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Saturday, August 23, 2008

...and some people collect everything

By Dick Hirsch

For many individuals who are otherwise approximately normal, life is an enduring treasure hunt, a relentless quest for items to add to their collections. Am I one of them? No. Do I have a collection of anything that delights and inspires me, with which I would like to be identified? No. In fact, as I write this, I’m not even sure whether the operative word is spelled collectible or collectable.

But I definitely do wonder about such people, about how their involvement started, about their motivation, their approach to the mission, and their goal. Did the passion develop in childhood and evolve over the years? Or did they have a significant vision in later life that prompted them to start acquiring? Is the goal to collect and own the items for the joy of possessing them? Or is the idea to search for items that can be bought cheap and sold at a profit?

It is certainly no secret that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Editors love those occasional stories about some impoverished and unsuspecting duffus who finds an apparently worthless painting in a Dumpster, takes it home, hangs it up, and somehow later discovers it is an early work by a now popular artist whose works are much sought after by private collectors and museums. He retains an auction house to sell the painting, quits his job, and retires to a condo at an undisclosed location, far from the clutches of media interviewers and persistent fundraisers.

But I don’t think most collectors pursue their mission for profit. I believe they are curious and acquisitive people, for whom the search and the investigation are almost as satisfying as the possession. Just recently I encountered such a man, a man who has a big house filled with his purchases. They are stacked, piled, shoved and displayed everywhere. There are paths through the rooms, but it is necessary to watch your step so as not to stumble on anything unique or appealing. Some might call the stuff detritus or worse, but it is the fruit of his labor, thoughtfully chosen and carried home, which is already filled with contents equal to at least 25 good size antique shops. His wife, who helped him amass the collections, is deceased, and he lives alone, except for a vocal parrot who spends most of his time in his cage, purchased at an estate sale.

In front of the home is parked a 1994 Lincoln Continental. It is appropriate that he bought the car at a yard sale in 2004 since he often drives it as he travels around from auction to yard sale to antique store or flea market, and then home with his newly acquired material.

His collection is both enormous and diversified, and although he rarely sells anything, he does occasionally wonder what will eventually become of it. The walls are festooned with artwork, ranging from paintings and drawings to ceremonial Japanese kimonos, the closets are crammed with ephemera, and china and crystal are stacked wherever space is available.

The man, a retired surgeon, has virtually total recall about the history of each piece, the location of the purchase, the price paid and the approximate current value. Many of the pieces are accompanied by a compelling story. Consider the glass table lamp purchased for $100 and placed on the night table in the bedroom. When he discovered it wasn’t glass at all, but Lalique crystal, he worried it would be smashed by his grandchildren during a pillow fight. So he turned it over to an auction house which sold it for $17,000. He put the money in each child’s college fund.

“You can tell a lot about families by what they throw away,” he observed, displaying an elegant set of china dinnerware. “I began collecting when I was a kid, stamps mostly, but my father was in the scrap business, so I started looking through some of the old books and other stuff that was hauled in each week.”

He believes collecting is not only an adventure, but also an opportunity for learning.

“I’ve learned a lot as a collector,” he said, “because as you become more interested you read about the type of objects you are buying. I find the whole process to be educational and relaxing, and I do think most collectors really enjoy owning their things and are never eager to sell them.”

In a way, he believes, collecting is a lot like prospecting; the ardent collector keeps looking and digging, sometimes striking gold, but not always.



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