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Some Thoughts on Collecting

Heritage Auction and longtime Antique's Roadshow's appraiser, Nick Dawes, is perhaps the world's foremost authority on Lalique. Rene Lalique "Oiseau de Feu" Luminaire.

Some years ago I had a most interesting and provocative dinner conversation at the Philadelphia Antiques show with table mate luminaries that included two museum curators, two collectors, two dealers and the editor of The Magazine Antiques. What a delight when everyone at the table is stimulating and joins in. A good eight can manage this in a quiet setting… Ten is too many.

“I just want to buy something every day!”

The subject turned to collecting. There were observations from the common “it’s genetic” and “it’s a sickness” to obscure psychological theories citing compensation for unfulfilled childhood yearnings, all of which were rapidly dismissed.

I countered that comparing collecting to illness throws a negative shroud over us. We should rather consider those who do not collect as somehow unwell, or at least not fully alive. Then a dealer said one of the most astute comments I have ever heard on this topic: “I just want to buy something every day!” As the wisdom sunk in, with the roast chicken, we all gradually fell into line. I have come to believe this simple mantra drives much of collecting culture, whatever your chosen target.

Of course the question “why do you feel this way?” still hangs, best answered on a psychiatrist’s couch perhaps, but we can all face it without paying an hourly rate. I don’t have the answers, but believe there may be a genetic component, and await discovery of the collecting gene as scientists continue to unravel our DNA. However, I suspect the “I want to buy something every day” gene may be right next to it.

All thoughts on this subject are invited and welcome. What do you collect?

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Nick Dawes is Vice President of Special Collections at Heritage Auctions in New York and a former Sotheby’s Vice President and Auctioneer. He is familiar to many through 20 years of regular appearances as an expert appraiser on PBS Antiques Roadshow.

7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Collecting”

  1. Antique tea sets. I had to set a limit on tea sets which had to have a pot, creamer, sugar bowl (or waste bowl) and at least two cups and saucers. I made that criteria because I could see that if I didn’t, I would be buying random, precious cups and saucers or tea pots…every day. So I had to make the collecting a little bit of a challenge!

  2. This is a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I was dealing with all of my mom’s stuff in the move. In my case, my mother is from the depression and grew up dirt poor. She was taught to save everything so she collects EVERYTHING. My thoughts are this: The people collecting things are not considering what will happen when they are gone. I don’t think it’s fair to dump all of this on the person left behind. I’m a minimalist and don’t want a lot of “things” so it is hard for me to understand the need for constant clutter at our fingertips. It all goes back to the depression in my opinion.

  3. I can highly recommend a few years of living in a roommate situation in Brooklyn where your private living space is a 10×10 room with a small closet as at least a partial cure for acquisitionitis.

    I can’t recommend for just about anything else but it does make you think twice or more before bringing home any sparkly new tchotskes – and after I moved on to my own place, the new habit kind of stuck.

    I do have a nice collection of old bottles that I’ve found beachcombing on the shores of Jamaica Bay, but even that I managed to ease off on once I’d filled up the kitchen windowsill where they make a nice display – now I’ll only pick one up if it’s noticeably nicer than anything I have at home. Blues, greens, and sun purples mostly catch my eye.

    Also bad about books…

  4. Nick, you know better than anyone my love for collecting nice, European Art Deco. Ten years of living in a tiny house with everything in storage broke me of that, however, and now I’m trying to divest myself of my storage units. That’s not to say if I didn’t win the lottery I wouldn’t resume my former ways… Brenda

  5. Good morning,

    Over the years, I am drawn to glass and crystal globes. The circle is a perfect shape and light is mesmerizing because it is always changing. I started with a crystal ball bought at age 24, when the money should have gone to rent, utilities, food. In my window hang a collection of hand blown globe ornaments – a variety of textures. One favorite is a clear paperweight with a colorful wave encased in it. How did they do that? I found crystal prisms of light – a circle cut with many facets, hanging from a couple window and one on my coffee table. The rainbows that bounce on the walls when the day light hits them just right, at a certain time of day if pure joy.

  6. I’m definitely drawn to chairs – I have no idea why! I recently found two French rattan salon chairs and it was love at first sight. They were in prefect condition and the guy was practically giving them away, so they have now found a new home. We neither need them nor really have room for them but they make me so happy. I rarely shop and I don’t feel the need for lots of stuff, but when it comes to beautiful chairs, I go weak at the knees!

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