The collecting conundrum

Have you ever wondered why collectors collect? The mystery has been studied by scholars through the years trying to answer this conundrum. Why collectors collect what they do is another fascinating topic.

It has been said that, as the human form developed, there were first hunters, then gatherers, followed by collectors. Almost everyone collects something – but why? One only needs to watch children to see they will pick up and put in their pockets just about anything they find that is bright and colorful. Perhaps that proves that in spite of our numerical age, all collectors are still just kids at heart. Or – possibly there is a hidden collecting gene in all of us that the researchers have not yet discovered! But wait – maybe it is just the basic survivalist instinct in all humans (and many other animals) to save for the hard times in the future. Perhaps it is merely the thrill of the hunt. Some ask if collecting can result from a medical condition or an addiction. After all, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once said that his collecting was an addiction, rivaled only by his craving for nicotine!

Collecting is usually pursued as an interesting hobby, although occasionally, some collectors are known to become obsessed. The majority of collectors ascribe the incentives and stimuli they receive from collecting to one or more of the following:

• The knowledge gained by learning about the items they collect.

• The networking with fellow collectors.

• The pleasure that they derive from finding and acquiring a new and much sought after object that fills a gap in their collection.

• Memories and recollections – particularly the fond memories of childhood – may frequently determine what a collector chooses to collect.

• Sometimes the collected item may have nothing to do with the collector’s childhood, but rather something that is discovered later in life, and is found to be particularly interesting to the collector. An example might be Civil War memorabilia.

Here are the views of three frequently quoted experts:

Marjorie Akin, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside, has studied the subject of collecting and wrote in her book, Passionate Possession, the Formation of Private Collections that people collect for a connection to the past and memories. Akin wrote, “Objects can connect the collector to the historic, valued past.”

Akin also includes four other reasons why people collect. The first is to satisfy a sense of personal aesthetics. Secondly, to please personal tastes. Third, to show individualism. Akin concludes the fourth reason is the collector’s need to be complete, and the sense of completion is one of the main drivers of collectors. She adds that collectors may choose a subject to collect because of the challenge there is to complete the collection. Akin said she has seen people cry out in relief once they find the final piece and their collection is complete.

Kim A. Herzinger, a Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi, and an award-winning author and avid collector, provides another twist on obsession with collecting. He wrote, “Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs. It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.”

Herzinger adds that collecting may also become a passion. “Collecting, like most passions, has the capacity to let (the collector) live in another world for awhile. If I could tell you why passion allows us to inhabit another world, I would stop collecting.”

He adds that the collector becomes engaged in a kind of worship. “The collector is experiencing the kind of sensory transcendence that we most closely associate with religion or love. Like religion or love, the collection is a kind of security against uncertainty and loss.”

New York psychoanalyst, Werner Muensterberger, wrote in his book titled Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, that control of the object collected brings “relief of the child’s anxiety and frustration that comes with feeling helpless and being alone.”

He develops the theory that the psychological basis of collecting is the child’s use of a transitional object to relieve anxiety caused by separation from its mother.

However, if these reasons seem too implausible or complex, then Kurt Kuersteiner, offers one refreshingly simple reason. In his published article, “Collecting Collections,” Kuersteiner wrote, “I believe the main reason people collect something is a basic interest in the topic.”

Walter Annenberg, former publisher, philanthropist, and ambassador to the United Kingdom said simply, “If it moves me, that was enough. Being moved is what collecting is all about.”

In reality, there are probably as many different reasons as there are collectors. Collectors are individuals. The debate over the reasons will go on and on, but the one truth that cannot be denied is that people will continue, whatever the reason, and they will continue to collect the items that interest them – whatever that may be.

There are collectors for just about any object – everything from buttons, pins, cheap pottery and lunch boxes to exotic automobiles and fine art. For an example, just peruse eBay, which thrives on the desires of collectors around the world. EBay lists 40 different main categories, which are then subdivided into hundreds of sections and subsections. On a typical day, more than 15 million items are listed for sale or auction on their Web site! The collectibles category alone has more than 1.5 million items listed each day! Many of these items, the average person would consider either boringly insignificant or worthless trinkets – but to their collectors, they are rare objects of great beauty.

Some collectors have a profit motive, hoping to sell their treasures for a future gain, but perhaps they should be considered investors rather than collectors. To collecting purists, it would seem that the profit motive would take the enjoyment out of collecting. Sometimes significant gains can be realized by collectors by simple luck, without even considering a profit motive. There was a woman that bought an old paperweight for one dollar in a Virginia thrift shop – and then learned it was a rare Saint Louis antique upright bouquet in a basket. She sold it in 1993 at Sotheby’s for $29,000! Advice is frequently given to collectors to collect what they are attracted to – but not to collect solely for profit as the motive.

It is reported that Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

In addition to being a scientific and mathematics genius, it is clear he also had great wisdom – a very rare trait.

What Einstein meant in this fascinating quote can be interpreted differently. I prefer it to mean that, for a collector, what is important should be the personal attraction to the collection, and not its size or value. The enjoyment of the collecting process is what really counts.