This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
Sometimes collectors yearn for the unusual. They search for items that appeal to their sense of whimsy, or perhaps items that reflect cultural and historical values that may not have been thought of as collectible.
Obscure collectibles can be found in many places. How many of the people you know collect funerary items, dental or medical items, prisoner art, condom tins, neckties, corkscrews, Salem witch-related items, flat irons, toilet paper, Mexican Day of the Dead memorabilia or fortune-telling items? The list of “out-of-the-ordinary” collectibles goes on and on.
Collectors of the esoteric are many and they open up an entire new world to us when we look at those items through their eyes.
People often ask them, “You collect what?!” And when they actually see the collections, as Judy Papesh of Ohio would put it, “The unusual and non-mundane items . . . they are charmed, intrigued, delighted, surprised or sometimes they just don’t get it.”
Rear more on unusual antiques: ‘Haunted Objects’ a collection of stories about possessed collections!
Papesh collects ‘memento mori’ items. The Latin phrase translated is: “Remember [that you have] to die” or “Remember your mortality.” It is not unusual to see her driving her 1971 Cadillac Fleetwood hearse; she loves the Gothic look. Her collection also includes a Louis Icart print of Mephistopheles and Margareta, which fits in seamlessly with her Gothic arch windows and fancy cast-iron coffin holders.
It is not unusual for collectors to expand to significant peripheral collecting categories. A few Day of the Dead items from Mexico, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” mementos or skeletal curios fit in nicely with memento mori, as do human hair wreaths and mourning jewelry that were so popular during Queen Victoria’s rein. (Most of Victoria’s reign consisted of her many years of mourning Price Albert and expecting the whole world to don black and follow suit.)
“I know there are people who find my having a hearse in my driveway strange and those who find Gothic and funeral items beyond their understanding, but then someone comes in and is awed at the beauty and the workmanship and, yes, even the history behind these pieces and it makes it all worth while,” said Papesh.
Susan Erickson of Massachusetts is also curating a collection of a darker nature; she is a collector of witch items, especially pieces that relate to the Salem witch trials. Her favorite objects are jewelry made of sterling silver and gold.
Other witch-related silver items include souvenir spoons, especially those created by Daniel Lowe, proprietor of a high-end emporium selling objects de vertu and art, of Salem, Mass. Lowe may even be credited with the creation of the souvenir craze; in the 1890s, he commissioned Durgan Silver to produce a spoon with a witch motif on the handle, which was an incredible success. Gorham silversmiths produced the elaborate No. 2 design.
Erickson cautions, “Many pieces of Salem witch are showing up for sale which have the sterling spoon handles removed and placed on serving pieces such as ladles.” She advises looking at the backs of handles on these pieces to see if they have been reworked. “The reason these pieces are ‘rare’ and fetching high prices is because they are married.” They are not original, so they are overpriced. It is always important to research; the original Daniel Lowe catalogs are available at quality paper, book and ephemera shows.
Kate Sweeney, a social historian and needlecraft specialist from Wisconsin, collects lace and sewing-related items – a popular collecting area. Besides the actual laces and the tatting shuttles and bobbin tools, she also loves the charming folk art and ethnic items used in making them. A more unusual facet of her collection is the bone and ivory items made into needle cases and needles made by the Yupiit people of St. Lawrence Island (between Alaska and Russia). Handmade creations often begin out of necessity for survival and evolve into fashion.
Also among her unusual collections are Sweeney’s tattoo-related items. Her collection incorporates all aspects worldwide, including body tattooing by the Maori, silk embroidery on the shoes of foot-bound Chinese women, pewter embroidery on leather and examples of the beading of moccasins and dresses. A doll made of sealskin and rabbit, where the entire arm is tattooed and the black hair is braided with beads made by the Saami people (from Scandinavia to Russia), is one of her favorites.
Folk art, whether for decorative or utilitarian purposes or made just to pass the time, regardless of age, is a treasure in a world of machine-made items; the true value lies in what we can learn from other cultures by studying their tools and their finished handcrafted items.
Chris Russell of West Virginia is building more modern collections: neckties and condom tins. His 800-plus necktie collection includes everything from the Beatles to Mickey Mouse and they present a colorful display. However, Russell remarks, “The tin condom containers that one would purchase from the barber or under the counter from the pharmacist are my favorite collection.”
There are colorful containers from Sheik and Ramses that are beautifully designed lithography and are common; they may cost $50 or less. Then there are rare ones like the Akron dirigible, which may be worth $1,000 or more. Many collectors of prophylactic-related items expand their interests to include condom dispensing machines, Kotex dispensers, cardboard and paper condom containers and so on. During Desert Storm, a Saddam Hussein condom in paper container was produced to raise funds for fighting AIDS; at $1 each, it sold out.
What all these collectors have in common is they each introduce others to their heretofore unknown esoteric collecting areas; the curious newcomers may even be seduced into starting a zany collection of their own.
Collectors of the obscure have amassed an incredible knowledge of their topics due to countless hours spent researching. “Handling an item and knowing what you are looking for makes all the difference, as a photo just isn’t the same. I know the difference between a $10 condom container and a $1,000 one, but most people don’t,” said Russell.
These specialty collectors who have made a niche for categories that others might not even consider makes them caretakers of obscure objects and esoteric knowledge.
Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell, aka the Halloween Queen, owns the Castle Halloween Museum near Wheeling, W.Va. A prolific freelance writer, she is an expert in holiday collectibles, a dealer, a collector, and a public speaker. She may be reached at the Castle Halloween Museum.
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You might like to add these weird collecting books to your reference library!
Haunted Objects: Stories of Ghosts on Your Shelf
by Christopher Balzano and Tim Weisberg (F+W Media, 2012)
Can an object really be haunted? The answer is a resounding yes. Discover for yourself in this eerie, spine-chilling, and alarming collection of true tales and classic stories of possessed possessions.
Unearthed by veteran ghost hunters Christopher Balzano and Tim Weisberg, each page of “Haunted Objects” reveals unsettling accounts of unexplained paranormal activity surrounding everyday items. From dolls to rings, these innocent looking items have disturbing tales to tell.
Creepy-Ass Dolls is full of twisted little porcelain and plastic playmates with chilling thoughts, sinister plans, and disturbing enjoyments. This book offers a glimpse into the secret life of dolls with a yearbook approach–not only based around portrait photos, but also what the dolls are “most likely” to do, personal mottos and quotes, and more.