The Strange Online Market for 9/11 Relics

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Published September 09, 2011

| Daily Finance

Jonathan "J.J." Fay never thought he'd sell his newspaper plate of the Twin Towers in smoke, the original printing press etching that the New York Daily News used to print its papers on September 12, 2001. Fay, a 38-year-old mechanic from Milwaukee, came to New York for work in the fall of 2001. He found the aluminum plate by accident while working on a fix for newspaper distribution centers.

"Times are tough," Fay says. "[The plate] should be framed and put on a wall. I can't afford to do it, so I hope that someone else will."

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Like hundreds of other Americans, Fay is listing his 9/11 relic on eBay (EBAY). In the weeks leading up to 10th anniversary, the online market for relics, memorabilia and collectibles has exploded. According to Google's (GOOG) cache, the number of items listed as 9/11 historical memorabilia on eBay has increased by 57% (from 816 items to 1,288 items) since late June.

Items range from commemorative tchotchkes to actual artifacts from the rubble. Among the thousands of objects eBay had listed on Wednesday were 9/11 coins, knives claiming to be fabricated from World Trade Center steel, original hotel room keys, a 1980s-era World Trade Center restaurant menu, "original responder" FDNY belt buckles, an invoice for flowers delivered to a tower office on 9/11, and a Windows on the World restaurant uniform.

Among 9/11-related items, those that once resided at Ground Zero fetched the best prices. On Wednesday, a Sept. 1, 2001 ticket to the World Trade Center observatories and an original office key had bids for $899 and $485, respectively. The flower invoice (slightly charred around the edges) recently went for $385 with 26 bids.

Most of these relics are only one degree away from the event, listed by people who were in New York on 9/11. The charred invoice, for example, was pulled out of the rubble by a firefighter. The menu belonged to a woman whose partner once turned down a job at Windows on the World.

"I was wading through paper and debris up to my knees," the firefighter, who did not wished to be named in this story, wrote in an email. "I grabbed a handful of papers and put it in the pocket of my fire gear. I thought, this is history, and as horrible as it was, I wanted to preserve something."

Struggling Survivors, Early Bird Investors

While these items are not yet collectible, one day they will be. If Pearl Harbor is any indication, such relics will only gain value over time as they become more rare.

Martin Jacobs, a WWII collector and author of four books on collecting, says that it's surprisingly early for a 9/11 market. "Passionate collectors buy because they are infatuated with a certain period of history," he says. "It's about nostalgia."

But what buyer today could be remotely nostalgic for 9/11? "I could never have a passion for that," Martin says.

Martin suspects that the nascent market may be driven in part by professionals looking to score an early deal. With most of the items still in the hands of New York residents, survivors and families, it could be a good time to invest.

Rose, an eBay seller from Harrisburg, Pa., (who asked that we not use her last name) sold a

World Trade Center menu to an investor from upstate New York for $104.50. The menu, which belonged to her father, had become emotionally charged since 9/11, when two of their family members would have been in the Towers had they not happened to miss work that day.

"The WTC murders are something I can't even discuss, even after 10 years," she wrote in an email. "I had thought of selling the menu in previous years but did not act at that time. I think doing so now is the beginning of letting myself get on the road to healing from this terrible day."

Most sellers, though, are interested in cash as well as healing. Many families touched by the tragedy have seen their incomes and living standards decline in the years since 9/11. Damien, the owner of the Windows on the World uniform, hoped to use the money from selling it to help out a friend in financial trouble. But while he initially listed the uniform for $9,000, he dropped the price to $99 after receiving no bids. (It currently has one bid and four days left.)

J.J. Fay, the owner of the printing press plate, is also hoping to supplement his income by selling it. Still, he's not willing to part with it for less than $1,000, though other similar items recently went for $300.

"I think part of the reason I set the price high is because I don't want to lose it," Fay says. "It's an important to me. If the right person doesn't come along, I'll wait until next year."

An Emotional Marketplace

Some would say it's too early to turn these relics into memorabilia. The commercialization of 9/11 has come under heavy criticism over the past few months as dozens of new commemorative products have been released ahead of the anniversary. For example, the decision by Lieb Family Cellars to sell a 9/11-themed wine bottled during the fall of 2001 has been called "distasteful" and even "grotesque" by media and politicians.

Looking at the nascent eBay market, it's hard not to wonder if the relics are also being exploited. Arguably, the helmets of dead FDNY firefighters belong in glass cases in museums, not next to Swarovski crystal commemorative clutches on auction sites.

Financial hardships and smart investments aside, 9/11 products are being bought and sold because of the American public's hunger to connect with the tragedy. Ten years later, families feel they need tangible objects to help them remember. Or, still-grieving, they hope to share memories with others via the personal effects they have accumulated.

Jan Ramirez, chief curator of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, thinks that relics play a unique role in our collective memory of the terrorist attacks. "9/11 was the ultimate material act of violence," she says. "It resulted in the dematerialization of two quarter-mile-high buildings and thousands of people. The decimation was so staggering that those objects that did survive [became] sacrosanct."

The museum has never paid for any of its artifacts. It acquired most of them through donations from the different communities of people involved: firefighters, volunteers, employees, families of victims. People donate for many reasons, Ramirez says. Some want to help accurately represent their loved ones, others to part with a painfully charged object, still others to participate in building a shared history of the event.

With the museum not opening until autumn 2012, eBay is for now a strange sort of preliminary site for the sharing of experiences through these artifacts. Of course, the online marketplace uses money as its currency, not knowledge. And like any other transaction, the sale of 9/11 relics is subject to amoral investing and exploitative dealings. But this is, after all, America. Perhaps it's not so strange that many of us choose to commemorate the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in a mournful burst of free trade. 

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