Unitarian pastor George Washington Burnap once wrote that three things were necessary for happiness in life: “something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Collecting embodies all three—curiosity, passion, and anticipation.
Charles Spencer Curb made bold to write in 2010 (“Why We Collect: A Historical and Psychological Perspective,” Silver Society of Canada Journal, 13) that collecting is an obviously sensible and proper thing to do, but the central question is why? Why is it proper and sensible? Why do we collect?
Curb categorizes varieties of collectors: those who boast of and cherish bargain prices, those who are proud of owning things of great rarity, and those who think of themselves as investors. James Barron, the author of The One-Cent Magenta (2017), broadly portrayed collectors of stamps as victims of an obsession only other philatelists fully appreciate and sympathize with. In that, postal fanatics are not alone.
I start with a prejudice: I accept the passion for collecting uncritically. I recognize the catholicity of the hobby: there are those who cherish things from all eras, those who focus narrowly on one category or craftsman, and those who simply appreciate the old, the rare, the beautiful. I do so because I am a collector myself, and what I see in others explains a great deal about why I do what I do.
Jane Katcher emphasizes the power of visual art and owning superb examples of it in Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana(2006 and 2011). Yet she honestly states that she has no ready answer for this gradual change from the delight of visual art to the action of purchasing it. Having no ready answer is a recurring theme in why we collect.
Clearly, something resonated within her, something powerful and important related to the aesthetic—an appreciation of the nobility, economy of means, power, grace, spirit, and unique vision of the artist or craftsman. Her collecting is based on a need to experience feelings not found in day-to-day life, feelings elicited by the objects she is drawn to, and in response to their innocence and eloquence. And part of the emotional aspect for her is keeping alive feelings and appreciation for beautiful art she first experienced as a teenager.
Katcher reminds us that collecting is a quest not merely for objects. I see it as a quest for our past, our futures, and for satisfying our souls, among other factors. She enjoys this hunt—the seeking, looking, searching, and finding. Additionally she enjoyed learning and education, sating her curiosity, as many collectors do—the need to know and understand is how I describe it.
Collecting has given Katcher meaning and purpose; it has been fulfilling. Is she alone in these discoveries as a collector? Not at all.
Ralph Esmerian made a wonderful gift of some of his folk art collection to the American Folk Art Museum, pictured in the book American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum(2001) by Stacy C. Hollander. Esmerian goes back some years and writes of a friend he had when he was a young man who collected early Americana. In the process of purchasing a birthday gift for her (a colorful coverlet), he also saw and bought for himself a Pennsylvania German slipware dish. Something about handling it and its appearance connected in his psyche to the spiritual and physical awakening he had experienced during two years in Greece.
Hollander calls Esmerian an unrepentant romantic who loved American folk art. I can identify with that feeling—a love for what I collect, the emotional part of collecting. Esmerican’s need to collect was so strong that it motivated his behavior over decades. I have fond memories of when I began collecting. Does my continued collecting help me hang on to them? I think it does. A notion worth thinking about: the present is a capturing or recapturing of the past.
In Esmerian’s case, Hollander tells us, collecting also kept him connected to his father. Thus we have a new theme in Esmerian’s collecting—relationships. It was Esmerian’s father who helped his son develop his aesthetic discernment. His father was a collector of rare bookbindings. Perhaps collectors emulate behaviors modeled for them by relatives who love the arts, music, or even antiques?
Both Katcher and Esmerian had a calculated plan for their collection. They were drawn to and purchased pieces that met their criteria of eloquence, innocence, quality, beauty, rarity, and creativity.
In A Yachtsman’s Eye(2004) by Alan Granby and Ben Simons, we learn about Glen S. Foster, a marine painting aficionado with a “knowledgeable eye” who looked for paintings with “quality.” As a yachtsman Foster was in a good position to assess marine art, and, as a yachtsman, “competition was what he lived for.” He transferred this competitive spirit to collecting marine art.
Immortality may be difficult to argue with. For the three noted collectors and their collections I cited above, their collections will live on after them, whether dispersed or placed in a museum. This legacy may be important to some collectors. The joy they experienced, and the pieces that contributed to that joy, can be shared with others.
Barron asks if we collect in order to touch the past and thereby escape the present, thus making collecting a form of nostalgia. I believe that we do. Do we collect because we want to know the world or because we enjoy pretty things? Do we collect, quite simply, because the things, pretty or not, are begging to be collected? “Absolutely,” I reply.
Curb tells us that important people have collected silver for centuries. And we know many other genres have been collected for a long, long time. We need to delve deeper into the themes touched on here so that we may begin to know ourselves as collectors better.
Why collect? There is much to discover, uncover, and talk about regarding Curb’s “sensible and proper” thing to do.
Some Psychological Explanations
Psychologist B.F. Skinner was interested in what conditions made freely chosen behaviors (called operants) more or less likely to occur, what types of circumstances or consequences make us likely to maintain or decrease a behavior. These consequences are called reinforcements; think of reward and punishment.
Skinner described different schedules of reinforcement working with pigeons and rats. And while these animals do not collect antiques, what applies to pigeons and rats applies to humans and certainly to us antiques collectors, with one exception.
I must provide a bit of explanation. A food pellet can be delivered to a rat every ten times it presses the bar (fixed ratio) or on average every ten times the rat presses the bar (variable ratio). Or a food pellet can be delivered every 20 seconds a pigeon pecks at the key (fixed interval) or on average every 20 times the pigeon pecks at a key (variable interval).
In both variable (intermittent) conditions the behavior is more persistent and consistent, which makes sense. The animal doesn’t know when the next reward will follow his behavior. It keeps at it, and the behavior is likely to continue without reward for quite some time. And collecting antiques fits the variable reinforcement scheme perfectly.
It takes, on average, 10,000 casts to hook a muskellunge (big freshwater game fish). The rod, reel, and plug are heavy; the weather is often cold and rainy. That’s a lot of weight in lousy weather to throw time after time, hour after hour, with no result. Golf for the average golfer is another example of persisting in an activity despite low odds of success. Perhaps four or five shots out of a total round are sweet ones. But those shots are enough to keep you as a golfer taking lessons and heading back out to the course. Someday, you tell yourself, the sand traps and water hazards will not be on a first-name basis with you. Slot machines are programmed on a variable ratio schedule. The next pull could be the big winner (or not). People sit for hours and play them.
Anyone who has ever been friends with an avid fisherman, golfer, or gambler knows the power of intermittent reinforcement. And if you do not fish, golf, or gamble, how about checking your cell phone as often as you do for e-mails, tweets, and texts; once in a while one may be important or interesting. So you keep hoping. The perfect interval reinforcement schedule.
If every time I went to an antiques show I found something I wanted, collecting wouldn’t be as much fun or any fun at all. I’d be much more likely to stop collecting.
Collecting antiques is an intermittent reinforcement schedule. Although it can become frustrating at times, “the hunt” is appealing to collectors because every few times—or even less often—that you visit a dealer, look on the Internet, or go to shows or auctions, you may see something you want or a piece that is truly beautiful. Another way of thinking about it is that every few weeks or months, or sometimes longer, you find something that knocks your socks off.
Finding it is only part of the hunt. You also have to be able to purchase it. And we know that not every time we find an antique that we want do we take it home. Sometimes it is too expensive, or we are outbid at auction.
From a reinforcement schedule perspective, our behavior is going to be reinforced, strengthened, and perpetuated by continuing to look for antiques even when the reward comes only rarely. No wonder you may go back to a dealer’s shop or a show where years ago you found a great piece. “Maybe this time” you say to yourself. That may be why wealthy collectors become so discerning. If no antique is beyond your budget, you have to find other reasons not to buy everything you want in three months and be done with it. Perhaps you want antiques from a certain craftsman or city (formal Philadelphia, for example) or a certain artist whose work rarely comes on the market. If it were easy to find antiques, your collecting days wouldn’t last.
I mentioned that we differ from Skinner’s pigeons and rats in one important way. We have greater cognitive abilities. We can ponder the future. These thoughts in and of themselves can be rewarding and maintain our collecting behaviors. And since we do not attend auctions or antiques shows daily it is not only the purchasing of antiques that is rewarding. The sights and sounds of events are rewarding, and the antiques we look at vary greatly. The reinforcement is still variable. I remember the New Hampshire Antiques Show in 2016. I have seen a lot of painted furniture and many painted boxes. Nonetheless one of the dealers had a Vermont painted box in pristine condition that took my breath away. I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. Intermittent reinforcement at work.
A transitional object is an object that provides an internal sense of security. The object that soothes the child theoretically is a substitute for the child’s mother and is an object of affection. Typically the term is used as it applies to children. Excellent examples are a child’s blanket, doll, toy, or a favorite stuffed animal. How many parents have turned the car around and headed back to the motel, beach, or friend’s house to get it back? It anchors the child like nothing else.
Eventually, children outgrow such transitional objects, as they are able to provide their own internal security by their behaviors and a developing ego. Many a parent has wondered whether a child will begin school with that stuffed bear or bring it to his or her wedding someday.
I once heard that adulthood is not all it’s cracked up to be. About 35% of adults in our society still sleep with a stuffed animal. Hospitals give them to heart patients after surgery. And I know many adults have their own sources of security that are objects—a favorite chair, coffee mug, flannel shirt, and the like.
I wonder if antiques are adult transitional objects for collectors? At least our most special ones. They bring back happy memories, create in us a feeling of calm and well-being, and, while not a substitute for mom, touching, looking at, and living with them is soothing. They may not be the favorite antiques in our collection because of their lines, surface, or beauty, but for whatever reason they carry with them serenity and safety.
My hypothesis would be that these adult transitional objects resonate with us unconsciously; we do not consciously decide that this antique or that antique will be soothing. At the macro level, I know I find my house full of antiques to be one large transitional object. I love the feeling of all of it.
Let’s look at a seldom heard of psychological explanation for collecting, and lots of other behaviors too. Behavior that is overdetermined has multiple causes. I like to think of the concept a different way: a single behavior can meet multiple needs. That is the reason overdetermined behaviors are so very difficult to change or give up.
Think about Jane Katcher. Does she collect merely because antiques arouse in her an appreciation for the aesthetic? The answer is no. She talks about keeping alive feelings she first experienced as a teenager, that she likes hunting for pieces to add to her collection, and she enjoyed learning about antiques (her education). And she wanted to share her collection with others and did so. Those are a lot of different needs bound up in one avocation. She meets a lot of needs by collecting antiques.
While any one reason may be enough in and of itself to motivate and reward collectors, when multiple reasons coexist simultaneously the motivation to continue to collect will be very strong. One may think of this motivation as a compulsion, addiction, or passion.
I have presented some psychological concepts that help explain what sustains our collecting and the feeling of calm and well-being our antiques may create and nourish in us. But there is more to collecting antiques than that. We need to look at the telling of tales. Hilary Mantel in the book Wolf Hall tells us, “But they are all good stories.” Those few words capture one of the most important and central reasons we collect and so love antiques collecting.
Humans need stories. They are the fabric of our souls—powerful, magical, and insightful. Stories illuminate, fascinate, and educate. We seem hardwired to attend to narratives, to listen and appreciate stories, and learn from them.
Antiques collectors know all about stories. The allure of a piece purchased from a grand collection at auction that is talked about in hushed tones is primarily a good story: what the estimate and final price were, who bid, the energy in the room, the many phone bidders, the applause.
A good story is something all collectors love, even covet: “I waited in line for the New Hampshire Dealers Show for hours,” or, “It was the last day of the show, and I am sure hundreds of collectors had seen it, but there it was.” This last example is based on a true story from Antiques Week in New Hampshire years ago when the best Windsor chair for sale at all the shows remained unsold, and it was priced fairly. Now, if a collector had bought it in the last hour of the last day that would be a great story. “The wise owls had flown over, blind, and I—little old me—snatched up the treasure.”
Stories are what collectors share, more than anything else, as they talk and visit waiting for a show to open. One hears about how nicely the piece fit into a collection, or how lucky the collector was being in the right place at the right time: “It was in a barn,” “The dealer waited fifteen years for a chance to purchase it,” or, “I found it in the most unlikely place.” Collectors glow when they tell stories. These stories, riffs, if you will, are magical. We covet the stories when we collect as much as—and sometimes more than—the antiques themselves. These narratives connect us to others and to ourselves. Stories feed and sustain us.
If stories are magical then so is romance. By this I mean, for example, the back story to the famous collector or dealer from whom the piece was purchased. “Did you know that…?” and the collector expounds on the multiple marriages, tragedies, the trajectory of a famous collector’s career, defeats, stumbling blocks, and victories the renowned collector experienced, or the curse that hovers over the antique or the collector. Think of the treasures snatched from the pyramids, the painting thrown in the trash, the gold brick prop used as a doorstop. The building of the collection becomes the plot line of a saga. The characters, the narrative history, and the descriptions of the collection and its collectors take on a supernatural aura. Collectors and dealers are by nature fabulists, and we, their audience, love nothing more than the improbable, the unexpected, and the mysterious.
I opened a few books I have at home and let the pages fall where they may. In Leigh and Leslie Keno’s Hidden Treasures(2000), I find myself reading about Sotheby’s American furniture department in October 1998 and the story of a magnificent pier table with a “gray-veined marble slab top and a trim mahogany cabriole-legged frame.” After a paragraph description of the table, Leslie asked a colleague, “What’s the story?” The story involves a West Coast antiques dealer finding the table in a consignment shop. Leigh talks about the sixth sense of knowing if a piece is genuine and the necessity of seeing it firsthand. We learn of the table’s owner, more about the table itself when inspected in person, its misrepresentation as a 19th-century English piece, that the table had a mate, possibilities on selling it, whether the table was stolen, and finally its sale. It’s a grand story.
I haphazardly opened Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them(1993) comprising the stories of three pieces of antique furniture. “A pine blanket chest made for a farmer in the 1750s and still wearing its original coat of robin’s egg blue paint. The asking price is $250,000.” Fruend describes the craftsman’s love for it when constructing it, its original state including a lack of brasses, and its journey from owner to owner, including some well-known old-time dealers. We learn that pieces of furniture such as this one “want to belong,” and when I saw photos of it I wished it “belonged” in my home. The story describes owners who fret about the price but how love and appreciation for the finest pieces of a time period win out. As the story ends, Fred Giampietro is the dealer who has the blanket chest in his booth at the Winter Antiques Show, where it does not sell. I briefly talked with Fred a few years after reading the book, and he told me the chest sold soon after the show ended. The story is finished—for the moment.
In Harold Sack’s American Treasure Hunt: The Legacy of Israel Sack(1986) is a story of a Boston gentleman named Colonel Fearing and a sideboard in the 1920s. The colonel purchases three pieces from Israel Sack, including a sideboard for $7500, an impressive price then (over $90,000 in today’s dollars). It was a good sale, and we are made aware that, even then, sideboards were difficult to sell and also that marriages have not changed one iota. For it is Colonel Fearing’s wife who calls Israel Sack, upset that he sold those pieces to her husband, as she was the buyer in the family. Israel explained he did not sell them at all (we are in the land of love again). He simply named the prices, and the colonel said he would take each of the three pieces. The colonel returns, and Sack fears the deal is off. The colonel, however, does not care where his wife will put the pieces, even the woodshed; he will pay for them. Fifty years later the colonel calls from California, and Harold Sack talks with him by phone, never having forgotten his father’s story of the colonel and his sideboard. It was shipped east and sold about a year later.
The telling of stories in the antiques world goes on. In 2017 the exhibit at the Winter Antiques Show consisted of folk art collected by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and now in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. The loan exhibition commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Abby Aldrich Folk Art Museum and prompted several long articles, stories if you will, about Rockefeller in publications such as The Magazine Antiques. The articles explored how Rockefeller, as a woman and one of the earliest American folk art collectors, began developing the collection in the 1920s and what people thought about her buying “those things” that few people at the time saw beauty or merit in.
Rockefeller collected folk art in addition to its progeny, modern art, thus acknowledging the former’s centrality to American art. However, she began collecting folk art not merely based on an intellectual decision. Her appreciation for folk art was based also on the emotions of a true collector. She loved it. Having the means and a most discerning eye, and given first choice at the gallery of the best pieces, Rockefeller strode forward, making her own decisions about what to purchase.
A Native American proverb goes like this: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” How true. Stories contain the emotions, truth, and the lasting importance of antiques. The stories place our love for antiques as collectors in our hearts, and when talking with others, it is our stories that help them understand our need and desire to collect. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “if antiques were taught in the form of stories, they would never be forgotten.”
It is written and recounted that everywhere in the British Empire, now the U.K., each afternoon, the Brits, wherever they were in the world, had tea. The custom was a powerful reminder of who they were and in what they believed. The ritual of having tea could evoke a bit of the home country even in the far reaches of the world. They were British—this was their identity.
One’s identity is powerful and meaningful. Think of identity as the internal and external features of a person. Others may define who we are, but more importantly each of us defines who we are as well.
When we define our identity it may or may not be accurate, but these self-beliefs govern our behaviors and emotions. For example, over time you may come to define part of yourself as an antiques collector. What implications does that identity have for the collecting of antiques? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
If being an antiques collector is a new part of your identity, you may feel as if you are trying it on as you would a new coat. Are you comfortable with it? Does it fit? Over time, if the answer is yes, that part of your identity becomes part of your being. How serious you are as an antiques collector is determined, in part, by how central collecting is to your identity.
Everyday Ritual (Habits)
Most people engage in simple and down-to-earth regularly practiced behaviors—squeezing the toothpaste in the middle or end of the tube, or loading the dishwasher one way or another but in a way your spouse always disagrees with. But habits that help ground us, and give us meaning, comfort, and something to look forward to, are better thought of as rituals. Such actions may become so important they take on a solemn air, while imparting harmony and pleasure. We would miss them greatly and feel out of sorts if we were denied them. Rituals connect us with ourselves. They are congruent with our identity—tea in the afternoon. Everyday rituals have importance beyond reminding oneself of one’s social or cultural identity; they can become sacred—they are that important to us.
So what are the actions we imbue with meaning and significance as they relate to antiques? Speaking for myself, I check the websites of several antiques publications almost daily to learn what new articles, often with wonderful photos, are posted. I look at dealers’ websites, and I also am a “friend” on Facebook to some dealers and shows, responding to posts and photos. Oftentimes I can see all of the booths in a good antiques show without attending. It allows me vicariously to feel as though I have participated, and to learn what dealers are showing. And if there is a great object I covet, I can hope against hope it has not sold when I contact the dealer. I would feel lost if I did not do those things.
Hobbies are powerful forces in our lives, a place to put unmet needs, and typically an escape from the trials and tribulations of work, family, and “real” life. A hobby is something done in our leisure time because it is pleasurable (at least most of the time). Excitement and pleasure, such as collecting antiques, often are found in a hobby, not work. You may be tired of spending all of your time with co-workers or your family. A hobby allows you time with different folks. Hobbies can give people self-confidence, happiness, fulfillment, expertise, and success that they lack elsewhere in their lives.
Antiques collecting as a hobby may be good for your soul. It is of value to you. It fills your time. That may sound like a strange statement given how busy our lives typically are. After all, why has online shopping made zillions of dollars? It saves us from actually going to stores. It saves us time. But we still need leisure time to be balanced and sane in our lives.
Part of our identity changes as life’s vicissitudes challenge us, opportunities appear, and the years so quickly pass. We may be introduced to new rituals, complementing or replacing the old. Former everyday rituals may make us weary over time, no longer providing the meaning and sacredness they once did. And people change their hobbies, depending on a variety of circumstances. But for now, whether for a few years or decades, the collecting of antiques is part of us and our everyday lives.
We need to examine what antiques collectors feel. Emotions are critically important to antiques collectors and a central reason we collect. And while each collector gravitates to certain feelings and not others, I am sure that some that follow are part of your collecting affective repertoire.
Collectors of antiques know emotions well—thrill, disappointment, delight, desire, longing, excitement, passion, and love—to name just a few. What collector has never felt like dancing as Tevye does in Fiddler on the Roof after falling in love with an antique or a great day visiting shops?
Much of the language of antiques collecting is emotional. The hunt for antiques, while perhaps maintained by intermittent reinforcement, has as its reward more than finding the piece you are searching for. Collectors talk about the thrill of the hunt. It is exciting, exhilarating, and fun. Imagine a treasure hunt, going from one clue or suggestion to the next, until finally you find where “X” marks the spot—the auction, dealer, or collector who has what it is you seek. Until you do, there may be obstacles, detours, and dead ends. The hunt involves hope, a wonderful and nourishing feeling we cannot live without.
I reflect on what it feels like to be waiting for a show to open as I stand in line. In part I feel restlessness (let’s get on with it), heart-quickening anticipation (I will see wonderful antiques and find something great—will today be the day?), and competitiveness (I hope no one else heads for the booth or two I am going to first). While you can parse the innocence or eloquence Jane Katcher sought in her antiques, what was important was that the piece produced in her feelings—that resonation within her, a “stirring” as she called it.
Many of the stories we tell to and hear from other collectors involve emotion—and not always positive ones. If one collects antiques, experiencing disappointment is unavoidable: disappointment on missing out or finding a piece beyond our means is inevitable. Even more intense is the disappointment in ourselves for letting a piece get away from us. Examples include “It was too expensive so I will find another” and the unknowable question for the ages, “Why didn’t I buy the damn thing?” There is no place to hide when the disappointment is the product of our own decisions.
At the same time antiques collectors tend to be optimists. Another piece will come along. It will be even better. We tend to have a sunny view of the future. Hopeful and confident, we persevere. For persevere we must if we want continued opportunities for good conversation, training our eye, touching, and once in a while hitting the jackpot—a proud addition to the collection.
Collecting is fun—enjoyable, amusing, sometimes spontaneous, gratifying, a break from the everyday, something not life or death, or sometimes something that is life or death, but not really. I believe that when we are having fun we no longer are aware of the passage of time. I think that is why fun is so good for us. It is healing. And most antiques collectors with whom I have talked will tell you that despite the frustrations, collecting antiques is fun.
Those things we do that are fun are not chores. We think of them as pastimes or diversions. We do not complain when we do them. We wait for hours for a show to open and struggle to explain to non-collectors how come. “It is fun,” we say. We buy, often upgrading, and sell a piece or two for less than we paid for them. “Part of being a collector is that it is fun to see what it goes for. I don’t collect to necessarily make money,”we tell non-collectors. We smile when we see a beautiful piece. Research and learning are not drudgery. If collecting antiques weren’t fun, we would stop.
Besides fun, there is no question that collecting antiques gives us joy, a positive, powerful emotion. Joy is the experience of something giving us great pleasure and happiness. We may feel triumphant, exhilarated, and gleeful. We are elated and euphoric.
Collectors know the feeling of joyful triumph. After all of the looking and searching, the saving of dollars, the frustrations and disappointments, once in a while, it all works out: we find a beautiful antique that gives us aesthetic pleasure and speaks to us. We feel happiness and joy in response to touching, and looking at antiques or works of art. Perhaps that is what Jane Katcher means when she talks about being “awoken and stirred.” She feels joyful when she looks at pieces in her collection. The feeling sustains her in her collecting.
Equally or more important, many collectors talk about their search for, owning, and researching antiques as being fulfilling. They have achieved something they desired or wanted. Fulfillment is a feeling of contentment. Some argue and posit that fulfillment in life is more important a feeling than happiness. If collecting gives a collector meaning, and meets many of the person’s needs, it will prove fulfilling. Even going to an auction or show and coming home empty-handed can be satisfying. You tried, you talked to good folks, and it was a good way to spend some time. You felt alive, you learned, and you will try again. Think of the contentment you feel after eating a good meal with people whom you like. Or working on a task for some time and completing it.
And then there is the powerful feeling of desire—a strong wish of wanting, craving, or coveting. Desire can be so overwhelming it may lead to obsession, a state of being preoccupied with the thought of an antique, unable to push the thought(s) out of consciousness. If you remember teenage love, you know precisely the all-consuming power of desire. Desire for antiques compels and impels. We are going to keep looking for the treasures we want so badly to add to our collection.
Can one build a truly great collection without being obsessed? Does one need an overwhelming, unrelenting desire to be a truly successful collector? Do the positive feelings of purpose and intoxication of desire sustain themselves or does the latter, especially, morph into something else, something darker? Do truly obsessed collectors lose their sense of perspective? Emotions underlie and are part of the fabric of all that collecting involves.
There is certainly reward in competition. We love it when David beats Goliath in sports, unless Goliath is our favorite team. We vicariously compete as spectators. Competing can result in great feelings, and we need not win, place, or show. Talk to an everyday marathoner who finishes long after most other racers but finishes nonetheless or the golfer whose handicap has gone from a 19 to a 15 after many lessons and years of hard work. How gratified they feel.
Each collector decides how competitive he or she will be when collecting. Think of competition as putting yourself in the best position possible as compared with other collectors to find and purchase pieces you want to add to your collection. For example, it seems to be simple common sense not to tell a fellow collector with similar interests to yours about a dealer at a show who has a nice piece you are going to look at. It also seems practical and the exercise of sound judgment to do a quick walk-through of an antiques show if it is likely to have something you are searching for. I do so.
In many instances, we compete with ourselves when collecting. Honing our eye and other forms of preparation allow us to recognize a special antique when we see it. Knowing the market allows us to get a fair deal on its price. Missing out on a winner is a reminder that we need to sharpen our game, not exact retribution on the collector who bought the piece. Missing out was no one’s fault but our own. Sometimes competing is simply hard work and involves seat time and weariness.
There is a dark side to competing in the antiques world that I have read about but not experienced. Some collectors need their antiques collection to be better than others’ and take pleasure in the envy of others for what they own. Why spend time around folks for whom winning is everything, who lord their accomplishments over others, when there are so many wonderful, giving, interesting folks who collect antiques? I read about a national contest for book collecting, the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest. Panels evaluate not merely the collections submitted but the descriptive essays and bibliographies entrants submit. I like that form of collector competitiveness.
The truth is that competitiveness comes down to approving of the feelings it gives you.
Most of us need and value relationships despite their complexity, the pain that they can cause, and the difficulty in sustaining them. Relationships can give love, joy, and respect. Collecting antiques is interpersonal. I have found it is a better time when I share it with others—my successes and failures. Laughing with folks makes the day seem good and life worth living. All of the forewords in books depicting famous collections, written by dealers or friends who helped the collector amass what he or she is displaying, talk about the joy of getting to know the collector and the privilege of observing or participating as the collection grew.
One outcome of relationships is that we learn from others. I have learned a lot about collecting from talking with fellow collectors waiting in line for shows or at auction previews. Such conversations have helped me better understand my tastes and what I know or think I know. Others have called attention to details in furniture or redware that I might have overlooked, indicating the worthiness of a piece or where it might have been made.
A value of talking with those who deal or also collect antiques is that you can validate ideas you have by hearing them spoken out loud and by asking the other person for feedback. And you build camaraderie; you feel as though you are part of something larger than yourself. A sense of belonging is one of our most important and basic needs.
On a mundane level, the intellectual aspects of collecting involve the keeping of lists, auction catalogs, and receipts. Some antiques collectors enjoy the meticulous work of appraisal lists, lists of desired pieces and their dimensions, and lists of auction houses’ upcoming sales. There are a lot of ways to use your intellect when collecting antiques.
More grandly, and perhaps more importantly, many antiques collectors feel compelled to research what they own, including the period in which the antiques were made. If you ask such collectors why, they will tell you, “Because it matters.” They believe that as stewards for the antiques they own, they are responsible for preserving the past and leaving records for the future. Typically they love and respect history. Such an interest allows them to place today in a historical context, thus giving it more meaning. It also allows an understanding of the way things used to be.
Such researchers, whether museum librarians or collectors, often feel like historical detectives. They look for clues in the antiques or works of art themselves as well as in newspapers, magazines, letters from long ago, and in changing maps and forms of transportation. They do all of this to help understand who might have constructed the piece of furniture or painted the artwork, why, and when that style or function was popular, and the history of the object up to the present. Such endeavors can be very gratifying.
Collecting antiques is of course only one activity out of thousands that involve emotion, stories, competition, relationships, and the like. But for those of us who collect, it is our activity, and we are pleased with the choice.
Baron Perlman is a clinical psychologist and antiques collector. He may be reached at <[email protected]>.
Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest