Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Valuable Is Rarity?

A good many people are content to be part of the ordinary multitude. A good many others are not thus content. There is the not infrequent desire to be special, outstanding, even unique. This translates into becoming powerful or, more modestly, interestingly different. But how is that difference, let alone power, achievable?

It isn’t easy. One way is to be, or become, very rich. Yet that registers as special mostly to the degree one is envied by everyone else. This can require great zeal or great indolence as well as money; we read about millionaires, men or women, for whom wealth brought only misery.

Such people were unhappily or multiply married, with usually highly publicized divorces, perhaps as a kind of serial rather than simultaneous polygamy. This means a media-begotten celebrity, though not of the kind that most seekers would welcome. So what are other, better ways of achieving fame?

It could be by the youth and beauty of an elderly nabob’s trophy wife. The downside of that is that most of such celebrity goes to the wife rather than to the nabob. Reflected glory is, after all, a second-rate sort of distinction. But there are other kinds of extraordinariness more greatly prized. One of them is an impressive art collection.

That would require an appreciable amount of Rembrandts, Picassos or Van Goghs. (Pathetic, by the way, when you think how unsold and impoverished Vincent was during his lifetime. And how many millions even his lesser works go for nowadays.) The good thing about a major art collection is the number of ways you can score with it.

One, of course, is just by reveling in it. Then there is promising it posthumously to some major museum. Another way is to offer it up for sale, and collecting big money thereby. Still another is to start your own museum, with your name attached to it. Moreover, it devolves to your glory just that you collected such a lofty thing as art, rather than, say, vintage automobiles, which requires much more space and is less readily displayable.

Now, speaking of space, what demands less of it than postage stamps? Of all types of collection, stamps may be the most convenient, but also the most questionable. There are, to be sure, some desperate souls who claim practical benefits from philately. They allege that you learn things about geography or, better yet, history from stamps. These can display historic figures, historic locations, historic events, familiarity with which enriches the lives of collectors.

Alas, when it comes to learning history, history books are preferable by far to stamps. What good is it, for instance, to learn that there was a major exhibition in such and such a year in Chicago? And does it profit us greatly to possess in miniature the face of, say, the inventor of the sewing machine or the last czar of Russia? Why, even Madame Curie can be duly revered without owning her countenance on a postage stamp. But, you say, what if a stamp is a miniature work of art?

This, I regret to say, happens more often in Europe than in America. And whereas art on your wall does something for you, your kinfolk, and your visiting friends, what good is a tiny artwork buried in an album, and not to be steadily viewed? It is about as good as a fine painting hung face to the wall.

This is where rarity comes in. I read in the Times of May 2 about what may be the rarest postage stamp of all, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, of which there is only one surviving specimen in the entire world. The newspaper refers to it as the Mona Lisa of stamps, and observes that it should fetch, at the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, somewhere between ten and twenty million dollars.

Yet it is not even as famous, or as upside–down, as the Inverted Jenny, a stamp of which there exist a hundred. A rather blurred picture of the One-Cent Magenta appears in the Times, which does not even clearly reveal what it depicts, namely “a workmanlike image of a schooner and a Latin motto that translates as ‘we give and we take in return.’” All that is clear in this newspaper illustration is the stamp’s octagonal shape, unusual enough, but probably not quite worth ten million, let alone twenty.

But yes, there is that rarity, that stamp’s uniqueness. Still, why should rarity, or even uniqueness, be worth that much? Let’s say you have a gorgeous girlfriend of Hollywood caliber or, better yet, as beautiful as a Botticelli Venus. Let us even assume that, should you be able to sell her, she’d bring in, being a rare specimen, a hefty sum. But ten or twenty million? I suspect not.

The rarity business strikes me as altogether spurious. Why should rare be synonymous with precious? If everyone owned a Maserati, Lomberghini or Rolls-Royce, would that make it less satisfying to own? If your girlfriend were the last remaining woman on earth to look like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, would that make her better company at the breakfast table, to say nothing of between the sheets?

I think rarity is vastly overrated, in stamps or anything else. But there it is. So gold is worth more than copper, even though it wouldn’t, in my esteem, look appreciably better than copper in a frying pan. Whatever beauty gold possesses need not in itself justify its enormous price. It is the rarity that does it. There was a Gold Rush; there could never be an Aluminum Rush. And then consider platinum, which, if you ask me, doesn’t even look as good as chrome.

Which brings me back to envy and to one of its provokers, the boast. Face it: most if not all of us enjoy being able to boast about something. Whether it’s your son getting straight A’s in his senior year in high school, your wife’s fabulous beef Stroganoff, your ancestors’ trip on the Mayflower, or the impermeability of your trench coat (or perhaps just its brand: Burberry); all those are things to boast about.  And yet they are not all that rare—think how many people must own Burberry trench coats. But it’s a brand, and not inexpensive, hence less ordinary, more prestigious, than the one you picked up out of desperation when you were caught in the rain in Podunk.

Granted that either garment will keep you dry, the British one is more rare; it alone is not only proof against the rain but also proof of your affluence, and of your rare good taste.

Still, rarity may in some cases be an actual disadvantage. Say you have a rare disease, or are a rare visitor to a watering place long since gone out of fashion.
What no one wants may easily be as rare as what everyone wants. Hula-Hoops, a year after they ceased to be (briefly) in fashion, have become hard to find, but does their unstylish rarity confer prestige on their tacky possessors?

Let us, however, beware of the opposite error and assume that all rarity is meaningless and absurd when overvalued. It is very rare to live to be a hundred, but is the rarity of being that old a privilege or a drag for its possessor and the caretakers? Like so much else, rarity is what you make of it.

Which reminds me of a tale by Anatole France, which I read as a youth. I recall it somewhat dimly, but no less approvingly. A mighty but troubled ruler is told by a seer that he will be happy only when he wears the shirt of a truly happy man. He orders his flunkies to find him such a shirt. Needless to say, they head for the abodes of the rich.

Yet all the wealthy turn out to be variously unhappy. One rich man, for example, takes these seekers onto his terrace, affording a magnificent view of his vast lands. But, as he points out, way out there is a barely visible, thin column of smoke rising from a chimney, which ruins the view for him. And so on, with mogul after mogul.

Finally, however, the searchers come across a shepherd who sings merrily while contentedly tending to his flock, and is of manifest good cheer. They fall upon him, tear off his jacket and lo, poor as he is, he doesn’t even own a shirt.

The moral of the story is that happiness is a wonderful thing but has nothing to do with rareness. It depends not on disposables but on disposition. Neither rarity nor frequency is of itself a good thing

So there is something very arbitrary about automatically valuing things for how rare they are. Or how not rare they are. What comes closest to real value is quite independent of quantity, whether profuse or scanty. But neither is it a nonsensical concept. If you love mashed potatoes, you love them equally whether you get them once a month or once a week.

Yet what a different world this would be if value were universally recognized as totally independent of rarity. If imitation leather were considered no worse than the genuine, provided it looked as good and functioned as dependably. How many of us moderately well off would then be as contented as the rich.

A better world, one likes to think. But then again, is that rare thing, excellence—or, better yet, perfection, if such a thing is possible—not to be sought? Of course it is. So I would say that a talent for surgery, is an admirable thing, however rare or not; whereas a gift for solving crossword puzzles, however rare or not, is of no great consequence.

Then to acquire the One-Cent Magenta, except for the purpose of selling it, would hardly be worth the effort. On the other hand, the opportunity and ability to enjoy the great arts, any and all of them, is well worth any number of One-Cent Magentas. But hold on: if any number existed, they wouldn’t be Mona Lisas in the first place. No better, in fact, than what you could purchase at your neighborhood Post Office.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Paintings, books, and stamps... they're all very fine, but I'll take the salami:

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Not Cancelled Yet 

    by John Updike

    Some honorary day

    if I play my cards right
    I might be a postage stamp

    but I won’t be there to lick me

    and licking is what I liked, 

    in tasty anticipation of

    the long dark slither from the mailbox,

    from box to pouch to hand

    to bag to box to slot to hand:

    that box is best

    whose lid slams open as well as shut,

    admitting a parcel of daylight,

    the green top of a tree, 

    and a flickering of fingers, letting go.

  5. As I previously requested, please remove my comment of November 17, 2012 in tribute to Jacques Barzun who had recently died. I do not wish to be part of a discussion which you post snide anti-Chinese-American remarks such as the following.
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


    Leo Wong - November 20, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    This comment has been removed by the author.


    November 24, 2012 at 6:41 PM

    Mr. Wong,

    You, Professor Bloom, and the ungentle reader Mr. Adams all come across as haughty, pompous, smug, and not nearly so clever as you believe yourselves to be. No one issuing a correction as picayune as anchored instead of docked should be quite so leeringly self-pleased. And why can't Bloom and Adams speak directly, rather than hiding behind your rickshaw?
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Leo Wong had removed comments by others at their request.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  6. "As I previously requested, please remove my comment of November 17, 2012 in tribute to Jacques Barzun who had recently died. I do not wish to be part of a discussion which you post snide anti-Chinese-American remarks such as the following."

    Why don't you remove it with kung fu?