Celebrity leftovers: The fascination with crumbs stars leave behind

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Media captionOwner Michael Bennett offers a tour of his cafe's Museum of Celebrity Leftovers

A couple in Cornwall are showcasing food left behind by stars. Why are some people drawn to such celebrity ephemera?

It's one of the great cultural phenomena of the 21st Century - the appetite for learning about famous people's lives, no matter how banal the details.

Gossip magazines and newspapers are stuffed with information about such minutiae.

And for eight years, a seaside cafe in Cornwall has hosted an experiment exploring this obsession by displaying the food left behind by public figures.

It may sound bizarre. But people can go to great lengths to get hold of something a celebrity has owned, or even just touched.

Image caption A half-eaten banana signed by Kate Garraway fetched almost £2,000

In November 2011, John Lennon's molar tooth sold in Stockport for £19,500 ($30,276). Winston Churchill's false teeth, ashtray and cigars have also sold at auction in recent years.

On the other side of the Atlantic, an eye patch that John Wayne wore in the 1969 movie True Grit sold for $47,800 last year.

But perhaps the most bizarre category of memorabilia is food. A slice of French toast nibbled by pop star Justin Timberlake, complete with syrup and plastic fork, sold for $1,025 on eBay in the US. Bubble gum spat out by Britney Spears, and a bottle of beer half-finished by Kurt Cobain, have also found new owners.

In the UK, television presenter Kate Garraway's half-eaten banana sold for just shy of £2,000 - though it was signed.

The growth of online auctions, with their huge pool of buyers and sellers, has fuelled this sector - although the fact that the items are perishable of course creates problems for the amateur collector.

This is the challenge that Michael and Francesca Bennett took up at their cafe in Cornwall, when they set out to chronicle the food that stars left behind in a makeshift museum.

It all started with David Bailey. The legendary fashion photographer popped in to the Bennett's seaside cafe in Kingsand, and the couple wanted to commemorate his visit to The Old Boatstore.

But being artists by training, they did not want to do it the conventional way. A cringeworthy snapshot of the star hugging the beaming patrons would not do.

Instead, they decided to scrape a piece of his leftovers - some sandwich crust - and put it in a transparent, thimble-shaped presentation unit.

And so their Museum of Celebrity Leftovers had its first exhibit.

Today it has a selection of morsels in various states of decay, and hundreds of devotees from across the globe have paid homage to the celebrity shrine, both in person and online.

"It is a wonderful piece of British eccentricity", says film-director Michael Winner, who has a crumb of lemon drizzle cake in the museum.

But is it an ironic take on celebrity culture, a leftfield marketing ploy - or just pure kitsch?

"It is a snapshot of celebrity in the first decade of 21st Century Britain. How many of these exhibitors will be household names in 50 years time?", says Bennett, looking at his masterpiece that hangs on his cafe wall.

"What do you have to do to achieve lasting fame?"

Started in 2004, the exhibition runs the full gamut of celebrity. It takes in Prince Charles, household names from the arts world like Michael Winner and Peter Doherty, journalists like newsreader Jan Leeming and local weatherman Craig Rich, former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, and rocker Steve Swindells of Hawkwind.

"We're just amazed that it captured so many people's imagination", says Bennett.

"Thanks to the internet the museum has an international following".

He has been interviewed by journalists from America to Australia, he says.

Fans have posted on the internet images of themselves standing next to the museum, after they have made pilgrimages.

People have suggested to the Bennetts that they sell their museum, treating it as a nest-egg, but he says this is not the point.

"Some people think it's about trying to own a small part of that celebrity, be part of their life, buy into it, but from our point of view it's literally a memento, and something tangible."

Indeed, it is an established part of modern celebrity culture that objects can be conferred with the power of their celebrity owners, according to James Bennett, senior lecturer in television at Royal Holloway University.

The ultimate example of this remains Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, says the academic, who writes for the journal Celebrity Studies.

More than three decades after his death, fans still flock to see the gaudy objects with which the star surrounded himself.

Image caption The exhibits have attracted visitors from around the world

It is a chance for fans who idolise Presley, but have probably never seen him in the flesh, to connect with his life and feel part of it, Bennett suggests.

He adds that food is an attractive memento because paradoxically, being so mundane, it encapsulate the "ordinariness" of celebrities.

"They are not necessarily living a rarefied existence, they live in the same world as us, eat in the same cafes," Bennett says.

However, he believes the celebrity worship in Graceland is very different to that taking place in the Cornish cafe.

"There is something playful about the Museum of Celebrity Leftovers, a knowingness about it, on the part of both the celebrities and the visitors which makes it particularly British," he says.

Nonetheless, what began with David Bailey seems likely to end with Eddie Marsan - the Mission Impossible III actor who left behind a piece of Cornetto at the museum - as 2012 looks set to be the year of the museum's demise.

The Bennetts' children are ready to leave home, so the cafe is up for auction, though the museum is pointedly excluded from the sale.

Bennett is desperate for his beloved creation to survive in some form, and not become a leftover in its own right.

Image caption The cafe overlooks the sea in Kingsand, Cornwall

He thinks it could become what he calls a "museum of the absurd in Cornwall", a kind of local Ripley's Believe It or Not, showcasing Cornish curiosities.

"I mean, if the Victoria and Albert museum took it on that would be nice", he says.

"But semi-seriously, it's a piece of social history."

The celebrity visits are certainly a prism for local history, clearly another attraction for Mr Bennett.

The one that got away, as far as he is concerned, is the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who famously designed the sleeve of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

"We've always been admirers," says Bennett.

"It would be great if he came down and then became an exhibit on the shelf."

The first decade of the 21st Century was the age of instant celebrity, according to cultural critics.

In a period neatly defined by Big Brother's reign on Channel 4, reality television demonstrated its power to bestow fame on absolutely anybody - and the annual trawls for fame-hungry contestants on talent shows The X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent are still bringing in a huge catch.

Whatever the fate of the Bennetts' museum, in the future there will be no shortage of celebrities to leave their crumbs for fans.