If you follow my Tweets (and you should since I am awesome) you would have known that last week I was at a financial services seminar and wow did I get a lot of post ideas out of it.  In one of the “classes” an energetic presenter told a story told that I haven’t been able to shake from the forefront of my mind.  You may have heard the story as it is a couple years old already, but Wikipedia provides a great beginning synopsis:

In an experiment initiated by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, Bell donned a baseball cap and played as an incognito street busker at the Metro subway station L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2007. The experiment was videotaped on hidden camera; among 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen to him, and only one recognized him. For his nearly 45-minute performance, Bell collected $32.17 from 27 passersby (excluding $20 from the passerby who recognized him).

The actual Washington Post article fills in the gaps (excerpts):

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection….Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Listening to the presenter talk about the subject and then rushing back to my hotel room to read the entire article something started to stir within me.  It was an uneasy feeling of, does wearing a Tag Heuer or driving a Mercedes Benz (picture is of a really hooked up Benz called a Maybach) really matter unless someone else knows what you are wearing or driving?  The timex will literally tell you the exact same time and the hyundai will take you to that same place.  The authors of the articles foresaw the emotions that the article would rumble in some readers,

MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”

Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

But should context matter? Is “value” simply the feeling you get when you look at your $10K watch or drive your $50K car? For the most part is luxury just the abstract idea of being sold bragging rights either to someone else or even yourself?

I have struggled with the concept of value vs worth before and would love to hear your thoughts.