Collectors, Collections, and Collecting

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A world where irrationality reigns supreme

by Harold Ratzburg

Why would anyone collect what they collect? What makes us do it? It could be said that collecting is, itself, an irrational act. Why would any rational person want to have a bunch of helmets sitting around that will never be worn? Or a green olive drab truck or jeep that is used mostly for driving in parades or to shows of similar vehicles? Coins that will never be spent? Guns that are only to be looked at and caressed and never fired? Musty old things that would even fall apart if you handled them too much?

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I will not attempt to defend collecting. It needs no defense. Collecting is not going to go away even though some feel that the era of the collector may be passing. For now, the hobby — or habit, lifestyle, compulsion, anthology, or sacred mission — of collecting is very much alive. If you can think of a particular item, someone, somewhere, has a lot of it and is always looking for more. I am convinced that somewhere out there, there is a person who has a collection of garbage cans.

But why? Why do people collect things that command much more than their fair share of space, time, and money? That is a question that has both no answer and too many answers to count.

Maybe there exists a “collecting gene” from a family where everyone or maybe only Great Grandpa collected something. Maybe it dates way back in history as part of the ancient instinct when hunter-gatherers used collecting skills to survive. If that gene exists, that would mean that we came by our obsessions honestly and, at the very least, we can’t help ourselves.

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Think about this: Collectors may be an aging and dying breed. It could be that young folks these days are too preoccupied with technology to chase after low-tech, non-interactive things like old jeeps, helmets, uniforms, medals, etc.

A study by a marketing firm (yeah, they actually studied this) discovered that “of the estimated 37 million Americans who identifies themselves as collectors in 2000, just 11% were under the age of 36...” and “most were over 50 years old.”What this means is that the stuff we collect is less likely to be preserved and cherished by future generations. It may just end up being dumped on an ever-shrinking market, or God forbid, in a dumpster when the kids clean out our attics..

But of course, they may be wrong. Other people who are “in the know” say that collecting is as popular as ever — even if certain items sometimes go in and out of vogue.

What about the guy that maintains that he is not a collector and claims that he is “just the opposite of a collector?” If he has an old family heirloom and took it to the “Antiques Roadshow” where somebody offers him $5000 for it, he would sell it on the spot. I guess there are people like that.

But when you question others who claim to not be collectors, you might find that, indeed, they are. One definition of a collector is that if you have more than three of any one type of item, you are a collector. So if a friend of yours, forinstance, has a lot of diecast NASCAR models around the house, he may claim that he is not a collector, but rather, just likes the way they look. My call is that he is, indeed, a collector — even if he won’t admit to it!

The point is, we don’t really know how many people in our midst are collectors of something or other. Go to any flea market, show, or rally of any kind, and you will see the place teeming with collectors, hunter-gatherers, accumulators, acquisitors, scavengers, fanatics, pack-rats, obsessives, and of course, the people with them who love and/or tolerate them.

Lucky is the guy whose wife or significant other has similar interests. In my case, my wife and I are partners in the collection hobby. I search for, find, and buy all kinds of stuff that I think might be good for resale. My wife just loves to set up tables at historic military vehicle rallies and gun shows to sell the stuff. Do we make any money at it? Of course we do, but it certainly is not anywhere near enough to make a mortgage payment or take a vacation on the profits. We both do it as a hobby— for the love of it.

That, you see, is the real reason that people collect things and/or pursue a hobby: Because they love it. It doesn’t matter why, or if they even know why. It doesn’t matter if these things are obsolete or ungainly or ugly,that they cost far too much, and take up a ridiculous amount of space, or serve absolutely no practical purpose whatsoever.

In collecting, irrationality reigns supreme!