The sale, earlier this month, of the late Professor Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair is the perfect example of how auction values are often all about an item’s associations or symbolism rather than any specific intrinsic value.
At just under £300,000 including buyer’s premium, the specially kitted out motorised wheelchair may be a rare piece of machinery in itself, but it is the genius who sat in it that makes it unique.
Other Hawking items, including his Albert Einstein Award, also made huge sums, but without the man himself they are just so many pieces of wood, glass, metal and plastic… aren’t they?
Clearly not. The war memorials we all stood in front of on November 11 to honour the sacrifices of the Fallen on the centenary of the end of WWI are emblems of those who are no longer there, but we felt their presence strongly as the bugler played the Last Post. They provide a material focus to our interest and attention.
Just so museum exhibits, tokens of affection, mementoes, religious relics and, indeed, the personal effects of historic figures like Professor Hawking. As tangible reminders, they help concentrate the mind on the spirit and character of those with whom they are associated. And it is our continuing fascination with these individuals that means we never tire of attempting to connect with them via these objects – and that’s what gives them their value.