Music ‘(She’s So) Selfish’ by The Knack
Boy did this article ring some bells for me. In my immediate family everyone has collected at least 2 different types of objects so I found this recent article from The Economist (December 20, 2005) to be a fascinating read.
To have and to hold
Mass production and modern communications bring out the collector in all of us
SMALL children collect shells or marbles; older ones comic books, dolls or toy cars. Grown-up children collect vintage cars, or paintings, or a huge range of other things, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Even birds do it. In the mountains of Papua New Guinea, the male bowerbird collects flowers, moss, berries and man-made items, and fashions them into a bower to attract a mate. Collecting, by one definition, is “the process of actively, selectively and passionately acquiring, possessing and disposing of valued things, often removed from ordinary use and perceived as part of a set.” Hunting for them excites the collector, and taking possession of the object of his desire can be a moment of pure passion, sometimes literally. Don Juan, with his 1,003 conquests in Spain alone, was an archetypal collector. His hunting ground was half the human race, so he could never hope to complete the set. Most collectors pursue less ambitious goals, merely wanting to acquire every first edition by an author or every denomination of a stamp, and love putting the last piece into place.
Some people think the urge to collect may be related to man’s origin as a hunter-gatherer. Others have looked for Freudian explanations: compensation for a loveless childhood, or an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world. (Freud himself possessed over 4,000 antiquities, many of which look distinctly phallic.) A broad rule of thumb is that one in three people will remain collectors even in adulthood. They are a heterogeneous bunch, says James Stourton at Sotheby’s, who is writing a history of art collecting after 1945; but those he meets often share certain characteristics. They are very intelligent, predominantly male, typically Jewish, often childless, sometimes homosexual. They see their collecting as a highly creative activity, and know their subjects backwards. Some stick with the same specialism all their lives; others get bored and turn to something else. But they rarely give up collecting altogether.
Most serious collectors are not motivated by money, but by a fascination with the objects themselves. Sometimes they go over the top, like Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), an Englishman who declared that he wanted a copy of every book in the world. He acquired around 50,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts, piled them high in his house and ran up huge debts. But of course he never got the complete set. A modern, and happier, example of a passionate collector is Robert Opie, who as a teenager took an interest in consumer-goods packaging. This came cheap, because it was designed to be thrown away. He now has a collection of over half a million objects which he markets as an image bank and a repository of advertising history and nostalgia items. It has taken over his life, but perhaps this is not surprising. His parents spent theirs collecting children’s games and nursery rhymes.
Wonders of the world
Whatever the motives, collecting has been around for a long time. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon kept statues from the period of the kings of Ur which at the time were already hundreds of years old. The Roman empire developed a craze for antique statues, paintings and other objects from Greece, which were plundered and brought to the capital for sale to Roman collectors. For much of the Middle Ages, collecting in Europe was mainly done by the Church, which kept treasuries of artifacts made from gold, silver and gems (not to mention alleged parts of saints). But by the early Renaissance, princes and nobles in Italy became interested in collecting art and curiosities, and the habit rapidly spread northwards. By the start of the 16th century, every self-respecting European ruler had his own Wunderkammer stuffed with rarities from the animal, plant and mineral worlds, as well as works of art. In 1556 a Dutchman, Hubert Goltzius, listed 968 such collections all over Europe. From the late 16th century, the wealth and political stability of the Netherlands brought a passion for collecting among a middle class that had the money and opportunity to indulge it. Rembrandt kept over 2,000 weapons and pieces of armour, as well many paintings and prints, ethnographic specimens from Asia and the Americas and lots of other items. Among the many things that well-to-do 17th-century Dutchmen collected were outlandish fruits and strange flowers, most famously tulips, which probably first arrived in Holland from Persia or Turkey in the middle of the 16th century. The flowers soon became fashionable and the search for rare and beautiful specimens turned into a craze. In 1623 a tulip collector, Nicolaas van Wassenaar, bought a single bulb of an exquisite red-and-white striped variety for a sum that at the time would have bought eight oxen. The collector’s instinct had become mixed up with speculation, greed and fear.
Like all bubbles, the mania subsided, leaving many a speculator ruined. But interest in the rare and exotic survived, soon to be fed by another craze: the grand tour. Well-to-do Europeans started travelling south, mostly to Italy, to visit the sites of classical civilisation and buy up antiquities and paintings to take home. Some of these acquisitions formed the core of great museums, such as London’s British Museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean. A grand tour of another kind, Napoleon’s military progress around Europe, yielded the first collection for the Louvre in Paris. By the 19th century, the collecting habit had started to pass from rulers and nobles to merchant princes such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. In his book “Collecting—An Unruly Passion”, Werner Muensterberger, a psychoanalyst, recalls how Nelson Rockefeller once told him: “You see, in my position I must collect. My mother did it, and my grandfather did it. It is an obligation. After all, the Medicis did it too.” In Europe, magnates such as Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, Sir William Burrell and the Rothschild family developed a similar sense of duty, and many such collections ended up in their own museums for all to enjoy.
When rich men want something, they usually get it. A London art consultant who has met lots of them, Peyton Skipwith, tells a story about Stavros Niarchos, a Greek shipowner, who saw an exhibition of orientalist art and resolved to buy the lot. When he was informed that some of the pictures had already sold, he said: “I always regard red spots as meaning ‘negotiate’.” Even very rich men, however, cannot lay their hands on treasures that have already come to rest in museums or the private collections of other plutocrats. Great paintings still turn up in the salerooms from time to time and fetch great prices: last year Picasso’s “Boy with a Pipe” was sold at Sotheby’s for $104m. But such opportunities are few and far between.
One way round this supply problem is to buy something new. Alistair McAlpine, a British collector, remembers how in 1964 he paid £2,000 for a painting by Mark Rothko which his friends thought was dreadful. This year another work by the same artist dating from 1964 was sold at Christie’s for over $10m. Lord McAlpine, who has formed some 100 different collections in his time, subsequently moved on to rare chickens and now collects cyclads, a variety of tropical plant. They have yet to appreciate in value the way the Rothko did, but he says he collects for love, not money. Another way to avoid disappointment is to collect something nobody else wants. A few decades ago Victorian art was unfashionable, but once enough people had discovered its charms, prices went up. Likewise, ethnographic art held no appeal for collectors in the 1920s when James Hooper started buying it, so although he had little money to spend, he was able to build up a splendid collection. When the rest of the world caught up, starting in the late 1950s, it became very valuable.
But the best way for a collector to ensure he can find what he wants is to develop an interest in something machine-made. Mass production has democratised collecting and brought it within reach of ordinary people. Once something could be made in a workshop or factory—a print, a piece of china, a candlestick—the supply became much more elastic. Not too elastic, though, because even a mass-produced item can become rarer and more valuable if it has a flaw or a slightly different colour from the rest. And there is always the device of a limited edition. During a craze for Beanie Babies toys a few years ago, some versions were made only in small quantities, which persuaded people to queue up and pay high prices for these “rarities”. The biggest change in the world of collecting in the past decade or so has been the arrival of the internet, though television has also boosted the habit. There is no end of websites that cater to collectors, offering information, specialist books and magazines, valuations, search engines for wanted items, auctions, framing, shipping and insurance services, and much else besides.
To get an idea of the range of things that engage collectors, go to collectingchannel.com, which offers information on about 50 categories, from clocks, postcards and militaria to fire engines and dental equipment. One of the more bizarre specialist sites is devoted to moist towelettes. It features a gallery of the best-designed examples and tells you where you can get your own made. It sounds like a spoof, but the site’s editor, Michael Lewis, says he has 2,000 of the things and his interest is absolutely genuine. Even at the conventional end of the trade, the internet has made an enormous difference. Abbotts, an auction house in the east of England which holds fine-art sales every few months, used to publicise them by advertising in the papers, sending out catalogues and telephoning dealers. Now it puts its catalogues on the web, complete with photographs, and finds it gets inquiries from much farther afield.
Auction results too are posted on the web, so it is easy to find the prices achieved around the world. This is useful for collectors, but not necessarily for dealers buying on behalf of clients, who find their trade secrets exposed. Andrew Patrick, who used to run the Fine Art Society in London’s Bond Street, says many dealers prefer to buy privately to preserve their mystique. The same sort of transparency is available on eBay, the online auction house that in a mere ten years has won over 150m registered users and expects a turnover of $40 billion this year. eBay sells mundane things, from clothes to cars, but also has a large section of “collectables” that offers a wealth of more esoteric fare. Would-be buyers browsing the site can see a description of the item, a photograph and the highest bid offered so far, and if they trump it they may soon get their purchase through the post. It may lack the theatrical excitement of raising your hand at Christie’s, but it is wonderfully efficient, as hordes of hoarders have found.