Why We Start Collecting
We are born collectors. From our first baby blanket to stuffed toys and beyond, the instinct to surround ourselves with external reminders of who we are and our presence in the world is strong. This is why we start collecting. Why do we continue collecting as adults, then?
This topic is the subject of much psychological discussion. Perhaps we desire to preserve the past, to connect with others, or to leave a legacy to future generations. Or perhaps it’s more compulsion than passion. What we collect and why we begin to collect it is as unique as we are. As an appraiser born with the collecting gene myself, I thought it might be time to examine my own beginnings and reasons for collecting today. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process. Perhaps you might, too, if you’re inclined to take it on!
My First Collecting Experience
It all started with horses!
Like many little girls, I was obsessed with them. I desperately wanted a pony of my own, but our 1960’s suburban tract housing development just wasn’t suited for it. Begging, bargaining and tears made no difference. Even my careful logic that one could happily crop grass while tied to our mailbox was summarily rejected.
In an attempt to distract me, my mother started a collection of ceramic horse figurines for me.
I was enchanted! Unfortunately, I was also prone to breaking them within hours of their arrival. Blaming my Barbie never got me anywhere. When Mom got tired of buying new ones, and Dad got tired of gluing together the old ones, I was firmly instructed to leave them on their shelf where they belonged. Yeah, right!
Undaunted, I merely stopped reporting new casualties and made valiant attempts to repair them myself with whatever I had on hand. Band-Aids and chewing gum have limited utility as bonding agents, though, and my crimes were always discovered.
Struck by inspiration, Mom realized that plastic horses might be a better option. She started me out with this proud Breyer 1955 Western Pony, and the rest was history. Barbie got in less trouble, Dad stopped gluing his fingers together, and harmony reigned again in the household.
Dad’s Influence on My Collecting
Truth be told, it was Dad who got us all started on the collecting kick. A geologist and ardent Rock of the Month Club member, his constant international travel inspired him to start a world stamp collection.
I was ever his shadow when he was home. In order to keep my presence from becoming too much of a nuisance to him, I learned to soak a stamp off an envelope in no time flat. He rewarded my seriousness with my very own Scott International Stamp Collecting Album, tweezers and perforation gauge. I was never so proud! I spent many happy hours with him carefully sliding stamps into those annoying little hinges and placing them in their designated spots on each page. And, of course, I stalked the postman each day to see if he slipped any interesting new specimens into our mailbox. The one without the pony tied to it. Sigh.
He never failed to bring us gifts from each of his exotic destinations, and these became the foundations for many collections to come. Even as a tiny girl, I untied packages wrapped in strange newsprint to reveal bronze Buddhas from Thailand, cartouches from Egypt, pre-Columbian pottery from Peru, jade figurines from China, puppets from Indonesia, carved wooden warriors from Africa and nesting dolls from Russia.
These, of course, didn’t improve my popularity with the neighborhood kids who could never find an amusing way to play with them. But they always held a place of honor on my shelves and still do.
I wouldn’t have been popular as a pre-teen anyway. I was scrawny, nerdy and played with stamps, dinosaurs, trolls, blanket forts, and stray cats instead of baby dolls. And of course, horses. I was pretty sure I was a horse trapped in a little girl’s body but didn’t share that with too many people. I gobbled up every horse story I could find, and my collection of books included Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, King of the Wind, Misty, The Yearling, and every Black Stallion book ever written.
Mom’s Passion for Collecting
Mom was no slouch at the collecting game either, especially as time went on. She scoured antique shows and flea markets for the more gentele European complements to my father’s exotic and primitive treasures. Crystal decanters, fine china, perfume bottles, inlaid boxes, botanical prints and French paintings were among her favorites. She was a master at blending their two styles and our homes were always smorgasbords of eclectic treasures. Her increasing talent and sophistication doing so ultimately landed her Newport Beach home in Orange County Magazine on more than one occasion.
My reluctant role during her shopping expeditions was to traipse around behind her from one antique booth to the next, lug her many purchases and mumble words of agreement as she lamented the sorry lack of anything worth buying anymore.
To wipe that bored expression off my pimply teenage face, she suggested that I find something to collect myself. I landed on salt and pepper shakers having only my meager allowance to spend on them.
Shockingly, those unassuming little things awakened a sleeping giant within me. I researched, inspected, bought, cleaned, and displayed them with growing passion. And sometime during in the process, I suddenly saw my mother in a brand new light. I finally understood her, and that was worth far more than any antique I ever bought since.
My Own Collecting Tastes Evolve
My folks now wander the Grand Bazaars and Antique Shops in the Sky. I’ve now forgiven them for never buying me the pony. Mostly. And I’ve let go of my collections of stamps, salt and pepper shakers, books, and many of the other things I inherited upon their passages. I still share my dad’s fascination for world cultures and my mom’s love of blending them into a cohesive interior design. But my journey of caring for them during their final years and days has also created a desire to surround myself with items that invoke in me a sense of awe at the meaning of life and the mysteries of the Great Beyond. Whether an African mask, Hindu statue, Buddhist tanka, Russian icon, or crystal from the earth, a thing must now inspire me to seek my own spiritual foundations.
Lately, I’ve begun to collect the works of my now dear friend, Dorothy Tanner of Lumonics Light and Sound Gallery. I met her dancing to electronic music at her multi-use performance space in Denver and fell in love with both her and her art immediately. Many of her award winning, mesmerizing, acrylic LED-lit sculptures now bathe my home in a soft glow that quiets my mind and encourages introspection.
Dorothy just turned 96 this January and is annoyed with her growing deafness and blindness. And yet, I sat with her on her living room floor last week doing yoga! Yes, yoga! While doing so, she imparted her wisdom about our responsibility to raise human consciousness in a world that looks as uncertain as ours does today. She never ceases to blow my mind. She didn’t quite approve at first of having her ultramodern art share space with some of my other sacred treasures from distant times and places. But she eventually forgave my insolence, and even deigned to create pieces for me on occasion. Collecting her art has been a true pleasure. Collecting memories of being with her, making her laugh and listening to her wisdom has been a rare privilege indeed.
Lessons Learned From My Collecting
So what have I learned both about the nature of collecting and about myself from my evolving collections? Many things, actually.
1) In the beginning, what we collect and why we collect it is largely driven by our childhood needs and experiences. For me, I started to collect to be close to my parents. I collected stamps because that meant I could spend precious time with a father whose travels made him largely unavailable. I started collecting salt and pepper shakers to please a mother I had trouble understanding. They were not so much conscious choices as conditioned patterning. As for collecting model horses . . . well . . . that was just Mom’s clever strategy for diverting my attention from the one that was never destined to be grazing by the mailbox. I can’t fault her for it! It worked. Mostly.
2) Why we continue to collect a thing from our past is a worthy inquiry. Do we continue to collect it unconsciously out of habit? Or do we do it because it continues to serve us in some way? Is it something that brings us true joy, teaches us something useful or helps us to heal an old wound? For me, continuing to collect art and artifacts from around the world is a conscious choice that still feeds my love of beauty and interest in different cultures. Upon deep reflection, though, I realized that continuing to collect stamps long after my father’s death was an unconscious continuing need for his attention. It was never going to make up for his long absences or bring him back. It cursed me with an unquenchable longing instead of blessing me with an enduring pleasure. Once I got that, I let it go.
3) One of the inherent reasons we continue to collect anything is because the more we collect it, the more we appreciate what makes it collectible. This is true of everything. Well, maybe not quite everything! Sometimes clever marketing schemes work their magic on us. Think Beanie Babies, here. In general, though, the more we become connoisseurs of the finest examples of a collectible item’s rarity, craftsmanship, maker, and artistic design, the more we wish to own them. This explains an appraiser’s occupational hazard of wanting to collect everything we appraise! Research begets knowledge. Knowledge begets appreciation, and appreciation begets a thirst for ownership!
4) This is going to perhaps sound absurd coming from someone whose job it is to place a value on other people’s collections. It’s that it’s all just stuff. Stuff we love and attach great meaning to, certainly. And stuff that may be so rare and beautiful as to command staggering prices at auction. But it’s still just stuff. Dorothy told me on my last visit with her that all her work was garbage! Not because she didn’t like it or feel it had any artistic merit. But because she understands that it’s merely an exterior visual representation of our more internal and essential truths. These are really our most prized possessions. And no one can steal them, break them, put a fair market value on them or declare them to be out of fashion! They are ours forever, uniquely cherished and valued beyond measure.
Collecting has the ability to bring beauty into our homes, friends into our lives, joy into our hearts, and insights into our nature. I encourage us all to look into our real reasons for collecting and determine if they still reflect our true passions as we change and grow. If they don’t, we should consider letting them go. If they do, then go forth and collect with peace of mind and great abandon! And thanks for sticking with me as I went through my own examination!