I've got a song to ... sell: Mary Travers' passing and the pricetag of celebrity deaths
Take a quick cruise on eBay on this morning of mourning, and you will see evidence of Mary Travers' passing in the new tems up for auction -- everything from the Peter, Paul and Mary "Moving" album signed by all three members ($32 and counting) to a signed Travers photo (at a "buy it now" price of $20).
"When Michael Jackson died, there were people who did go out and tried to buy up all his stuff," says Roger Voegele, owner of Harbert Antique Mall, in Harbert, Mich. The mall, open for 15 years, remains a top-flight destination for vacationing Chicagoans and Michigan residents in search of collectible treasures.
Voegele says that when an artist dies, it leads to what he calls a "stampede effect."
"People try to buy up everything in sight, because they think there will be a stampede for it. With Michael Jackson, there's a stampede with anything with his name on it. People shop for it because they think there will be a quick market for it -- but that market usually doesn't last for more than four to six months."
As proof, Voegele points to the recent market for PP&M memorabilia, which barely existed prior to Travers' death at age 72 from leukemia Wednesday. That said, there's nothing like someone's obituary in the headlines to stir people's emotions -- both in terms of memory and monetary gain.
"I was shocked to hear the news myself," Voegele says. "I was a child of the '60s and she was right in the middle of my era."
So if you're looking for items that you might possess that hold some value, where to start? Voegele suggests those items that always seem to hold value, as evidenced by "Antiques Roadshow" appraisals: early albums, programs and posters, especially those signed by the artist.
"Records are valued according to their covers," he says. "There's a tendency for the value to be highest for what there's the least of, so the earliest ones will be the most valuable. Supply and demand determine the price. Posters will fetch big, big bucks, especially posters of celebrity concerts and programs. Autographs are another big thing; you can always check the value through sold items on eBay."
To do that, Voegele says, "Don't look at the current auction, but auction results over the last 30 days -- though there will be a spike in the value when somebody dies, because of the demand." Life magazines and collectibles from the time period of the artist's peak success -- in this case, the 1960s -- will also have some value.
All that established, the recent spate of entertainer deaths -- Jackson, Jim Carroll, Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze among them -- should give all of us a chance to reflect on value that transcends dollars and cents.
Speaking for myself: If I had one or two items from any of these people and thought it might be nice to sell them, especially to someone who would cherish them, that wouldn't bother me. But there seems something ghoulish at the prospect of hoarding trinkets from the dead, then spending a good chunk of your week trying to unload them for quick cash. How would any of us feel if our memory, our legacy, were reduced to the equivalent of a get-kinda-rich-quick garage sale?
For me, the death of Travers has touched me in an unexpected way. While it's easy to make light of the trio's music today – a debate on the lyrics of "Puff" anchors one of the funniest exchanges between Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller in "Meet the Parents" – one cannot overstate how much Peter, Paul and Mary meant to the 1960s.
We live in age today where the music of the times doubts so much, dismisses so much, celebrates so much in the material and hedonistic. To be sure, the 1960s had its share of shallow music, too. ("Rock A Hula Baby," anyone?)
But people also believed then that music could change the world, and in the hands of Mary Travers, it did. Movements need anthems, and PP&M supplied the singalong chants that inspired so many. It's hard to think of songs more inspirational than hers, though Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" certainly rank. Perhaps race stopped those songs from achieving iconic status among whites sooner.
But in the case of Peter, Paul an Mary, the message, the music and the times all played a wonderful three-part harmony of its own, and the result was one that, if it did not alter the world we lived in, at least gave us a beat to march to, and a different drummer to believe in.
It's natural to gape a bit, as if passing a highway accident, when someone famous passes on. I know I'm doing it. But I plan to explore my newly stimulated fascination for Peter, Paul and Mary by listening to their music, and reading up on their controversial but powerful stance as agents of cultural change.
That enriches me in other ways, and adds to a bottom line that is measured not by digits on a balance sheet, but the depth of one's soul.