On Collecting

Why didn’t she try collecting something?—it didn’t matter what. She would find it gave an interest to life, and there was no end to the little curiosities one could easily pick up.

—Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton

I have been accumulating writings on collecting, and the reading is telling. One minute you might be reading about butterflies, for example, or about a person who devotes untold hours of his or her life to getting more butterflies—the next minute you find yourself grappling with questions about history, economy, destiny, science, naming, language, learning, love, immortality. Even the most. ephemeral, least significant writings on collecting somehow induce a bewildering amount of speculation.

Sample the two modern classics. Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay Unpacking My Library opens with a charge of the perverse pleasure this Marxist philosopher gets in seeing his private collection of old books emerge from packing crates.1 Disheveled/dis-shelved, the unpacked books not only convey but arouse the collector’s passion. At his touch—almost a fondle—each volume relinquishes a “chaos of memories.”2 He contrasts to this productive chaos the “mild boredom” of seeing any collection neatly arranged—its disorderly essence (a historic essence) subdued, made static, like facts in a chronology.3 The pleasure his collection unleashes has little to do with its contents: the last thing a collector does is read his books!4 No, the relationship between collector and object is based on memories of a first encounter, a city, a dealer, a transaction, a touch. The essay concludes with Benjamin’s abrupt, yet wistful, prediction that private collecting would someday constitute an obsolete form of ownership. Bruce Chatwin’s short fiction Utz picks up where Benjamin leaves off, investigating the mysterious fate of Baron Utz’s vast collection of Meissen porcelain figurines, in postwar Prague. Utz has struck a deal with the Socialist government, allowing him to keep his acquisitions until his death. He warns: “In any museum the object dies—of suffocation and the public gaze…. Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years, and their collections returned into circulation.”5 And at the old man’s funeral, the entire collection has vanished, without a trace. Perhaps, the narrator speculates, Utz destroyed his aristocratic Harlequins, Columbines, and monkey musicians rather than have them possessed by the State. Or is it possible that after marrying his devoted maid, Marta, Utz no longer relied on the chilly comfort of Rococo porcelain objects, and the aged couple together smashed the lot?

Turning to more varied sources, one discovers recurrent motives and points of consensus as well as some knotty contradictions. Compulsion, a word that smacks of perversion and illness, commonly describes the collecting impulse (which is also sometimes called a “mania”). As Chicago art collector Frederic Clay Bartlett testified, “l am a collector. It is a habit—a disease with me. I cannot help buying curios, antiquities, and works of art, even when I have no place to put them.”6 And yet, this impulse has also been regarded as normal, as something to be cultivated from childhood on. “The tot of two,” a parenting article from 1919 assures us, “when he starts to collect, has entered the first business enterprise of his life.”7 Sigmund Freud was deeply inspired by the act of collecting and by the objects in his own collection of some 2,000 (mostly small) antiquities. When the Nazis occupied Vienna, Freud refused to leave until safe passage to London was assured both his family and his collection. And psychoanalytic practice was built on the idea of retrieving things (material) from an individual’s collection of images, thoughts, memories, fragments, dreams, and fears—all of which Freud called the unconscious.8

Hunting is the great metaphor of collecting, with tracking, the chase, the bluff, capture, the elements of risk and chance all presumed to be more thrilling than the quarry itself. Collectors are frequently likened to “lions,” and in one case to “ferrets”: “The collecting of one type…is bold and voracious; the collecting of men of the type of Balzac’s ‘Cousin Pons’ is artful, cunning, crafty.”9 Embedded in the hunting/trophy metaphor is a tradition of collecting as plundering, or acquisition through conquest—to the victor go the spoils. In 67 B.C., for example, Roman emperor Cicero begged his contact in Greece to please send “as many other statues and objects as seem to you appropriate to that place, and to my interests, and to your good taste—above all anything which seems to you suitable for a gymnasium or a running track.”10 In a strange twist to this adage, Napoleon, though defeated in battle, sacked Egypt of its treasures and carried them off to France in triumph—a triumph of collecting, that is.

Love, learning, identity, immortality, and investment are the big motives for collecting. As one commentator observes of the tender ministrations that collectors lavish on their objects: “while love for another person may be spurned, no one was ever jilted by a book mark or a cheese label.”11 Alternatively, however, collecting can lead to friendships and build community. Surely the members of MOO: Milk Bottles Only Association find exceptional company in their own midst. Built over time, a collection is a life’s witness. The writer Kenneth Breecher has observed: “There were postcards from every period of my life and they had become my private museum, a cabinet of curiosities, a personal history reflecting large and minute concerns.”12 Every collector learns from his or her pursuit, and collections can also teach others. The seventeenth-century genesis of the museum—the curiosity cabinet, or Wunderkammer—was composed equally of natural specimens and cultural artifacts for study and teaching purposes. Joseph Pulitzer said that building his art collection goaded him to constantly rethink his own knowledge and taste: “If I have been troubled or dismayed or shocked or antagonized by a style that suddenly emerges on the scene, I usually take the trouble to find out about it.”13 But collecting is not first and foremost about communicating with others, and collectors’ expertise can veer to the sheer arcane and be couched in a language sensible only to other collectors, with their knowledge of rare patterns, maker’s marks, years of manufacture, most desirable colors, and other minutiae. This is the parlance of the marketplace and is not usually relevant to discussions of culture or history at large.

Collections establish and reveal identity. Mega-collector and twin Alex Shear has noted that he “didn’t know who [he] was,” until the day he found himself at a flea market, reconstructing the consumer landscape of his past (from bobby pins, to soda cans, to artists’ renderings of never-built cars) and started acquiring these products of his youth en masse. “Is my collection autobiographical?,” he asks; “you’d better believe it. A lot of my life is in that stuff.”14 But collections don’t just reflect on a collector’s past, they also look forward to the time of his or her death. On donating his collection of Victorian art to Canada’s National Gallery, Joseph Tannenbaum declared: “There’s something almost immortal about collecting. It’s a heritage you pass on to future generations.”15 Even when a collection isn’t fit to enter an institution’s pearly gates, there is a sense of its heft and responsibility anchoring the collector to this world. As a collector friend once said to me, “l can’t die; who will take care of all these things?”

But collecting is also about investing in the here and now: “Most of us, of course, collect for profit, whether real or imagined.”16 And, increasingly, everything seems collectible, and thus valuable. Each episode of the popular television program Antiques Road Show stars ordinary household accumulation that an expert’s word either transforms into a pearl of great price or reduces to trash. With e-bay and on-line auctions taking place virtually every second of the day, collectors are constantly buying and selling, incrementally and exponentially inflating their own economies in Russell Wright-designed dishes, Impressionist paintings, tractor brochures, and so on. Nonetheless, collecting is ultimately about accumulating, not about cashing-in. For what do true collectors do with any financial gains? They buy more stuff.

Finally, the Golden Rule, encountered again and again throughout the writing on collecting, is that everyone collects something. On a certain level, collecting is naming (you name it and someone collects it…); it is a kind of pointing to the object. And collectors in turn are named: a deltiologist collects postcards, a phillumenist matchbook covers, a vitolphillist cigar rings.”17 Snobs might quibble over the difference between dilettante and genuine collecting. “The latter,” one commentator observes, “has stilled once and for all any inhibition against spending money on the inanimate objects of his choice.”18 But money isn’t really the issue when you collect, as some do, rubber bands, restaurant doggie bags, string, or other ephemera. We live in a culture so possessed by possessions that a person would almost have to make an effort not to collect. Emerson’s warning, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” receives this update from the editor of The Antique Trader Weekly: “grab as much as you can and store it.”19

An essential question remains, even after having sifted through my collection of writings on collecting: How and why do people chose what they want to collect? What is it about asphyxiated butterflies that can drive one person to distraction, while others daydream about small antiquities? How thrilling is the pursuit of miniature lamps if one is not already captivated by them? A fine collection of cheese labels may keep emotional entanglements with human beings at bay, but love is there nevertheless. Ultimately, I cannot explain the pleasure that I get from my own modest collection of old travel books—with their exquisite maps, handsome heft, delicate paper, stone-by-stone accounts, and obsolete accommodations—and I do not expect anyone else to fully appreciate or share it. (In fact, I hope you don’t. Like most collectors, I’m a little proprietary when it comes to my object.) This aspect of collecting—the hold certain objects can have on us—seems to lie beyond speculation. The desires and assurances they inspire remain ineffable.


Pictures, Patents, Monkeys, and More

The three (and more) collections that are the subject of this exhibition are each represented by selected objects and each depict a different kind of collecting: contemporary fine art comes from the Robert J. Shiffler Foundation in Ohio; the sock monkey toys, artifacts of popular culture, come from a private collection; the patent models, an example of a repository of public record, are from the U.S. Patent Office, and are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. In addition, each participating venue has been invited to present a local collection.

Seeing all of these objects side-by-side gives rise to a variety of questions and comparisons. For example, how are institutional and individual collecting different from one another? Art is generally considered the “big game” of collecting, because of the relatively high cost associated with obtaining and maintaining individual objects, and because of the status they confer. Yet, as expressions of innovation and individuality, are pictures actually unlike patents or sock monkeys? What about the power and significance of the collection itself? How does the fact that an object has been collected transform the regard we have for it? Is there a point when an accumulation becomes a collection? And can a collection itself become a work of art? We also have to pay attention to the context of display: art museums create a privileged form of presentation, which reflects on all the objects on view here. If Marcel Duchamp could, in 1915, turn a shovel into a sculpture just by showing it as such, what does that gesture mean for these monkeys and patents? By extension, is fine art leveled by such associations? I think not: art maintains its cultural position and its specific claims on our attention, though not at the expense of any of the other objects on view here. What attracts you personally is of course a matter of taste. But everything in this show, including the art, gains from the frisson, the excitement the exhibition generates simply by showing it together and making it possible to ask these questions in such a direct and open-ended manner.



  1. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, pp. 59-67.
  2. Benjamin, p. 60.
  3. Benjamin, p. 59.
  4. “Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library…’And I suppose you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ 'Not one-tenth of them. l don’t suppose you use your Sévres china every day?’” Benjamin, p. 62.
  5. Bruce Chatwin, Utz. New York: Penguin Books, 1988, p. 20.
  6. Isabel McDougall, “An Artist’s House,” The House Beautiful, September 1902, p. 199.
  7. George Peak, B.S.E., “Does Your Child Collect? Make the Habit of Value to Him,” The Delineator, February 1919, p. 40.
  8. An Egyptian dream oracle sat prominently on Freud’s desk, and he owned several representations of Oedipus, after whom he named one of psychoanalysis's most infamous complexes. cf. Stephan Salisbury, “Dr. Freud’s Collection, Objects of Desire,” The New York Times, September 3, 1989, p. H, 24.
  9. Guy Péne DuBois, “The Art Treasures of an American Collector: Pictures and Tapestries in the C.K.G. Billings Collection,” Arts and Decoration, December 1912, p. 47.
  10. J.J. Pollitt, The Art of Rome c. 753 BC to 337 AD: Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966, p. 77.
  11. Ivor Smullen, “You Must See My Collection,” The New York Times, February 13, 1987, p. I, 33.
  12. Kenneth S. Breecher, Too Sad to Sing: A Memoir with Postcards. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, p. 2.
  13. Malcolm N. Carter, “The Magnificent Obsession: Art Collecting in the 70s,” ArtNews, May 1976, p. 44.
  14. David Owen, “The Sultan of Stuff,” The New Yorker, July 19, 1999, pp. 60-61. Shear's immense and ever-growing collection is an industry in itself: objects are rented out for display and research purposes, exhibitions are organized and toured.
  15. Adele Freedman, “Collector Joseph Tannenbaum: 'Joey is Like a Hunter,'” ArtNews, February 1981, p. 120.
  16. Fred Ferretti, “The Collecting Compulsion,” The New York Times Magazine, July 27, 1980, p. 24.
  17. There are even things made for no other purpose: collectibles. These soul-less objects (where are the appeals of rescue, touch, time?) first appeared on earth in 1895 when the Danish concern of Bing & Grondahl issued their limited edition Behind the Frozen Window Christmas plates. `
  18. Frank Hermann, The English as Collectors, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972.
  19. Kyle Husfloen, quoted in Fred Ferretti, p. 25.