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A Collector Speaks Up

George Bulanda | February 16th, 2014


I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say we collectors are a breed apart. We’re not like most people, and that’s fine. If everyone else shared our passion, there would be nothing left to collect. But that’s no excuse for non-collectors to disparage us by calling us insane, possessive, or that unpardonable epithet—hoarders. Because they don’t understand what compels us to collect Chinese export porcelain, French faience, 18th-century American furniture, or Chinese snuff bottles is no reason to hurl invective.

I used to let such criticism roll off me, but lately I’ve gotten defensive, not in an aggressive way but by gentle explanation and persuasion. I think more of us kindred spirits need to respond to the gibes that come from, dare I say it, nonbelievers. When someone calls any of us a hoarder, we are duty-bound to explain that hoarders are indiscriminant about what they acquire, while we are very discriminating about what we permit in our homes. I attended a disappointing estate sale recently, and you couldn’t give me anything in that place.

A further difference between hoarders and collectors is that hoarders are ashamed of their stockpiles, while we are proud of what we’ve amassed. If someone wants to see my 1763 American sampler or my period Chippendale Philadelphia tea table, I’m only too happy to show them. Furthermore, as collectors become more astute, they usually upgrade and divest earlier pieces bought with more zeal than knowledge. A hoarder can’t comfortably part with anything.

As to the question of sanity, perhaps we are a little batty. Maybe we’re filling in the gaps where something in us is psychologically missing. But collecting isn’t a pathological condition, except perhaps for the zealot who would commit a crime in pursuit of a Holy Grail item. But it rarely comes to that. There’s a big difference between eccentricity and madness.

An artist acquaintance recently visited my home for the first time. She stood in the foyer, gazed in astonishment at the contemporary and antique paintings, the porcelain, the English Regency pole screens, the period furniture, the Oriental rugs, and everything else I hold dear. She pronounced, “George, you are insane,” except she punctuated her assessment with a rather colorful modifier before “insane.” She said it with more humor than malevolence, and I didn’t take it as an insult. I said something like, “Maybe I am loco, but do you know how many of your fellow artists were able to pay their rent after I purchased these paintings?”

Now, that was something she understood, but she wasn’t a total believer. She later e-mailed me, inquiring if I liked objects more than people. Well, I responded, people get old and deteriorate, while a beautiful antique only gets more attractive with age.

Then there are those who attack collectors as nothing more than greedy possessors. “It’s just another form of conspicuous consumption,” they sneer.

A fellow once interrupted a conversation I was having with another collector and said in mild rebuke, “You know, you can’t take it with you.” Really? I thought. You mean I’m not immortal? Actually, the ancient Egyptians did take it with them, their earthly possessions buried with them in crypts. However, if we really love an antique, then we’d also really love a survivor to have it after the curtain falls on us. And that’s what I told the interloper.

It’s become trite, and it sounds a bit pious, but collectors are fond of saying that we’re not possessors but merely stewards of art and antiques during our lifetime. Future generations can enjoy them in perpetuity when we bequeath them either to museums or individuals. It may be a cliché, but it’s a cogent argument when people reprimand us for our propensity to surround ourselves with beautiful things.

What’s especially gratifying to me is converting someone who doesn’t collect into the fold. It’s especially satisfying when they’re young because they can continue on the well-trod paths made by older collectors. This summer, a young man I used to work with asked if he could stop by. He took it all in, then after the visit asked if he could bring his girlfriend over to see the belongings. She was invited with open arms. I believe we’re obligated to expose youth to the joys of collecting because it will immeasurably enrich their lives. Collecting is a personal pursuit, but it should never be selfish.

Maybe it’s just human nature to attack what we don’t understand, but silence just encourages ignorance. We collectors have to wage the good fight and respond to detractors. They may never completely understand what motivates us to collect, but at least we can make a dent in their prejudice—and maybe even convert a heathen along the way.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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