My family and friends have their own diverse collecting obsessions, ranging from Mexican Folk Art, to salt shakers, to cheesy lounge music LP's. I personally collect vintage wrist watches, and my wife - who delusively claims NOT to be a collector - somehow manages to add to her already substantial holiday nutcracker collection.
Collecting has deep historical roots. In the 16th century, a room of collected rare objects was known as a Kunstkabinett (or Cabinets of Curiosities). Historical or scientific oddities were generally collected, but over the centuries, the art of collecting turned to everyday items.
There are many conflicting theories on why people collect. Psychologists agree that collecting tends to evoke a positive emotion. For some, it is the excitement of the hunt. For others, it is the pride in ownership and the knowledge accrued along the way. Some collectors enjoy the solidarity of like-minded hobbyists and take pleasure in sharing their collection with others. But for most, collecting seems to be an intensely emotional experience that often provides comfort, and invariably bonds people with pleasant memories.
Collecting can also fill an emotional void, or provide psychological security. A client recently expressed to me how she and her husband shared a lifelong ardor for collecting. Although now widowed, she is still a fixture at flea markets and estate sales, and continues to buy items to add. not only to her own collection but to her husband's collection as well. However great her personal loss was, there is a restorative and calming aspect to her collecting.
Readers of my column have come to expect tips on collecting as an investment. This is the practical view of collecting. Unfortunately, collectors are seldom very practical, and the average collector will rarely part with his or her collection. Author and historian Mark Allen Baker reasons that most collectors are emotionally invested in their collections. As a world-class autograph collector himself, Baker estimates that 90% of all autograph collectors will never sell their collection. Although collectors undoubtedly know the monetary value of their possessions, the reality is a collector sees his collection as an extension of his identity.
There is also dark side to collecting. Like a compulsive gambler or alcoholic, a collector may sometimes feel a greater need to feed his collecting addiction. In exceptional instances, an out of control collection can lead to financial hardship, marital break-ups, or alienation of friends and family. A Hello Kitty-obsessed collector from the U.K. is one recent example. 29-year old Natasha Goldsworth has spent the equivalent of nearly $75,000 US dollars to accumulate everything related to the cartoon character, including over 4,000 plush cuddly toys. She's now looking for a larger home to accommodate her collection, and refuses to date any man not supportive of her hobby. If there are any unattached men reading this, she's surprisingly still single!
Finally, let's tackle the "H-word". From my point of view, collectors should never be classified as hoarders. There is a distinct difference, and the general rule is that collectors are methodical. They will neatly maintain and organize their collection, and can easily access a particular item however massive the collection. Conversely, hoarders are pathological in their collecting, and generally amass in a haphazard manner without order or reason.
Fortunately, most extreme collectors are not hoarders. They are keenly aware of their limitations, and will adjust their collecting habit to fit their lifestyle. Bottom line is that collectors - extreme or otherwise - are generally happy. You may not understand why a 50-year old man collects Hot Wheels, but you may have your own Victorian toothpick holder fixation that baffles outsiders.
There should be no shame in collecting. The true joy of collecting is to preserve memories, to touch history, to relieve stress, and to delight in connecting with other cultures, other peoples, and other worlds.