The Artful Collector: On Living (and Dying) with “Knick-knacks”

Is this what my children will fight over, after I'm gone?
Is this what my children will fight over, after I’m gone? A set of 1997 wind-up robots, 3″ tall?

Every once in a while I get a “head’s up” email that’s really hard to ignore. Most recently it was one from someone I’ve known for years, Les Barany—who is H. R. Giger’s agent in the U.S.  I’m on his list, so I got the news of an upcoming auction—one that I most likely would never have heard about, if it were not for Les. What got my immediate attention, however—and caused me to start clicking on links—was the second line of his email:

“As some of you know, Billy was a friend who shared many of our same tastes.

Uh-oh! What did THAT mean? I didn’t know Billy, but I immediately followed the link to “Billy’s Condo and Museum in Toronto” OMG. Les, of course, was right.  So I clicked the next link to see what was on offer from the “World famous William (Billy) Jamieson Collection” at auction.

Oh, dear! The sheer volume of “art, antiquities, oddities and collectibles, rare artifacts, and curiosities” (as Les put it) would blow your minds. It must have come to several truck-loads of what people who don’t share our tastes simply call useless doodads. Can you even begin to fathom the amount of time, energy and effort it took to accumulate such tonnage?

Adnan Karabay (d. 1998) "Gorgonnia Boria" one of a trio of dressed dolls in a tableaux, created from animal bones
Adnan Karabay (d. 1998) “Gorgonnia Boria” one of a trio of costumed dolls in a tableaux, c. 1995-1996, with heads and arms derived from various small animal skulls and bones

I can. Oh, yes. I can.

Putting aside the outrageousness of it all (which, let’s face it, is part of the fun) and putting aside their (uncertain) value . . .


I’m not talking about the BIG STUFF. That’s the stuff you get appraised. That you designate heirs for, in your will. That you worry about when the forecasters call for earthquakes and tornados. NO. What I’m talking about here, as was the case for Billy, was all the little stuff he lived with day in and day out, that he dusted (maybe) and undoubtedly cherished, and almost certainly just thought of as appropriate decorations for his home. Like the little matching cigarette lighters and ashtrays and small arrangements of silk flowers in pots that my mother liked to keep on her coffee table in the living room. Heh. Ok, Not quite.

In “spirit” maybe, but not in kind. I’d like to think my mother’s really were “knick-knacks:” small worthless objects, especially a household ornament.

While MY collectibles (if you please!) are decidedly the opposite: wonderful, valuable, desirable.  🙂

Tom Kuebler "Shrunken Head" c. 2012.  No, it's not anyone I knew.
Tom Kuebler “Shrunken Head” c. 2012. No, it’s not anyone I knew.

Billy’s decorations spanned an eclectic mix of “life-size dinosaur skeletons, shrunken heads and Egyptian mummies weaponry, Mark Prent, H. R. Giger, Oceanic Art, electric-chairs, film props, furniture.”  But what really caught my eye in the auction catalog were those little red Chinese shoes for bound feet . . . And so I started thinking: do I have the equivalent? And the answer, resoundingly, and no surprise . . . YES.

Ok, maybe it’s not all on display. But just because my necklace made of dog teeth is in a box in the closet, doesn’t mean I don’t have one. I have art, I have artifacts.  I have more stuff stuffed into cabinets than most hairy dogs have fleas. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.



Some people have few, to none, of any of the above items.  Let alone sets of baby robots or sterling plate tea sets with ebonized handles that they will never, ever, use to serve tea. (Which is why they are stored in a cabinet I cannot reach without a step ladder.)  I try not to think of what will become of all these beauties, when I’m gone.  My precious . . .

(So-called) "Primitive Money" and "Odd & Curious" examples, only a few - once on display, now put away  :)
(So-called) “Primitive Money” and “Odd & Curious” examples, only a few – once on display, now put away 🙂 (shown: l to r – bronze axe head, ancient Persia/Amlash culture c. 1500 BC; Katanga cross; bronze flanged axe head; two silver Chinese Sycees, boat and kettledrum type; fine Luristan (/Amlash culture) short handled sword, 1200-1500 BC

But enough about me. Let’s talk about YOU. Think about all the lovely doodads and gewgaws YOU have accumulated—the stuff you’ve got on tables, on mantels, displayed in little glass or plexi boxes (or not). Things you don’t play with, don’t (usually) use and which are artfully arranged (or so you’d like to think) on shelves.  All those little things you instruct cleaning people and children never to touch; things you glue back together when they do, and pretend to yourself that they’re ok, “no-one will notice but you. . .” because you can’t bear to throw them out. And because they are your idea of what “homey” is. They are “fun” and “comfy” simultaneously—two feelings we both know should be inextricably linked. 🙂

Will they be worth putting up for auction some day, like Billy’s, simply because you, or your possessions, were too “outsized” in concept or physicality or value, to be ignored? Or, will people wielding shovels come in and haul it all away to some forsaken dust bin? I don’t know.

All I know is that Tom Kuebler’s version of a shrunken head is worth as much to me as any real one!  And you’re gonna have to wait until I’m under the dirt to get a crack at mine. 🙂

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