What Does It Mean to Be a Collector?

Is it an affliction or a seductive combination of scholarship and passion?

Susan Barrett Price
5 min readMay 15, 2019
10 bronze containers with verdigris, from Thailand
Collection of ancient powder containers from Thailand [photo by author]

Here at the Monastery of Artful Delights, stacks of reference articles pile up on bookshelves. Here’s one: “Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting” by Frederick Baekeland (J. of Psychiatry, Vol 44, №1, Feb 1981). It was inscribed: “All the best to Dr. Z, a dedicated member of the species, Fred.” Dr. Z is my husband.

Fred Baekeland was a psychiatrist-turned-art-historian and a once-upon-a-time collecting comrade of Z. I remember he visited here in the early 1980s when he was celebrating his small study of collectors and the publication of his article. I don’t know if Z was one of his subjects, but he could have been.

Baekeland distinguishes the collector from both the accumulator and the art lover.

Nowadays we’d refer to accumulators as “hoarders,” those compulsive creatures with poor decision-making skills, who gather up things indiscriminately, their curiosity unfocused and random. They are all input with little process.

On, the other hand, collectors take pride in their very specific choices. Objects have symbolic value and contribute to the collector’s self-definition. This isn’t to say that some collectors don’t veer off the rails. Z weathered a bad spell, in which he amassed a tower of 1940s sheet music — and then he stopped drinking.

Z showing camera collection; gilded Chinese Guanyin
Dr. Z in his 1970s shirt, explaining his camera collection… and one of his many Asian figurines [photos by author]

Art lovers, according to Baekeland, are content to browse museums or to own just a few pieces that they can display. They are less likely to haunt the auction houses or hang out with dealers. They are more moderate than the collector, who is often willing to sacrifice everything to improve his collection and is rarely able to display more than a fraction of it.

Henry Constantine Jennings, engraving with handwritten text added
Henry Constantine Jennings (1731–1819), the “Duke of Connoisseurs” [photo by author of public domain engraving in personal collection]

I’m reminded of the engraving (image above) that Z brought home one day. It’s a portrait of Henry Constantine Jennings (1731–1819), an English antiquarian and collector. The pasted-on handwritten note reads:

A Gentleman of Family & large fortune. In England & on the Continent, he associated with Princes & Nobles & became a noted Dillitanti — unfortunately for him ‘some Demon whisper’d — Jennings have a tastes.’ He became the Duke of Connoissures & Picture Brokers. He threw away vast sums in outbidding — for Pictures, Statues & Scarce Books & at length he was ruined — thrown into Prison & all his acquisitions came to the Hammer. However he succeeded again to a good fortune & once more threw it away in pursuit of his favorite Hobbyhorse. Ultimately — after three years confinement in the Kings Bench — he died in 1818. The Road to Ruin by Gambling is of frequent occurrence but that by the Fine Arts is very rare indeed.

It describes Z perfectly — the Duke of Connoisseurs, traveling the Road to Ruin by Fine Arts, spending every spare cent he had, then going into debt, all for the love of that glorious, enchanting thing.

Z sitting at table with collection of antique firearms
Z, getting a collection of antique firearms ready for sale, so he could collect something new [photo by author]

Baekeland goes on to describe his subjects, who have some common characteristics:

  • They had collections as children, stopped during adolescence, then resumed in young adulthood, when they could afford it (and then pursued collecting in affordable fields).
  • They connect with other collectors, dealers, and museum curators.
  • They read voraciously about their collecting interest.
  • They vividly remember stories around their acquisitions, which may be deemed “trophies” or “triumphs.”
  • The act of acquiring is a heady, in-the-moment, intuitive experience. The appeal (though informed by all that reading) is emotional, akin to sexual attraction.

Z checks all those boxes.

But, in the end, I found Baekeland’s assessment of art collectors too psychoanalytical and based on a deficit model. (What’s your problem that you collect art? What neediness are you compensating for?) So I went searching for something that addressed my real questions: What’s going on between the collector and his things? And what might be going on even for the collector’s apprentice (me), when the most pedestrian effort to document an old artifact can result in a “sparkly moment” of insight and connection?

I found “Evocative Objects: Things We Think With by Sherry Turkle @sturkle (2011), a collection of essays by various authors on the way we interact with our things. In her introductory article, Turkle points out that Western devotion to formal abstract thinking prevented acknowledging the power of concrete objects in sophisticated adults till the 1980s.

Turkle suggests that in the twenty-first century, we can now be more comfortable talking about our relationship to things as “companions to our emotional lives” and as “provocations to thought.” And of course, the two are inseparable: “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.”

Dr. Baekeland observed this connection in his study: his collectors’ collections engendered both scholarly activity (avid reading) and passion (willingness to sacrifice anything to acquire an item they’d fallen in love with).

So my conclusion is that being a collector (discriminating, organized, enthusiastic) is an incredibly enriching experience. It adds layers and dimensions to our practical, workaday lives, much like religious practice does. It appeals to both our brains and our hearts. I wonder if children should be encouraged and coached to start collections — it might be one of those “character-building” activities, like team sports and scouting. Z would approve.

A what-not cabinet of miscellaneous collectibles
A what-not cabinet, for curios that don’t fit anywhere else [photo by author]

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Susan Barrett Price

Author of KITTY’S PEOPLE, HEADLONG, TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS, and 2 thrillers. Old. Still curious. Still learning.