4.17.2013. Today I'm delving into what it means to be a "collector." I ran across an article reprint on a bedroom shelf: "Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting" by Frederick Baekeland (J. of Psychiatry, Vol 44, No. 1, Feb 1981). It was inscribed: "All the best to Jim, a dedicated member of the species, Fred."
Fred was a psychiatrist-turned-art-historian and a once-upon-a-time collecting comrade of Jim's. I remember he visited here in the early 1980s and was celebrating his little study of collectors and the publication of his article. I don't know if Jim was one of the 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 indiscrimately and uncritically "just in case." The hoard isn't the source of much pleasure.
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 go off the rails and wind up as crazy accumulators. (I swear Jim did this with sheet music.)
Art lovers are content to look or to own just a few pieces that they can display. They don't 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 it all.
I'm reminded of this engraving Jim collected: Henry Constantine Jennings (1731-1819), English antiquarian and collector. The attached 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 — errings have a tastes [sic].’ He became the Duke of Connoissures [sic] & 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.
Baekeland further describes his small group of subjects. The collectors appear to have a few common characteristics:
- They tend to have collections as children, stop during adolescence, then resume in young adulthood, when they could afford it (and 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.
- They 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.