Jeff Tomlinson was so close. He actually had picked up an empty Sweet ‘N Low package discarded by Madonna. He actually had it in his hand. Then the maître d’ confiscated his big find. “But we got a pack of matches from her hotel room, anyway,” Tomlinson says. The Madonna matches joined Johnny Depp‘s table napkin, Michael Dukakis”s wine cork and Mick Jagger’s uneaten candy, along with the truly minor memorabilia of about 100 other celebrities, in the collection that Tomlinson and his wife, Chris, keep in their home in Jamaica Plain, Mass.
The Tomlinsons, mind you, don’t consider themselves collectors or celebrity scavengers. They call themselves artists. They even have a name—finalism—for their art form, although they’re not too serious about it all. “It’s really just a big joke, or at least it started out that way,” says Jeff, 30. “Chris and I were at a party, and Robert Wilson, Philip Glass’s collaborator on the opera Einstein on the Beach, kept putting his used plastic fork down next to the food. Chris said, ‘Here’s Robert Wilson’s fork; what should I do with it?’ and I said, ‘Let’s start a collection!’ ”
Soon friends all over the country began contributing to the couple’s oeuvre. Sally Field’s lipstick blotter came in, as did Bob Dylan’s broken guitar strings. There were butts of cigarettes smoked by David Bowie and an Evian bottle nuzzled by Janet Jackson. Two arbitrary but important rules of finalism: The celeb must definitely have used the item and, ideally, should not know anything has been taken.
Jeff, who works at the Milton Museum as assistant director, has catalogued the collection in his computer, cross-referencing according to the type of item—swizzle stick, dinner roll, airsick bag—and the type of celebrity—artist, athlete, politician—whose touch gave the item its (very) faint aura of fame.
Some of the Tomlinsons’ found art has had to be discarded quickly because of perishability. Although they were able to keep a shank bone from a Leonard Bernstein dinner, they have had to trash a piece of squash gnawed by Sen. John Kerry. Jeff points with pride to a soupspoon—kept in a plastic bag—used by Sam Kinison: “It’s disgusting,” he says, “with all kinds of crud stuck to it.”
Someday, Jeff says, the pair hope to start a museum to house their ephemera, which is now in garbage bags in their pantry. Chris, 32, isn’t so sure anymore. “We’ve got to stop accumulating this stuff,” she says. “People are liable to think we’re weird.”