The week before Michael Jackson's death I ignored a copy of Thriller I saw at the Goodwill. I already had one out at my antique booth and there was no point trying to sell it on eBay, where copies were too abundant and selling at around $5 a pop with shipping. There was no need to have a backup; one could always be found. It is, after all, the best selling record of all time. The market value of the album at my booth was approximately $8, and it would dependably, but not quickly, move out for that price.
But the death of a pop icon does weird things to the job of the culture junker. The market makes rapid shifts in the demand and (temporarily) value of the star's memorabilia, as the public eagerly strives to get back the debris it cast off when the icon fell from fashion or grace. Stuff that couldn't be given away one day is suddenly on everybody's mind and in demand. And while I've seen this a few times in my career, I never saw it like I did on eBay the Friday after Michael Jackson died.
Out of curiosity, I logged in Friday to find out how Michael Jackson stuff was selling. It was a madhouse. Sellers were asking outrageous sums for their records, for the day's newspaper, T-shirts, dolls, posters, trading cards, a Cheeto shaped like MJ moonwalking. But you can ask whatever price you want on eBay — that means nothing. It's what people are paying that matters. The way to gauge real eBay sales is by looking at the Completed Items, so I clicked on that. Copies of Jackson's CDs and records were selling for hundreds of dollars, autographs moving out for four or more figures, and everything was going green.
In completed items, if an item sells, it's green. If it didn't sell, it's red. Normally you see a lot of red, and a little green. But I was staring at a sea of green. Not one item ended unsold. I scrolled down the page, staring at the crazy numbers. Then I clicked on page No. 2. When I did that, every item I'd looked at on page No. 1 was now on page No. 2. In the two minutes I'd spent looking over the first page, another 50 items had sold. I watched this happen for a while, and Jacko related items were selling at a rate of 1,500 items per hour. I'd never seen anything like it.
Grieving fans wanting to reclaim a piece of their own history, speculators picking up Jackson memorabilia in the belief that it would “be worth a lot of money some day”, and eBay sellers in the right place at the right time with the right stuff created a perfect storm. The frenzy was hardly even a consumer one — it's not like you get your eBay item the second you buy it —you have to wait. It was, instead, almost meta-transactional — a burnt offering of money in the name of Michael Jackson. One wonders over the percentage of these sales that will actually get completed — just because something is green on eBay doesn't mean it's paid for. And for those who did pay, by the time the item arrives next week, will the desire to have the item still burn as brightly in their heart?
If the desire is still there, the value of the object will in no way reflect what the customer paid. If one thing can be learned from the career of Michael Jackson, what goes up must come down. That, and supply will meet, and exceed, demand. By Sunday afternoon the rest of eBay had jumped on the Michael Jackson phenomenon, and was beating the hell out of it, like it was that car at the end of the Black or White video.
When I checked the Michael Jackson completed listings on Friday, there were about 8,000 completed. As I write this two days later, another 22,000 listings have moved into the completed items, with the name “Michael Jackson” retrieving approximately 52,000 hits in the active listings. Copies of his various releases were so abundant that prices were already falling back to more sane, if not pre-death, levels. Red started creeping into the completed listings pages again, although there was still plenty of green.
In a way, this is all as it should be, or at least how we are. A consumer frenzy for Jackson's product is our way of moving him from the realm of the public spectacle he'd become, back into the pop commodity he'd been all his life. But all that stuff — the scads of posters, buttons, magazines, CDs, wigs, gloves, and other garbage generated in his name — will be here tomorrow, the next day, and until the end of time. Infinite marketing of an individual is probably Jackson's real legacy. There is no bottom to it, there is nothing rare about it, it will never run out. If you're thinking about investing in Michael Jackson collectibles, don't.
This is for Henry, a true believer. Keep holding onto 'em, Henry.