy it is to justify it.

There’s a great moment during the second season of Mad Men when Bert Cooper explains to Harry Crane why he purchased a Rothko painting (in the clip it’s around the 2:45 mark).  “People buy things to realize their aspirations, it’s the foundation of our business.”  He pauses.  “But between you and me and the lamppost that thing should double in value by next Christmas.” 

It’s kind of a funny moment because of how true it is – in the art world, that’s basically how things work.  People buy paintings either because they like the aesthetic or because they think it could double by next Christmas.  But a baseball?  It’s become pretty commonplace to bash on nostalgia (a recent, pretty-great book by Simon Reynolds called Retromania talks about it fairly well), but that argument seems like it might make sense here.  No one would buy a Picasso because of it’s ties to the past, but someone might buy a signed Mickey Mantle baseball for just that reason.

This particular baseball has some obviously strange vibes surrounding it. It is steeped in significance and meaning, but it’s a little different for everyone.  Semiotically, when I say ‘tree’ we all see in our mind’s eye some similar version of what a tree is, but when I say ‘Buckner baseball’, a Red Sox fan is going to feel differently then my 87 year-old grandmother, who probably has no idea who Bill Buckner is.  What I don’t get is why anyone would feel good owning this?  It’s cool, sure, in the way that having something that no one else has is cool, but it doesn’t really say anything more than ‘I like things that are expensive and identifiable.’  It’s connotations, if anything, are mostly negative. 

Comic book artist Todd McFarlane famously bought Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball for $3 million in 1999.  I understand that a little more, but it’s still a lot of money for a baseball.  Someone’s going to buy this ball, maybe around the million dollar asking price, and they’re going to be happy they bought it, and they’re going to take it home and tell all their friends, but I wonder where, in three or four or twenty years, that ball will be.  On the mantle?  A safety deposit box?  In a dresser drawer?


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