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The Psychology of Collecting

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The first thing Bill Barlow printed, about 60 years ago, was an album for his father's stamp collection. He was a child at the time, unaware that he was minting his own lifelong identity as a collector along with the pages for his father's cherished stamps.

Today, the library-like top floor of Barlow's Oakland home testifies to a life energized and organized by a drive to acquire things in a passionately purposeful way. Books are his main preoccupation -- Barlow's accumulation of 18th century bibliographies and originals in the Baskerville font would wow any specialist in that rarefied antiquarian field.

But in a sense, the formidable book-lined walls, offset by the old printing presses he's amassed and used over the years, are beside the point. Barlow, a 69-year-old accountant, often shelves some new 18th century treasure and won't return to it for months once it's in place. His latest quest, for Duncan Hines guidebooks, signs, menus, matchbooks, china and other tokens of that bygone American chain, could hardly be more remote from the search for Baskerville books. The point is in the pursuit and the getting more than in the thing possessed.

"Having something that nobody else owns or that very few people own or that they can't afford to own is very gratifying," says Barlow. "You're a collector first. What you're going to collect comes next."

Often regarded as lonely if not pathological eccentrics, collectors actually express a powerful communal drive in a solitary age. United by the universal language of e-mail and EBay and a vast constellation of shows, societies and publications that bring them together, collectors create a deepening pattern in the carpet of contemporary life. While the urge to acquire first-edition books, Japanese woodblock prints, baseball cards, Beanie Babies or vintage Barolos might be seen as a telling reflection of consumerist excess and licensed dysfunction, it is also a way of apprehending a bewildering world and finding one's place in it.

Acknowledging aspects of compulsion and raw competition, UCSF clinical professor of psychiatry Graeme Hanson sees collecting as a blend of acquisitiveness, intellectual curiosity, a desire to possess and organize tangible objects, the lure of immortality and "a certain amount of showing off. " Why certain people leave their childhood Barbie doll and penny collections behind and others become committed collectors, he concedes, is a psychological riddle.

Whether we consciously accumulate things or not, computers have made us all data collectors and information archivists, as curator Ingrid Schaffner of Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art says. "Collecting is just another way of organizing thought. The anxiety about the computer running out of memory may hit some deep cultural chord."

So, in a consciousness transformed by Sept. 11, 2001, does the urge to preserve and memorialize. Collections may have an inevitable tinge of mortality and decay, a response to the "trauma of aloneness," as Werner Muensterberger says in his book "Collecting: An Unruly Passion." But they also signal a deep love for human enterprise, a longing to grasp and celebrate some portion of a fragile existence.

In "To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, " Philipp Blom describes this "strange and beautiful obsession" as a desire to "overcome the limits of (the collectors') time and upbringing." Blom deems collecting a "philosophical project" that seeks to "make sense of the multiplicity and chaos of the world, and perhaps even to find in it a hidden meaning."

Frank Keillor, a 54-year-old watch and fountain pen collector who lives in Moss Beach, would be disinclined to cast his potterings in philosophical terms. Poised over a ground-floor workbench in his oceanside home and surrounded by the minute parts and tools of the watchmaker's trade, he says cheerfully, "I'm a nerd. I love to take things apart and see how they work."

Keillor owns about 200 watches and several dozen prized fountain pens. He can rattle off the provenance and mechanical subtleties of his 1970s "working- class" watches and extol the virtues of flexible iridium pen tips, piston ink fillers and cellulose barrels. "I know, I know," he says. "I see people's eyes glaze over when I get started."

Why do they do it?

Like many collectors, Keillor initially comes up blank when asked why he got started and why watches and pens. "Collectors are always in the moment," as Schaffner says. Motive may be so fundamental, so intrinsic that it simply doesn't consciously engage a collector's attention. Focusing on objects, after all, their beauty, function and relationship to each other, may be a kind of self-sustaining process of externalized emotion. It's a kind of art.

And like all art, it has a wellspring, no matter how distant from the continuing stream.

"Oh, my father died," Keillor suddenly says, apparently making the connection for the first time. "That's what made the difference." Sorting through possessions with his mother in 1991, Keillor recalls now, he wondered about his father's old Girard Perregaux watch. Keillor hadn't seen the simple, substantial timepiece for years. Now, for whatever reason, he was determined to.

"We turned the house upside down and never found it," he says. "I wanted to see if I couldn't find something like it. So I went online -- this was pre-Google -- and the next thing you know I'd entered this wonderful world of watches."

Keillor may have been drawn to watches to fill a symbolic emotional void, but he seems more than replenished by his pursuit. He's found plenty of like- minded souls at local meetings of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, and he gives watches he's restored as gifts to the staff members at the San Jose health organization he directs. Nothing gives him more pleasure, he says, than seeing a 1970s watch ticking away on a colleague's wrist.

People experience and understand their collecting in a multitude of ways. For Gerard Koskovich, 45, a disciplined San Francisco editor who collects gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex nonfiction dating from the 17th century through 1970, collecting organizes his life. He writes and lectures on his material, structures his European travels around visits to dealers and fellow collectors and views his own identity through the history he's assembled.

"It was very important for me in coming out as a gay man," he explains. "I didn't want to feel I'd arrived on this planet with no forebears."

Koskovich, who grew up in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood "$500, 000 south of the Huntington Library," viewed rare books as "a fantasy of another time and place" when he was growing up. Now, perusing the neatly shelved library of more than 1,000 titles he keeps in his Mission District apartment, he exudes a sense of easy mastery. He plucks out several books and pamphlets on a 1730 anti-gay panic in the Netherlands and then a sequence on the Berlin gay rights movement of 1897.

"We ask questions of history," says Koskovich, "and history asks questions of us."

Koskovich spends about 15 hours a week seeking, buying and trading books (much of it online). Now and then, when something gets away, he experiences a kind of exquisite torment. Two years ago, a manuscript ledger book documenting cases of sodomy and bestiality back to the 15th century eluded him. "I missed it by half an hour," he says with a luxuriant sigh. "I felt miserable for weeks."

A Bay Area collector of American Federal furniture who spoke on the condition that neither her name nor city be identified, for security reasons, might be characterized as an accidental aesthete. A move from a New York City loft to a house in Greenwich, Conn., some years ago required new furnishings. The clean lines of American Federal appealed to her and her husband.

"We began by buying pieces that were real and old but not masterpieces," she says. "I would wake up every morning and look at this lovely Maine painted dressing table. You find your eyes going to a piece. It pleases you and excites you and makes you want more and better."

The anonymous collector and her husband began haunting museums and auction houses, educating themselves and buying upward. Their Eagle dining room table is one of five surviving examples. An 1810 Cumberland action table in the kitchen, its surface favored by the family cats, is one of 20.

"I am surrounded by beauty every day," says the owner. "This isn't consumption, like a Mercedes or expensive clothes. For us it's a question of asset allocation." When the dot-com bubble burst, she notes, the value of Federal furniture held. "Not the low and middle end," she clarifies, "the high end."

Legacy of collections

Like many collectors, these connoisseurs have thought carefully about the future and legacy of their collection. The couple, who have no children, have instructed that the furniture be sold at auction after their deaths. The proceeds will go to environmental and animal rights groups.

For 13-year-old baseball card and memorabilia collector Rob Natoli and his brother, Greg, 17, sibling rivalry is a central fact of life. "If one of us got a card the other one wanted," Rob says, "you'd definitely be mad." Greg, who has 20,000 cards, nods agreement from across the living room of their Burlingame house.

Then there's the crush of the collectors' marketplace. When Rob (10,000 cards) opened a pack with a Lou Gehrig jersey card at a recent show, he assumed that it would sell for the book value of $500. But when one dealer displayed several of the same cards and shrugged, the 13-year-old moved fast to conclude a sale. "I sold it within 10 minutes. I got $175."

Sports collectibles may seem cynically corrupted to anyone nostalgic for the days of 5-cent bubblegum packs. But when the Natoli brothers and their father, Steve, 50, repair to a memorabilia-crammed office in the garage and begin pulling balls autographed by Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax and other heroes of decades past off a shelf, time melts away.

"Collecting has taught me to respect the game," says Greg. "You learn about the great players and the great things they did before you were ever born."

Collectors throughout history have felt that same time-conquering reward. Largely pursued by privileged Medici-level cognoscenti until the 16th century, collecting expanded with what Blom calls "a spirit of Renaissance inquiry" and an emerging secular curiosity about the world. Soon enough, along with books and works of art, collectors were acquiring everything from skulls and butterflies to preserved anatomical oddities and sock monkeys.

Freud flung open the door on the psychology of collecting, linking object fixation to the anal-retentive phase in childhood. Muensterberger, in his psychological perspective on the "Unruly Passion," draws connections from preliterate fetish culture to Don Juan's sexual exploits and concludes that collecting is a need-driven compensatory behavior where "every new object effectively gives the notion of fantasized omnipotence." John Fowles dramatized the obsessional dark side in his haunting novel of control, "The Collector."

For some, the collecting impulse morphs into self-destructive hoarding --

newspapers are a common target. Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at the Stanford School of Medicine, says hoarding occurs in 5 to 15 percent of patients diagnosed as obsessive compulsive. "I don't want to pathologize collecting," says Aboujaoude. "Almost everyone is attached to a certain kind of item."

With hoarders, he says, insight-based therapies are largely ineffective. "My experience is that folks who can identify the root causes, some missing relationship in their lives, have not been able to control the behavior."

Collecting, hoarding's socially sanctioned cousin, may finally resist scrutiny and causal dissection as well. Whether someone collects in a public, legacy-making way, like Asian art patron Avery Brundage, or squirrels away his world-class scrimshaw for no one else to see, the process is always and specifically individual. Perhaps that's why collectors, in their singular pursuits, fascinate and unite us. Their passions, unruly or not, pry open the world and reveal some hidden order and harmony.

Popping off the back of a watch, Keillor points out the tiny polished screw heads, parallel grooves and beveled edges inside. "There's no reason to make it this beautiful," he says. "The watch would work perfectly well without it. It's watchmakers' ego, in a way. But whenever someone repaired this watch, he'd know and appreciate it. And now, so do I."


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In answering the question, "Why do you collect?," many collectors would probably simply say, "Because it's fun." But there's always something behind what we find fun.

Collecting is more than just collecting. Its origins go way back. As a species, we have a deeply ingrained need to hoard to survive the next winter or the next siege, to safeguard the future. Some of us, like Noah for his ark, collect one of each type. Others collect many of a smaller number of types. Still others collect many of many types, amassing huge numbers of coins. Much about coin collecting is equally applicable in other fields of collecting.

In his 1985 book American Pewter, J. B. Kerfoot's mentioned that other animals also collect and suggested that the hobby of collecting is a "human superstructure raised upon the foundation of an instinct. In other words, that which, in the squirrel, is an inherited mechanism of self-entrenchment has become, in the collector, a subtle technique of self-expression, self-emphasis, and self-extension."

In his 2003 book Ancient Coin Collecting, Vol. 1, Wayne Sayles talked about coin collecting starting not as a hobby but instead "as a packrat mentality to accumulate anything useful.... Cave inhabitants were certainly accumulators if not collectors."

While it doesn't have to, and in the vast majority of cases it doesn't, collecting can become self-destructive, an anal-compulsive fastidiousness or an escapist obsession.

In an earlier article, in the February 1996 Celator titled "Is Coin Collecting a Form of Escapism?," Sayles wrote, "The danger arises when a collector loses complete touch with reality and allows the hobby to dictate all other aspects of one's life. Every dealer can name collectors who would spend the rent money to buy a coveted rarity ... who neglect their health, their families and their social responsibilities to satisfy their compulsion.... Much like drug addiction, alcoholism or gambling, chronically compulsive collecting can be devastating.... It is probably a manifestation of some disguised emotional problem." Sayles balanced this by talking about healthy collectors and healthy collecting.

In his 2001 documentary film Vinyl about record collecting, Alan Zweig profiled among others an extreme example of collecting pathology, a social recluse who refused to leave his record-lined apartment, where each time he used the bathroom it took him several minutes to relocate the records in front of the bathroom door. As with coin collectors and coins, the record collectors profiled in the film found many ways to appreciate records and regarded each as a small piece of history.

In 2006 a British accountant was sentenced to a one-year prison term for embezzling from his firm over a two-year period the equivalent of more than $120,000 to buy coins. He had previously maxed out numerous credit cards that he had obtained for the same purpose. He received the jail time despite paying back what he stole partly by selling off his coin collection.

The difference between being a passionate collector and a fixated eccentric depends in part on whether other, more important aspects of life are neglected. Does collecting enrich your life without impoverishing other aspects of it or the lives of those around you? Much also depends on how much control you have. Can you pass up a buy, or have you reached the point where you can't stop yourself?

The deeper motivation of some collectors may be to gain greater control, with their types and classifications, of a larger world that seems out of control. In his 2003 book To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, Philipp Blom described collecting as a "philosophical project" that attempts to "make sense of the multiplicity and chaos of the world, and perhaps even to find in it a hidden meaning."

There's unquestionably a psychological component to collecting. In his 1968 paper titled "The Psychoanalysis of the Numismatist," M. Jean Hazard wrote that coin collectors can get into trouble if they let themselves sink into egoism and isolation. He also provided balance by talking about how collectors become numismatists when "the joy of learning overtakes the [joy] of acquiring and possessing."

In his 1993 book Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, Werner Muensterberger wrote that obsessive collecting derives from "depravation or loss or vulnerability and a subsequent longing for substitutes."

Freud believed that we go through psychosexual stages in our development and that if we don't progress healthfully through them, later psychological repercussions will ensue. In Freudian terms, perhaps the urge to collect, to acquire and hold, is sometimes anal-compulsive in nature and the urge to complete, to fill holes, is sometimes phallic because of incomplete development.

Jung believed that our behavior is influenced by archetypes, universal symbols deeply embedded in our collective unconsciousness. Collecting coins and completing sets no doubt have as their archetypal antecedents the hoarding needed for survival by early humankind.

We no longer need to squirrel away seeds and nuts. But having beautiful old coins to pull out and admire when we feel like it can truly be a pleasurable thing.

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