Why collectors are drawn to 'murderabilia'

Story highlights

  • Artwork by serial killers and other criminals is a lucrative market
  • Collectors say "murderabilia" helps them understand violent criminals

(CNN)As the saying goes, you can buy anything online. Just ask Eric Holler.

Holler runs Serial Killers Ink, an Internet marketplace specializing in "murderabilia": collectible items related to murders or violent crimes. They include handwritten letters and artwork such as an oil painting of a clown by John Wayne Gacy, who was executed in 1994 for murdering 33 boys and young men in Chicago.
Some people may find his venture distasteful. But Holler sees little difference between selling items associated with violent crime and the many movies, TV shows and video games that capitalize on it.
    "Murder and mayhem is a moneymaking business," he said. "I think there's a little bit of darkness in us all. We all want to walk to the edge."
    In this Halloween season, Holler is certainly not alone in his ghoulish fascination. A collection of watercolors and drawings by Adolf Hitler sold for nearly $450,000 at auction last summer in Germany. One of the most popular exhibits at Washington's recently shuttered Crime Museum was a display of paintings by Gacy, who buried dozens of his victims in a crawl space below his home.
    And a number of true-crime aficionados collect items related to notorious killers. Holler says sales have increased every year since he launched his website in 2009.
    Buying and selling "murderabilia" is legal. But is it moral? For some observers, that's a much more difficult question.

    Foul or free speech?

    Experts cite several reasons for the interest in killers' artwork and other true-crime souvenirs.
    Some collectors search for answers in the art: clues to the murderer's psyche or motivation. And others just want to own a piece of history, even if that history is gruesome.
    The bigger the crime and the more recognizable the criminal's name, the higher the value for the piece.
    "Famous is famous," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "We live in a society that increasingly values fame."
    The value of an otherwise mundane drawing or painting rises if it can be associated with a notorious crime, agreed David Gussak, an art-education professor at Florida State University.
    "Nobody would take a second look at any of the artwork done, until someone found out that the person murdered somebody," said Gussak, who also works as an art therapist for prison inmates.
    But displaying criminals' work is a point of contention among art therapists. Such art should be used to help the prisoner heal and learn, not sensationalized for the public's enjoyment, Gussak said.
    He does not support selling the work of his clients and believes that viewing the artwork could be traumatizing for crime victims and their families.
    "I think it's dangerous," said Gussak, author of "Art on Trial: Art Therapy in Capital Murder Cases." "It sensationalizes the horrific for purely selfish reasons."
    Helen Morrison, a serial killer expert, discusses paintings by John Wayne Gacy in 2004 in Chicago.

    Son of Sam laws

    People have long been trying to prevent criminals from making money from their crimes.
    Fearful that serial killer David Berkowitz might earn huge sums by selling his story to book publishers, New York enacted legislation in the 1970s allowing the state to seize any such proceeds and use them to compensate his victims' families.
    These "Son of Sam" laws have been invoked multiple times. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1991 that they infringed on First Amendment rights, although a judge in 2007 awarded 90% of the proceeds from the sale of the rights to O.J. Simpson's book "If I Did It" to the family of Ron Goldman, who was slain alongside Simpson's wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, in 1994.
    "Legislators have been trying for 25 years to stop criminals from making a profit," said Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum's First Amendment Center.
    More recently, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has tried repeatedly to pass legislation outlawing the sale of murderabilia. But there's a difference between a murderer profiting from a book or movie deal and a third party earning some cash from a true-crime souvenir.
    Once a criminal's artwork has been created and distributed, there's no way to stop it from being sold, Paulson said. Even if it offends victims or their families, the artwork remains protected as free speech.
    "You're not allowed to suppress free speech, even if it's by a criminal," he said.
    Buyers and sellers of murderabilia, such as Holler, are aware of this protection.
    "What I'm doing is never going to be illegal," Holler said. "I have the First Amendment on my side."

    'A good investment opportunity'

    Holler has always been interested in true crime and began selling murderabilia on eBay in 1997. The majority of the artwork, letters and other pieces he sells are mailed directly to him by prison inmates.
    The relationships he has built and his experience in the industry allow him to identify forgeries. He said he recognizes Charles Manson's signature.
    Publicity around Manson, who led a murderous California cult in the late 1960s, got collector John Schwenk interested in true crime as a teenager. In the past 10 years, Schwenk has collected 150 pieces from various criminals, including a painting by Manson.
    For Schwenk, who lives near Philadelphia, collecting such items is about getting inside the mind of a killer.
    But for Christian Carrington, another collector, murderabilia is an investment.
    Carrington, a stock trader by day, has amassed 40 pieces in a year and half. He earned a degree in art history from Columbia University and has long been interested in art. The pieces he chooses to buy often have less to do with artist and more to do with scarcity.
    "I've seen a lot of collectors who are into the blood and gore. I'm not," said Carrington, who owns a drawing by Wisconson serial killer Ed Gein, who stole bodies from a local graveyard and inspired Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho." "I just felt that it was a good investment opportunity."
      Carrington foresees selling his collection in 15 to 20 years, assuming he can make a profit. But doesn't intend for his investment to offend.
      "I don't buy these things to rub it in anyone's face," he said. In fact, he said visitors to his home are often fascinated by them.