If you dare to journey far beyond the prim pillars of capitalism — way past the Dow, the Fed and Alan Greenspan’s retirement hammock — you could stumble into one of the darkest, most disturbing corner of the American economy.
Call it the Infamy Emporium. No road map needed. You’ll find it with a just well-chosen keyword and a click. On the vast pages of eBay, badness is bubbling up all over.
There, amid the clutter of Michael Vick “dogfighter” license plates, Lindsay Lohan “I don’t want to go to Rehab” T-shirts and Chris Benoit action figures, a morbid niche market is eternally fueled by the latest scandals and villains.
Need an Osama Bin Laden whiskey flask? It’s yours for just $11.99. Craving a car once owned by NFL troublemaker Pacman Jones? Sorry, that 2005 Chrysler Crossfire just got snapped up for about $20,000.
Feeding off the fumes of a white-hot celebrity culture, built on the crumbs of America’s intense appetite for gossip, this strange segment of eBay is surging like never before. It’s a bazaar of the bizarre, driven by sellers’ lust for a quick buck and buyers’ hopes for some notoriety of their own. Stroll through the cyber-aisles: Here’s the airline boarding pass used by Paris Hilton after she left jail and jetted to Hawaii ($152); here’s the suit worn by O.J. Simpson the day he was found not guilty of double murder ($1,750). (The O.J. suit was withdrawn from sale recently when it failed to reach the minimum price of $35,000.)
Why are so many consumers so interested in owning a piece of the dark side?
“Because it has an air about it,” said Bruce Fromong, seller of the O.J. suit, which comes with jacket, pants, shirt and tie. The shirt collar has a blood stain where Simpson nicked himself shaving that morning, Oct. 3, 1995. The jacket has a makeup smudge left by Simpson’s sister during a post-verdict hug. Fromong said he has been trying to sell the suit for its owner, Simpson’s former agent Mike Gilbert, who got the ensemble as a gift from the ex-NFL star.
“John Dillinger. Bonnie and Clyde. O.J. I don’t care who you’re talking about, there’s a large interest there,” said Fromong, who deals in sports memorabilia. “Everybody has their own opinions (about the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman). I wasn’t there. If he did it, someday he’s got to stand in front of his Maker and atone for it. If he didn’t do it, look what we’ve done to him.”
And in the meantime?
“Well, right or wrong, love it or hate it, this suit has historic significance,” Fromong said. “This was the trial of the century.”
Of course, America has been a caldron of entrepreneurialism since the days Benjamin Franklin cooked up the lightning rod, wood-burning stove and bifocals. EBay, launched in 1995, has erupted into a massive, global marketplace where 241 million registered users trade more than $1,840 worth of goods every second, from the conventional to the kooky. At this confluence, capitalism has sprouted a thicket of weird branches: The Web site’s sellers in recent days have offered everything from a sheet of ripped paper to a bag of Funyuns.
And then there’s that darker, creepier back room where you can buy pieces of infamy: a James Earl Ray autographed prison meal ticket ($225), a handwritten letter penned by wrestler and family killer Chris Benoit ($100), the domain name LindsayLohanBusted.com ($9.99).
Of course, with many of these items, buyers will need to beware of possible hoaxes. While eBay says it will terminate accounts of users who post "false, inaccurate (or) misleading" content, it also does not guarantee the truth or accuracy of listings.
Still, the site is heavily self-policed by the users. And buyers have the ability to e-mail questions to the sellers.
When describing an item, some sellers write a few sentences to explain how they obtained it, laying out a chain of ownership. In the case of Simpson's suit, for example, the seller explained how it was obtained and pointed out blood and sweat stains said to contain Simpson's DNA.
This celebrity scandal niche is only expanding, according to one eBay expert.
“It is American capitalism at its very best and also at its scariest,” said Marc Hartzman, author of the 2002 book “Found on eBay.” “It’s been there a while, but it’s happening even more since I wrote the book.” The 24-hour news cycle, bands of roving paparazzi and, of course, the countless stupid acts of celebrities are driving this market. Fresh headlines declaring the latest scandal cause new items to flood the infamy market and old items to spike in price.
“EBay is a pop culture barometer, really” Hartzman said. “You probably can measure a celebrity’s hotness just by the number of items for sale."
But if you’re a seller, you have to act fast. That painted plate portraying a scene from the 1992 Mike Tyson rape trial ($35 recently), is growing pretty stale on the eBay shelves.
So is the airline boarding pass used by ex-astronaut/alleged stalker Lisa Nowak last February after she was arrested in Orlando.
“I definitely think the value of it will drop over time as the story fades into the past,” said Michele, who is offering the Nowak boarding pass for $50 but didn't want her last name used. She said a friend of hers recognizes Nowak on a flight and snagged the item when it was left in a seat pocket.
This is the third time Michele has tried to sell the boarding pass on eBay. No takers yet.
“Everyone has a different idea of what is ‘collection worthy,'" Michele said in an e-mail. "As they say, what you or I may think is junk, another may think is treasure.’ To me, it would be like saying I own one of Anna Nicole’s pill bottles. Does it have any value? No. Is it worth anything? Not really. Does anyone care? Probably not. But to someone who likes this type of thing, it makes for interesting conversation.”
Indeed, that chance to ride the coattails of the big moment, to personally latch onto a celebrity — however heinous — leads hundreds of consumers to dip into the infamy market, said eBay spokeswoman Kim Rubey.
“People have indicated that when someone or something becomes high profile and gets a lot of media attention, they get engaged in activity on our site because they feel they’re part of that history,” Rubey said.
EBay, which posted second-quarter net revenue of $1.29 billion, a 29 percent increase over the same span in 2006, does lay down strict rules regarding its sales. The site bans listings that “graphically portray, glorify or attempt to profit from human tragedy or suffering, which lack substantial social, artistic, or political value.” Examples include items bearing Nazi symbols, crime scene photos and letters from notorious killers.
Somehow, though, the current infamy market floats around those rules.
“I wonder if some of the buyers and sellers are just hoping to get attention themselves,” Hartzman said. “You had somebody selling Britney Spears’ hair when she shaved her head. That’s an opportunity people really didn’t have before eBay.
“But now everyone has their own store. And at this point, it’s just a matter of what they choose to sell.”