Murderabilia and tragic trinkets ruffle feathers

At first glance, this artwork looks like your typical piece of baseball memorabilia, signed by more than 40 celebrities, including Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays and even president Richard Nixon. But this is no ordinary showpiece. It’s not LeRoy Neiman artwork or a piece created by famed sports artist Ron Lewis. No, the man who took credit for creating this rendering also took credit for raping and murdering 33 young men and boys: John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy items are not alone in this peculiar sector of the hobby that you might not be all that familiar with. But don’t kid yourself. There’s quite the following for these types of pieces, and this particular example is very tame compared to most of the other items that fall into the category of “Murderabilia.”

In fact, a quick search on the Internet can land you pieces that originate from infamous criminals like Jeffery Dahmer, “The Son of Sam Killer” David Berkowitz and Charles Manson – and some of this memorabilia can land sellers big bucks.

So what would stop a sports/Americana auction house from including this morbid memorabilia in one of its sales? That’s a question that almost every auction house owner is faced with when a consignor attempts to cash in on Murderabilia through their sales venue.

“I have a fairly simple standard that I follow,” said Jeff Woolf, owner of Iconic Memorabilia, and former owner of Universal Rarities. “As long as the item being offered can be deemed as historical in some way, in that it related to some sort of historical incident or some person of fame or infamy, we would more than likely sell it.

“I think the big key and important element to understand here is that we’re not praising the individuals who committed the crime, especially things like murder or heinous acts, but rather we acknowledge that they have a place in history whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.”

Lelands.com president Mike Heffner has a similar stance for his auction.

“Anything historical should go in the auction,” said Heffner. “Now, some historical items rub people the wrong way. It’s like politics. People don’t always agree on what is right and what is wrong. It’s up to us to make the judgment. We don’t want to offend any of our clients, but just because one or a couple of our clients object to something, doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a majority of them that might be interested in it.

“It’s tough to figure out where to draw the line. We have taken a lot of heat in the past for a lot of things that we’ve put in our auctions,” he added. “But then again, we’ve gotten a lot of compliments and people saying, ‘Hey, that’s cool that you’ve put that in there.’”

No doubt one of those pieces Heffner is referring to is the Gacy piece pictured above, which was actually offered by Lelands.com in one of its auctions a few years ago. In addition, Lelands.com has also sold letters written by Manson, something that wouldn’t ever make it into one Hunt Auctions’ sales, according to Dan Schmidt, Hunt’s auction manager.
“We prefer not to make those kinds of things available,” said Schmidt. “There’s a stigma attached and we try to take the high road. It’s just supporting something we just don’t want to support.

“We live in a free society,” he added. “People have interests and they’re going to put dollars behind it. It’s kind of under the same logic that there’s no bad PR. We could do sensationalistic-type things but we’re not going to. You make decisions on how you’re going to position yourself in the marketplace and that’s just one of those decisions.”

Does that mean Schmidt doesn’t think there’s a market for Murderabilia? Hardly.

“It wouldn’t surprise me. People love to point and tell a story,” said Schmidt. “And it’s very easy to point and tell a story about Murderabilia. It’s kind of the taboo. It’s kind of akin to pornography if you will. Some people are very loud and proud with it and a lot of people are more subtle with it.

“It’s also in the sense of a train wreck,” he added. “You can’t not look at it. You can always cater to the vices. Murder, all that stuff. It’s ingrained. It’s human emotion and some people like that stuff. It’s just not a part of our business.”

According to Andy Kahan, director of the Houston-based Mayor’s Crime Victims Office, if you’re a business operating out of one of five states (Texas, California, New Jersey, Michigan and Utah), the sale of what many consider grotesque items is already banned, thanks in great part to his lobbying efforts. In 2001, Kahan also successfully pressured eBay.com to drop Murderabilia listings.

Kahan, who coined the term “Murderabilia,” first got his taste of the unique hobby back in the fall of 1999.

“I grew up in Upstate New York and I was cruising through a Rochester paper and it had a little blurb about a New York serial killer named Arthur Shawcross, and it said, ‘Correction officials found that Shawcross had artwork for sale and they rescind his privileges,’” said Kahan. “Well, in my mind I figured where there was one there had to be others. So, I just went over to eBay and clunked a search for ‘Serial Killer,’ and much to my surprise and chagrin, items came pouring out and like most people back then I was under the delusion that you can’t do this, that there were laws preventing convicted criminals from profiting off their notoriety.

“So, I contacted eBay and they told me that they weren’t the morality police, ‘As long as it’s legal we have an obligation to our customers and if you don’t like it, do something about it,’ ” he added. “I’m sure they thought I was a little fly and would go shoo. I actually spent over a year as an active buyer in the market, which was a way for me to immerse myself and learn how this weird business works.”

Kahan said while studying the ins and outs of Murderabilia sales that he purchased about six different serial killers’ hair samples, finger nail clippings, foot scrapings, bodily fluids, hanging artwork, used deodorant, you name it. His studies paid off.

“After about a two-year battle, and primly what probably pushed eBay over the ledge was the ‘20/20’ piece on this issue.” said Kahan. “ ‘20/20’ got wind of what I was doing and at that time we actually started having legislation enacted called the Notoriety for Profit Law, so the timing was good. About two weeks before the segment was aired, eBay sent out a news release stating that people were no longer allowed to sell Murderabilia out of respect for victims families.”

But Kahan said that didn’t stop the sale of Murderabilia via other auction sites. In fact, there are two websites that specialize in Murderabilia, Daisy Seven and Murder Auction, with Daisy Seven being the largest dealer of crime collectibles.

According to an article published in March 2006, by the Washington Post, owner of Murder Auction, Todd Bohannon, got 300 death threats after one news story about him. Believe it or not, Bohannon is also a kindergarten teacher as his day job in Georgia.

Kahan and his associates have a federal bill pending that would prohibit anyone from selling Murderabilia, however, sites like Bohannon’s seem to have found a loophole by hosting his site on a server outside of the United States.
And by the way – what about the First Amendment?

“That’s what makes the history of this so fascinating,” said Kahan. “If you look at it on a purely objective level, because it encompasses every facet of American capitalism.” said Kahan. “From free enterprise, to First Amendment, to victims rights, should criminals be allowed to use the notoriety they achieved by committing high-profile crimes and profit from it? That’s what makes this issue to me so fascinating.

“The bottom line out there is that it’s using a serial killer to make money,” said Kahan. “We’ve had situation where we’ve found prison guards trying to sell items. Somebody years ago was trying to sell a Jeffrey Dahmer shaving kit.

“You need to send the message out that if you commit these crimes you’re not going to turn something into a Rembrandt or DiVinci and then make money off it. Whether you’re making money off it, whether you’re a family member who is making money off it, or third parties, the bottom line, from a victim’s perspective, it’s just nauseating and disgusting that you find out the person who killed loved ones, or another party is profiting off the misery, pain and grief that you had to endure.”

* * * * *

When O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder there was not a hotter piece of memorabilia than one from “The Juice.” Arizona Cardinals linebacker Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan by friendly fire, and the moment the news hit there were hundreds of listings for his memorabilia on eBay. In June of 2005, Lelands.com offered pieces of the plane Roberto Clemente was in when it crashed. Woolf’s Iconic Memorabilia has handled the sale of Adolf Hitler signed documents and other auction houses have sold notes from Saddam Hussein, autographs of Jack Kevorkian, you name it.

These types of pieces aren’t considered Murderablia, but the manner and/or timing of these sales have been ethically challenged by the masses throughout the years.

“Everybody’s fear from the people that are in my position is the negative response,” said Woolf. “And you are always going to have things that people aren’t going to like, but those people certainly don’t have to buy and you can’t let these people tell you the way to run your business.”

Woolf noted that some of his clients who are big into sports and Americana memorabilia are even interested in some of these “possibly unethical” pieces.

“I had a gentleman bid on and win an Adolf Hitler document in our last sale,” said Woolf. “The guy is a very consistent client. And the normal things that he bids on, he won a ‘Gone with the Wind’ piece, he’s bid on historical baseball stuff, before he bid on some Kobe Bryant stuff, so they get the big picture of it. There’s this place in history for these people whether we like it or not and some people they collect on the basis of historical relevance.”
Heffner said Lelands.com has also sold Hitler pieces in the past.

“Josh (Evans, owner of Lelands) is Jewish, so he totally understands the situation,” said Heffner. “We feel that if you bury the history, how are we going to learn from it? How are we going to be aware of it? How are children going to be aware if it? So, although it’s a very touchy subject, we’ve offered Hitler items. Some people collect that.”

Sometimes an auction house takes so much heat, it has to pull an item from a sale. In fact, when Lelands.com attempted to sell parts of the Clemente plane, it got to the point that they had to do just that.

“The family was really upset,” said Heffner “We obviously didn’t mean to upset the family, so we thought it was the right thing to pull it, so we donated it to the Clemente museum.”

When asked if Kahan would try to include in the law that people should be prohibited to sell items that fit into the tragedy category he said, “No.”

“Hitler was never convicted of anything,” said Kahan. “That was another key, is a lot of language put people into this category of the law we’re trying to get passed is anyone charged with a crime. No. You need to be convicted of a crime.”
How about the people who throw items on eBay the minute a sports star or other celebrity is killed out of the blue?
“It’s bad taste, but you can’t legislate bad taste,” said Kahan.

Maybe not, but something tells me there are people out there who think you should be able to.

Check out Chris Nerat’s blog, Gavel Chat at: gavelchat.sportscollectorsdigest.com. Readers may reach him at Chris.Nerat@fwpubs.com or call him at (800) 726-9966, ext. 13452.

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