What Makes Collectors Tick

Marni

by Marni Jameson

I never understood collectors. What compels some folks to seek out stamps or baseball cards or coins?

And I still don’t understand how one penny can be worth thousands of dollars. “Because that’s what people will pay for it,” was the answer I got from one collector. But it’s still a penny!

More confounding are those who obsess over Zippo lighters, firehose nozzles, bongs, pop tabs, fruit stickers, and glass eyeballs (used and not used) — all items that made the top 100 most-collected list.

I had always pictured collectors as fusty old men in moth-eaten sweaters holding magnifying glasses and penlights, squirreling away odd artifacts in dark, felt-lined drawers. And I thought they were a little off.

Until recently when I learned I was one of them.

As someone who writes a lot about household stuff, including why we cling, I decided to talk to someone who makes collections his business. Jim Halperin, of Dallas, is co-owner of Heritage Auctions, one of the nation’s largest auction houses, known for selling collections. He also collects art, comic books, political buttons and movie posters.

During what turned into a long conversation last week about what makes collectors tick, I told Halperin, in an offhand, this-isn’t-even-remotely-in-the-same-category way, about the two dozen Swarovski crystal figures I’ve amassed over the years, not seriously, but just because I like them.

“You’re a collector,” he declared.

“Am not.”

“You’re not obsessive like many of us addicts. You may not curate and catalog, or doggedly pursue the hard to get, but make no mistake, you’re a collector, a fringe collector.”

“How do you figure?” I wanted proof.

“Are all your pieces from one maker?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Would you ever buy a duplicate of one you have?”

“No.”

“Do you have their original packaging?”

“Yes.” That was weird. I never save packaging.

“Do you remember when it started?” he asked, adding, “Every true collector remembers when they first became smitten.”

Do I remember. It was the stroke of the new millennium. I was hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner party to ring in the new century. One of my guests brought me a hostess gift, a crystal Swarovski bear holding a champagne glass and bottle of bubbly.

For reasons I cannot explain, I was utterly captivated by this one-and-a-half-inch dazzling trinket. I set the twinkly bear on my mirrored perfume tray.

Soon, I had two, then three, then five faceted crystal critters on my perfume tray. When my menagerie outgrew the tray, I bought a glass mirrored case with shelves.

I splurged on a Swarovski clown, because it reminded me of my playful children. I acquired a seahorse that reflected my California coast upbringing. Friends and family caught onto my fancy, and I received more as gifts, crystal figures that symbolized what I did or loved: a typewriter, a gold-quill pen in an inkstand, a coffee pot, a puppy, a horse. On a trip to Hawaii, I treated myself to a glittery pineapple. In Paris, I bought the Eiffel tower.

Each figure came with a story, like the one of two bears, one on his knee handing a red heart to the other, which DC gave me when he proposed.

When I finished my reverie, Halperin said, “Welcome to the club.”

Now I understand.

From Cracker Jack toys to manhole covers, the passion to collect goes back eons. The reasons are many and varied, according to Halperin, who listed these 12 for starters:

  1. Knowledge and learning. Collectors are curious. They are students of their subject, and love learning about them.
  2. The quest. For some, the thrill of the hunt feeds their drive to collect the rare and coveted.
  3. Bragging rights. Many collectors like the feeling of pride that comes with owning something sought after.
  4. Control. Owning and categorizing a group of like possessions makes some collectors feel as if they are bringing order to a part of the world. Like librarians, collectors find satisfaction in arranging, organizing, and classifying.
  5. The Darwin affect. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that having a collection was a way for early man to attract potential mates, as it signaled his ability to accumulate scarce resources. (I like that in a man.)
  6. Philanthropy. Many great collections are ultimately amassed so the owner can donate the lot to museums or universities for later generations to learn from, appreciate and enjoy.
  7. Nostalgia. Childhood memories prompt many to collect items that remind them of their youths, or some connection to a part of history they care about, and want to preserve. Collectors of comic book, Pez Dispensers, Barbie dolls, and Civil War guns are classic examples.
  8. Fandom. Sports fans may collect memorabilia to express loyalty. The same goes for those who collect items related to Disney or Star Wars or Elvis.
  9. Celebrity connection. Some collectors gather items that once belonged to famous (or infamous) people because these objects are seen as being infused with the essence of that person, which those in the business call the concept of contagion.
  10. Relaxation. Like home gardening and photography, collecting is a leisure activity that those who pursue it enjoy.
  11. Social interaction. Collectors meet at swap meets and auctions where their shared hobby has formed the basis of many friendships.
  12. To make money. Though many collectors lose more money than they make, some exceptions are notable. Halperin tells the story of his friend, John Jay Pittman, a middle manager for Eastman Kodak married to a schoolteacher. Pittman studied coins, and invested much of his limited income in collecting them. In 1954, to his family’s dismay, he mortgaged his house to travel to Egypt and bid on coins at the King Farouk Collection auction. When he died in 1996, his family forgave him when the collection sold at auction for over $30 million.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016).

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