When you’re a collector… don’t give too much away

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Collecting may seem like a harmless hobby but it allows others to gather a whole lot more about us than we let on or probably even know.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Are you a collector? You get this question every now and then, especially from people who do collect things. It always takes me a bit by surprise and I’m never sure how to answer it, whether it’s a serious question or a subtle way that fellow party-goers test how mad you are.

As I’ve always subscribed to the advice once given by someone who really was quite mad, ‘don’t let the crazy show too much’, the collector question is a tricky one from the get-go.

First, how do you define a ‘collector’… by the act of collecting or by the nature of the collectible? ‘What’s the difference?’ you might well ask. Just the act of gathering objects that likely share some sort of genus, history or origin could provide a neat enough definition of the latter, but when you dig into the motivation for doing so you’re entering the realm of the former. And in the former lies a whole lot of baggage, according to experts who like to read something into everything we do or don’t do.

Psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger suggests in his seminal 1993 study, Collecting, An Unruly Passion, that people collect in order to ward off the black dog of depression that can hound them from one scruffy market stall and auction room to the next.

You see now that the question ‘Are you a collector?’ comes weighed with meaning, intended or not. Muensterberger cites a litany of historical and contemporary figures whose compulsion to buy the same object, albeit in different forms or versions, over and over, pushes the boundaries of sanity.

“Muensterberger’s roster of driven acquisition-hunters includes the dedicated, the serious, and the infatuated, whose chronic restlessness can be curbed – and then merely temporarily – only by purchasing, discovering, receiving, or even stealing a new ‘find’,” according to Princeton University Press, which still stocks his book. From eminent leaders like the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to eccentric naturalists of the 19th century to famous novelists, collecting is more than a hobby, we learn.

Books, artworks, relics, religious icons, porcelain dolls, crockery, jewellery, stamps, lace, ribbons, shells, sports memorabilia, toys, mugs, stuffed animals… you name it and people collect it. And today, with the ease of search and dedicated platforms like WorthPoint, as well as online marketplaces like eBay to hunt the objects down, it’s pure candy for the sugar addicted.

What’s more, for those who do it professionally or as avid amateurs, it can be damn good business. Antiques and collectibles are a billion-dollar industry and growing at around 3.5% annually, according to IBISWorld. Of course, for Muensterberg’s breed of collector like French author Honoré de Balzac, the drive to collect is far from a financial one. Balzac’s alter ego even reveals itself in the main character of his comedy, Le Cousin Pons, a passionate acquirer of bric-a-brac beyond anything ordinary or healthy.

Contemporary author Fredrik Sjoberg’s fascinating study of islands, insects and the joys of the small things (The Fly Trap) takes the Muensterberger line further still, as he attempts to get inside the head of the collector. Sjoberg implies a distinction between, say, a casual egg cup display cabinet in the dining room sort of hobby and an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) replete with overflowing garage, living room and bedroom: “People who collect everything, as long as it’s curious enough, are especially likely to be engaged in a form of fetishism that does indeed allay anxiety.

As an entomologist, himself, Sjoberg knows a thing or two about the pure pleasure of a rare find. In fact, he has several such coups to his name on the Swedish island of Runmaro, where he collects insects, including a large hoverfly, Criorhina ranunculi, once thought to be extinct in Sweden. So, you can probably assume he also understands the compulsive side of the act of collecting, and just quietly, he might know a thing or two about the illusive psychological spin-offs, too!

“Any beetle whatsoever that was caught, pinned and classified by, say, Charles Darwin, would be a wonderful fetish with which to cure a depression,” muses Sjoberg, “but such things are impossible to come by.”

But all this doesn’t really help us answer the pesky, seemingly no less complex question: ‘Are you a collector… and why?’

Thankfully, we have the American author John Steinbeck to help us out with some simple wisdom. His inimitable style of parsing a subject into its purist form in Travels with Charley: In Search of America helps us get to the bottom of the collector’s psyche: “If I seem to be over-interested in junk, it is because I am, and I have a lot of it, too – half a garage full of bits and broken pieces,” he writes.

“But it can be seen that I do have a genuine and almost miserly interest in worthless objects. My excuse is that in this era of planned obsolescence, when a thing breaks down I can usually find something in my collection to repair it – a toilet, or a motor, or a lawn mower. But I guess the truth is that I simply like junk.”

No truer words to the self-confessed collector, but in the spirit of ‘don’t let the crazy show too much’, how about this as an answer when you’re next asked, ‘Are you a collector?’: “I’m inclined to answer that I don’t so much collect as acquire things that sometimes fit with other things that I have at home.”

Nothing compulsive about that response, is there?

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