Where is your collection? Over the past month, I have processed two very fine collections, neither of which has ever seen the light of day. While sorting through the uniforms, medals and headgear, I have given a lot of thought to what we do with items in our collection once we have captured the quarry.
The first collection that I poured over had been packed away in cardboard boxes in 1983. The owner thoughtfully wrapped each item in pages of Shotgun News. Box after box of uniforms and accouterments were stuffed full, with any gaps filled with crumpled pages of the once-formidable —but extremely acidic—collecting newspaper.
His storage method did nothing for the collection. Several pieces had to be thrown away because they were just too damaged by the acids in the newsprint. Additionally, the mice loved the taste of Shotgun News, and munching away in the dark, evidently could not discern the difference between wood pulp newsprint and red wool broadcloth of a British Victorian-era officer’s tunic.
Aside from a few bad choices in storage methods, I wondered about how much this collector enjoyed his collection. There obviously was satisfaction in obtaining the items because each item was carefully coded with a tag, but then it appears that once that was done, the item went into a box. This process continued for more than 30 years until the collector passed away and the family decided to reclaim the real estate occupied by the stacks of boxes.
The second collection came packed in plastic tubs. This was certainly a step-up from the previous cardboard-encased group! An added bonus was that the collector himself came with material to help to describe and prepare the items for sale. We had a great time digging it out, and seeing the vast array of material that this man had amassed over a 40-year period of very focused WWI-collecting.
Everyone involved in the process were struck by the scarcity of many of the pieces we uncovered. It was nothing but sheer joy describing, photographing and inventorying the items for subsequent sale. As a WWI collector myself, I had to wipe the drool from my lips many times and realize that my job was to process and not covet.
As much fun as we had sorting and handling the objects, I was struck by a statement the owner of the collection made before he left, “This is the first time in 40 years that I have seen the collection all at one time.” Like so many collectors, he had dreams of eventually having a building dedicated to displaying his collections. A former museum professional, he even entertained the notion of his own museum, or at least, a gallery in another museum that would display his wares.
But time caught up to him. He was astounded just how fast 40 years passed and he wasn’t much closer to his dream. Rather, he had a “collecting room” but it was filled, wall-to-ceiling, with these plastic tubs filled with his collection. He never had the space to open the tubs and perform a crucial step in organized collecting: Evaluation. Rather, he had to keep it all in his head. When he found a cartridge box or helmet, he had to determine, sight unseen, if it was an upgrade of something he already had. If it was, he went through the tubs searching for the item to bump from the collection to make room for the new acquisition. He never experienced the joy of walking into a space and being able to view his collection in its entirety.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH YOUR COLLECTION?
We all collect this stuff for a variety of reasons, probably some we don’t readily understand. But this isn’t the place for a psychological examination of the roots of collecting. Anyone in this hobby does it because of an interest in military history.
My recent experiences unpacking the two collections, though, has really caused me to think about my own collecting. I have been through many phases in my collecting.
When I was young up through my college years, I collected German helmets. Each new one I found went on a shelf until the walls of my room were lined.
Then, I went through a phase of collecting Hitler Youth material. This seemed to be a Riker-mount and hanging closet kind of collection. It didn’t take up as much room as the helmets, but unless I sat down with it, the collection was impossible to view and evaluate in any easy way.
The Hitler Youth material yielded its place in my heart when I jumped into reenacting. That obsession led to my collecting area being filled with stacks of uniforms, equipment and weapons. No one could have untangled that mess! But, it was all stuffed in a closet so didn’t impose itself on my wife or daughter.
During the years when I was raising my daughter, collecting took a bit of a back seat. Toys displaced collecting spaces, and frankly, I enjoyed being with my daughter more than I enjoyed going to shows or being on the hunt. However, during those years, my photography collection continued to grow and grow with a focus on early daguerreotypes. Initially, these items were easy to display around our home: sneak one onto the knick-knack shelf, on top of the dresser, along the edge of the television. Pretty soon, our little duplex was awash with silver plates reflecting the images of 1840s people wherever one turned.
Like most collectors, I didn’t stop there. I started to fill drawers and acid-free boxes with still more daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and carte de visites.
I tried to keep a running inventory but that didn’t provide the adrenaline rush of going from antique shop to flea market looking for the next capture. My enthusiasm didn’t go unnoticed. The Daguerreian Society, an international organization of photo-historians, collectors and practitioners elected me their president. I was in full-blown collector obsession mode.
Alas, like so many collectors, the obsession took over my life. Coupled with a series of similarly unwise decisions, I wound up in divorce court. The collection was liquidated along with the lifestyle. As I organized the collection for sale, I realized I hadn’t seen many of the pieces since the day I placed them in their appointed acid-free boxes. I didn’t say it out loud, but I did ask myself, “what was the point?” Needless to say, my collecting mojo was depleted.
But you can’t keep a good collector down. After a few years, I started gathering items related to the 10th Mountain Division experience in WWII. Soon my office was overflowing with mannequins, rucksacks, snowshoes and skis. The collection occupied two of the three bedrooms in my little house. I was able to spend hours amidst the collection studying, learning and absorbing. The learning curve was sharp and the enjoyment complete.
But, it hit a limit. At a certain point, I realized I wasn't getting any smarter by buying another pair of skis or another rucksack. Rather, I switched from “study” mode to “hoarding”. Remembering past experiences, I knew where this was leading…a collection packed in boxes.
So, using that as an excuse, I liquidated that collection and paid off long-standing credit card bills. I sold my house (just a coincidence, not a reaction to the collection!) and moved into a duplex. The master bedroom became my office. Simultaneously, I decided to focus my collecting efforts on a topic that had been long dear to my heart: The origin of the American Tank Corps during WWI.
This actually seems to be a good fit…the market isn’t flooded with items, so I am able to make very careful purchases. Limiting myself to identified items slows down my spending even more.
And finally, each item is able to find a place of display in my office. So, through the course of the day, I am surrounded by the items that I enjoy collecting and researching.
I am proud to say, there are fewer than ten tunics on hangers or in acid-free boxes. Rather than occupying the spaces permanently, they are part of my rotating display. About every six months, I strip the torsos and place a new uniform on so that I get to enjoy the full collection with out risking it to long-term exposure.
I still collect historic photographs, having focused my attention on WWI images over the last ten years. After I copy stand each new image, the photos go into albums. But that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the images. Apart from being able to drag an album onto the couch for a Sunday afternoon’s perusal, I have loaded low-res copies of each image onto my screensaver. I am embarrassed to think how much time I have just stopped what I am doing to watch a 25” wide-presentation of WWI soldiers in the middle of the day!
I don’t know if I have learned too many lessons over the years, but I continue to examine my own collecting habits and those of my peers. I am always curious to learn how people use their collections. Drop me a note and a picture or two of how you enjoy your collection and I can share those on the web site or in the magazine. You never know, it might just inspire someone to drag out their collection and learn to enjoy it all over again.
Keep finding the good stuff,
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