The Artful Collector: To Have and to Hold

Young children collect sea shells, older children collect dolls, action figures, trading cards and comic books, and grown up children . . . well, they still collect dolls, action figures, trading cards and comic books. Exactly WHY, I can’t tell you (although I will explore possible reasons in more detail in future blogs). What I can tell you, is that – whatever the motives – collecting has been around for a long, long time.

We’ve Been Crazy for How Long?

Nest of the volgal bowerbird of Papua New Guinea, www.
Nest of the volgal bowerbird of Papua New Guinea, see

Many people think it’s our “hunter-gatherer” origins that are driving our urge to collect Hummels and Barbies. It’s the quest, the “hunt” that excites the collector, and taking possession of one’s object of desire is the goal. Others (not collectors themselves, judging from their explanations) have looked to Freud for reasons: we’re compensating for loveless childhoods or dysfunctional families, or traumatic life events, or attempting to impose order on a disorderly world.  Maybe, like the Bowerbird of New Guinea, that uses a variety of colors and shapes from flowers to berries to any shiny or interesting object, we’re amassing bits and baubles to attract a mate.

Typical nest of the Jane Frank bird, which also amasses brightly colored and shiny things
Typical nest of the Jane Frank bird, which uses brightly colored things to annoy her mate

Whatever.  From King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (who kept statues from the period of the Kings of Ur, then already hundreds of years old) right down to old man Freud himself (who possessed over 4,000 antiquities) we’ve been keen on collecting stuff. Call us crazy (which psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger, the author of Collecting – an Unruly Passion, probably was thinking as he wrote his book) or call us smarter, more imaginative, and better-looking (gosh, I know which one I’d choose), I prefer to describe it as being engaged in . . .

“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.”

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Estimates differ on the number of those afflicted, but I feel safe in asserting that whatever our motives, collectors comprise only a minority (albeit fervid) of the population. And, like other diseases that have been around for a long time (arthritis comes to mind), it tends be congenital. That is to say, and at least since the early Renaissance, it has tended to run in families, and usually the more competitive, better educated (which means wealthier) ones.

Rich Roman collectors went crazy over antique Greek statues, paintings and other objects, plundered and brought to the capital courtesy of the Roman Empire.  In the Middle Ages, collecting in Europe was mainly the province of the Church, which kept treasuries filled with artifacts made of gold, silver and precious gems. By the Renaissance, measurement of private wealth had shifted from land to possessions, and Italian princes and nobles took over the job. Soon every self-respecting European ruler, from the Medicis to the Windsors, had to have his or her own collection of rarities and curiosities (in addition to unique “made to order” clocks, salt cellars and brooches). Interest in acquiring and displaying curiosities from the animal, plant and mineral world spread and soon was picked up by wealthy aristocrats, and then the middle classes – soon as their prosperity and stability enabled it. From the 16th century on, money and opportunity were all that were needed to indulge one’s passion for collecting . . and the passage of time has not done a thing to dampen our ardor for anything rare or exotic, or finding a way to display it. Attributes that continue to drive collectors into ever more congested living spaces as this you-tube interview demonstrates –  Private Oddities Collection Tour

Along the way there was another craze: The Grand Tour. The well-to-do started traveling south, mainly to Italy, to visit the sites of classical civilizations and – naturally – buy up antiquities and paintings to take home as “souvenirs” of their educational travels. Soon, Napoleon was making his own kind of Grand Tour around Europe. And by the 19th century the collecting habit had spread to the U.S., as well. While Hudson River School artists made the pilgrimage to sketch ruins of antiquity, our own “merchant princes” were busy chipping away at Europe, often quite literally. As we hurry through collecting history, let’s take a moment to give thanks to the Grand Touristas, whose acquisitions formed the core of many great museums, like the British Museum and the Louvre in Paris (not to mention informing our general collecting “tastes” in science fiction and fantasy art, which for the most part demonstrate our love affair with traditional, 19th century, representational art). Let’s also thank our own “robber barons” Andrew Mellon, John Paul Getty, the Whitneys, Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. and the rest of the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims and (last, but not least), William Randolph Hearst — whose collective passions for books, paintings and objets d’ arte were legendary. But whose passions also were not driven by what, at first blush, you may be thinking is the only, and obvious driver: i.e., their collective wealth.

In his book, Muensterberger (see above) quotes Nelson Rockefeller as saying “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, and the Rothschild family developed a similar sense of duty, and many such collections have ended up in their own private museums for all to enjoy. The Getty, The Guggenheim, The Whitney, and later the Barnes, Foundation/Gallery (Philadelphia), The Kreeger (Washington, DC), the list goes on . . .

The point I am endeavoring to make here is that even if the urge to collect IS due to a mutant gene, distantly related to hunting and gathering, which only becomes evident when social conditions are ripe, such as having money in your pocket AND attending the San Diego Comic Convention at the same time (much like frog eggs which can lie dormant for years, until it rains, then they hatch), the news is not all bad. That gene has, historically, served an important function.

Without “collectors” – serving as avid fans and stewards as well as repositories – much of what we treasure today would not have survived. Most of the first edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit published before the war, 1938, in dustwrapper, were then lost or destroyed during the war and copies now are exceedingly rare. Those that survive are coddled by whom?  Collectors.  Then there’s the apocryphal story of the Frank R. Paul Astounding magazine cover paintings that Sam Moskowitz retrieved from the garbage bins in the alley behind Street and Smith. And never let out his sight, again – no displays at conventions for those babies, no sirree! “They don’t travel,” said Sam, whenever asked to contribute to a ‘retrospective.’  He didn’t want to leave their chances of survival to the vagaries of Fedex.

This strict an interpretation of what is meant by “To Have and to Hold” was a rarity even in Sam’s day, when the goal of most collectors was to get the word out there….that this art was really worth something, certainly more than its valuation by the publishers and art directors who mishandled it or the many artists who created it.

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting post as usual! – This isn't really a comment on your post, I just wanted to make the collectors among you aware of an upcoming charity action:

    Alan Lee and John Howe have collaborated on an original sketch to raise money for medical expenses for a family member of an artist and fellow fan in need. And very beautiful it is!

    The auction on Ebay is here:

    Seems to me like a pretty unique opportunity for the serious collector! Doesn't come cheap though, obviously.

    There are more fantasy art prints and originals, and related items for sale, check out the whole of the auction here: <a href="” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>

    Sorry, there seems to be no place to post news on this site, or else I've missed it — and can we message each other? – Hope you don't mind usurping your thread Jane, but I did want to let you know about this. 🙂

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