Would you spend $959,500 on an old guitar? What if that guitar belonged to Eric Clapton?

In a paper published electronically in the Journal of Consumer Research on March 8, Yale psychologists sought to explain the mysterious allure of celebrity memorabilia. They argue that the value we place on such objects results from “celebrity contagion” – our belief that the items physically embody remnants of their former owners.

By this account, we value Eric Clapton’s used guitar not because it reminds us of the singer, nor because we hope to resell it for even more money. Instead, we act as if Clapton’s person were literally “contagious” and transmitted to us via his guitars.

According to the paper, a consequence of this “magical thinking” is that people are less willing to purchase a celebrity item that has lost its celebrity essence. For example, people are less eager to wear a celebrity’s sweater if the sweater has been washed and sterilized.

The study was cited in a New York Times article about yesterday’s auction of Clapton’s guitars. Apparently people’s hunger for celebrity essences even extends to perfect replicas of celebrity possessions – such as a $20,000 replica of a Clapton guitar complete with dents and scratches, the Times reported. A follow-up Times blog post this morning said that the auction raised $2.15 million in total (the $959,500 guitar was sold at a previous Clapton auction in 2004).

The experiments in the study were performed at Yale by George Newman, a postdoctoral associate at the School of Management, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom and psychologist Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.