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Achieve higher prices through storytelling

In his latest Behind the Gavel column, Wayne Jordan explores how nearly worthless objects can be infused with value – even where none exists – making buyers willing to pay higher prices.

A baseball cap worn by Neil Armstrong after the Apollo 11 mission sells for $12,000. A typewriter belonging to novelist Cormac McCarthy sells for $254,500. A football used during the NFL’s “deflategate” scandal sells for $43,740.

Baseball caps and footballs are commonly available for under $10; typewriters for under $100. Clearly, in the above sales the extrinsic value of the items greatly exceeded the intrinsic, functional value of the items. A $6 baseball cap shades the eyes as well as Armstrong’s $12,000 cap. A $100 typewriter types as well (in some cases) as a $254,000 typewriter. As antique dealers, we understand that an antique’s extrinsic value — its rarity and provenance — are major contributors to an item’s price.

Sometimes, though, prices achieved by run-of-the-mill consumer objects — ones that are neither rare nor of noteworthy provenance — reach absurd levels. Why do we humans imbue such common items with high value? Antique dealers who understand why this happens can achieve higher prices for their merchandise and move those dull, old inventory items off their shelves.

Material Culturist Tara Bloom states: “Objects or artifacts often symbolize something more than their intrinsic nature ... through personal association objects gain subjective meaning based on the memories that we have of them.” According to writers Glenn and Walker, such “memories” can be artificially created and passed to an objects new owner.

For the past two decades The Significant Objects Project, an ongoing study by brand analyst Joshua Glenn and New York Times Magazine contributor Rob Walker, has demonstrated that common objects can be infused with extrinsic value even where none actually exists. When that occurs, consumers are willing to pay higher prices for said objects.

For example:

  • A plastic Russian-styled doll bought for $3 at a thrift store sells for $193
    A decorative pink horse purchased for $1 sells for $104.50
    A metal boot acquired for $3 sells for $86.
tiny metal boot

This metal boot acquired for $3 sold for $86. Photos courtesy The Significant Objects Project;

These items weren’t antiques; they were run-of-the-mill mass-produced tchotchkes of the type one would buy at an interstate highway gift shop. The technique used to invest these items with unusually high extrinsic value lends itself very well to selling antiques. How were the project’s designers able to attain such high prices for these objects? By creating a story about them, thus imbuing them with a subjective value that they didn’t previously have.

Storytelling is the “grand idea” behind the Significant Objects Project. Authors Glenn and Walker state: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” The theory is that by raising the subjective value of an object, the object’s price should go up also. To test their theory, Glenn and Walker hired creative writers to invent stories about various objects in the hope of investing the objects with greater subjective value. The objective proof was to see what sort of prices the items actually brought on eBay, as opposed to their original purchase price. The methodology went like this:

  1. The project’s curators bought unremarkable objects at thrift stores and garage sales, spending no more than a few dollars for each item.
  2. Each object was assigned to a creative writer, who would write a fictional story about the object.
  3. Each object was listed for sale on eBay, along with a photo and the fictional story. Care was taken to avoid the impression that the story was true; perpetrating a hoax on eBay customers would void the test.
  4. The object was shipped to the winning bidder, along with a copy of the story. Proceeds of each sale were given to the respective writers.
decorative pink horse

This decorative pink horse purchased for $1 sold for $104.50.Photos courtesy The Significant Objects Project;

The overall results? Items originally purchased for $128.74 were sold for $3,612.51, representing a more than 2,700 percent increase.

How’s that for hefty margins?

Why are stories so effective as a sales tool? The science behind storytelling’s dramatic effect on buyers relates to the manner in which the right and left sides of the brain are engaged. Standard sales presentations (feature, benefit, proof) engage the right (logical) side of the brain. Customers buy based on emotion, not logic. How many times have you “proven” to a customer that they would benefit from your affordable and effective product only to have them walk away from it? Stories, however, are rich in visual cues and draw upon a customer’s emotional memories. Stories engage the left (buying) side of the brain.

Corporate trainer Doug Stephenson makes his living teaching keynote speakers, trainers and salespeople how to use stories to improve their performance and their bottom line. Stephenson’s Story Theater Method teaches how to structure a story in a fashion that achieves predictable results.

Among other things, Stephenson encourages his students to:

  1. Find stories that make the points you want to make
  2. Use third-person stories to add credibility to your point or lesson
  3. Develop each story so that it makes one targeted point.

In developing stories to incorporate into product presentations, antique dealers may consider (in both face-to-face sales and online item descriptions):

Telling of the problem that led to the item’s creation (necessity is the mother of invention)

  • Relating how the item was used
  • Setting the item in its cultural or historical setting
  • Relevant biography of the inventor/craftsman/artist.
Russian style doll

This plastic Russian-styled doll bought for $3 at a thrift store sold for $193.Photos courtesy The Significant Objects Project;

Plus, dealers can add value to items by offering:

  • Restoration photos (before and after) and telling the story of the restoration
  • An appraisal (valuation) complete with documentation
  • A certificate of value or authenticity
  • Provide a storage solution (album for sports cards, vinyl sleeve for records).

In the words of 20th century American writer and illustrator Edward Gorey: “When people are finding meaning in things — beware.” When dealers impart value to their inventory items through judicious and effective storytelling, good things happen to their bottom line.

Wayne Jordan's "The Business of Antiques: How to Succeed in the Antiques World" is an invaluable compilation of real-world experience.
Learn first-hand from an antiques trade veteran by ordering your copy of The Business of Antiques today at