Collecting in a Consumer Culture

ABSTRACT - In contemporary America, collecting has become a pervasive phenomenon that reflects many aspects of the modem consumer culture. In this-chapter, we define collecting, review its history, and present a grounded theory of its meanings, motivations, moments, and modes before concluding with an assessment of its social desirability. Throughout, we draw on the relevant literature and on data supplied by informants both during and after the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Thus, we move between empirical and conceptual approaches to the topic, as was true in the development of this research project over its five year history to date.


Russell W. Belk, Melanie Wallendorf, John F. Sherry, Jr., and Morris B. Holbrook (1991) ,"Collecting in a Consumer Culture", in SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, eds. Russell Belk, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 178-215.

Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, 1991     Pages 178-215


Russell W. Belk

Melanie Wallendorf

John F. Sherry, Jr.

Morris B. Holbrook

[The authors would like to thank Tom O'Guinn and Dennis Rook for their very helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. They would also like to thank Ginny Davis, Scott Roberts, John Schouten, Sherri Stevens, and Tiana Wimmer for post-Odyssey fieldwork and the entire Odyssey team for fieldwork during the odyssey.]


In contemporary America, collecting has become a pervasive phenomenon that reflects many aspects of the modem consumer culture. In this-chapter, we define collecting, review its history, and present a grounded theory of its meanings, motivations, moments, and modes before concluding with an assessment of its social desirability. Throughout, we draw on the relevant literature and on data supplied by informants both during and after the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Thus, we move between empirical and conceptual approaches to the topic, as was true in the development of this research project over its five year history to date.


Asked what things they would save in a fire. people we have interviewed commonly cite a number of "special" objects including photographs, keepsakes, heirlooms, and valuables. it is no coincidence that many of these objects constitute collections that have been purposively and systematically gathered and preserved. For, unlike ordinary objects of consumption, collections tend to take on an importance and character comparable in some respects to that of family members. Collected objects are often anthropomorphized, fetishized, and personified until they define and occupy the little world of an intimate family in which the collector reigns as an absolute sovereign.

Consider the case of Sigmund Freud -certainly not a typical human being, but a reasonably representative collector whose example proves instructive. Although our knowledge of his collecting behavior is secondary -- based on written accounts and interviews with the curators of the Freud Museums on Hampstead Heath in London and at 19 Berggasse in Vienna -- we offer the following synopsis of Freud as collector. Starting two months after the death of his father in 1896, the then 40-year-old Freud began to amass a collection of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Chinese antiquities that eventually numbered approximately 2300 pieces. These objects crowded his desk and cabinets in the two rooms where he wrote and consulted with patients. When Edmund Engelman took secret photographs of this collection before Freud fled to England to escape the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1938, he described the decor in this way:

antiquities filled every available spot in the room. I was overwhelmed by the masses of figurines which overflowed every surface. To the left of the door was a large bookcase covered with tall ancient statuettes. In the comer, at the end of the wall facing these statuettes, was Freud's chair, almost hidden by the head of the couch.... To the left and right of the door were glass showcases filled with hundreds of antiquities. These were set up in several rows; every bit of cabinet space was filled.... I was amazed by the unbelievable number of art objects (Engelman 1976, pp. 137-138).

Similarly, Jobst (1978) suggests that Freud's office took on a museum-like appearance, and Peter Gay notes that:

The first and overpowering impression that Freud's habitat makes on the visitor is the profusion of things.... The sculptures, finally, have their assigned shelves and their glass cases, but they intrusively invade surfaces intended for other purposes: bookshelves, tops of cabinets, writing tables, even Freud's much used desk. The whole is an embarrassment of objects (1976, p. 17).

The hundreds of statuettes in this collection are of animal and human figures that Freud arranged facing him at his desk (Gamwell 1989), "in close-packed ranks like soldiers on parade" (Gay 1976, p. 17). Friends and family noted that the fortunate transfer of Freud's collection from wartime Vienna made his adjustment to England far easier, as he was surrounded by familiar loved objects. In a perhaps overstated 1931 letter to his biographer, Stefan Zweig, Freud claimed that "despite my much vaunted frugality I have sacrificed a great deal for my collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, have actually read more archaeology than psychology' (quoted in Freud, Freud, and Grubrich-Simitis 1978, p. 234). Although he is far better known for his writings, clearly these objects played a major role in Freud's life. He personally scouted for antiquities during his travels and developed relationships with dealers who brought him objects they knew would be of interest. In Me Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud described how, due to his preoccupation with collecting, he would often misread vaguely similar shop signs in foreign cities as proclaiming "antiquities" "this displays the questing spirit of the collector," he noted (Freud 1914, pp. 119-120). Freud's student and colleague Ernest Jones (1955) describes how, after making a new acquisition, Freud would first bring the piece to the dining room table so that he could admire it during the meal. After placing the pieces in his study or consultation room, he frequently rearranged them. According to a long-time maid, before beginning work each day Sigmund Freud would bid "good morning" to a favorite Chinese figure on his desk (Spector 1975). He was also in the habit of holding, examining, and fondling the statuettes as he talked to patients (Spector 1975, p. 2 1; Sachs 1945, p. 10 1). As Gay (1989) concludes:

Collecting stamps, or china--or Greek and Egyptian and Chinese statuettes, for that matter- -partakes of, and preserves, early erotic pleasures; Freud, we are told, liked to gaze at the antiquities on his desk as he worked and, at times, moving from looking to touching, would stroke his favorites. But there is more passion to it still; collecting, as anyone who has ever collected can testify, gives power. To possess a complete collection of certain stamps or of one's reviews or letters to the editor is, in some intimate fashion, a way of controlling and commanding the world (p. 18).

Considering his extreme devotion to the clutter of little ancient icons with which he surrounded himself, Freud was remarkably silent on the subjects of collecting in general and his own collecting in particular. However, he did offer one brief interpretation of collecting activity:

The core of paranoia is the detachment of the libido from objects. A reverse course is taken by the collector who directs his surplus libido onto an inanimate object: a love of things (Freud 1908, quoted in Gamwell 1988).

We shall return to this interpretation and to Freud's own collecting later in this paper. For the present, it is sufficient to note that Freud's collecting activity and his comments on collecting both support the observation that a key feature of collecting consists of elevating possessions in the collection to an extraordinary status not bestowed upon the vast majority of objects in the collector's life.


Collection of primary data materials for this project began during the summer spent traveling on the Odyssey. However, reading of the literature on collection, some of which reports empirical findings, began prior to the Odyssey and guided the questions asked in interviews. Many of our data on collecting were gathered subsequent to the summer of travel. The data are primarily from unstructured interviews with people who are currently collectors. Some of these data are based on participant observation of action in context. In general, however, the data describe in detail collectors' perspectives on their action and are less rich with regard to perspectives in action (Gould, Walker, Cr-ane, and Lidz 1974). Because of their pride in the collection, we encountered little resistance on the part of collectors to being interviewed; more difficult was shifting their focus from the objects themselves to the process of collecting. Most collectors in the sample were interviewed once, although a few were studied in sufficient depth over time to permit the construction of case study material (Yin 1990).

Most people included in the sample fall into the category of avid collectors, since a substantial portion of the sample was initially contacted through collector shows. Other members of the sample were identified through self-designation. Many interviews were conducted at collectors' homes, while others were conducted in the midst of collectors' shows. Purposive sampling was used to add fine art collectors and various demographic groups to the sample, however, this was not a technique employed throughout the project. The approach used was in part the grounded theory suggested by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and in part an attempt at the thick description and thick interpretation suggested by Denzin (1989). In total, over 190 collectors are included in the sample representing differing geographic regions within the U.S.. They also represent a broad spectrum of objects collected in terms of breadth of appeal, price, and availability. Talking to collectors of anything rather than limiting the sample to collectors of particular objects (as is prevalent in studies of collectors) shifted our focus from the objects themselves (often the focus for the collector) to the process and meaning of collecting as a consumption activity. We first use these data and the literature to construct and frame a definition of collecting.



Collecting is a specialized form of consumer behavior (i.e., acquiring, using, and disposing of products). Collecting is inherently acquisitive because its primary focus is on gathering more of something (Brown 1988). In the most common contemporary form of collecting, the objects collected are acquired through marketplace purchase; used - through maintenance, display, and related curatorial activities; and disposed of only at death. Rather than viewing shopping as a necessary or even odious task to be minimized or avoided, collectors commit to a constant and continual shopping trip in pursuit of objects for the collection. As Herrmann (1972, p. 22) notes, "the genuine collector ... has stilled once and for all any inhibition against spending money on the-objects of his choice." Like Freud, the collector is ever vigilant for hidden treasures in the marketplace.

Lehrer (1990, p. 58) offers this view of the collector's quest:

Envy us [collectors) because all our car trips down country lanes and "blue" highways are treasure hunts .... Envy us because every mail delivery has the potential for having the note about or Polaroid shot of an item we have been looking for desperately .... Envy the adventures we have while on The Hunt .... But mostly envy us for the Thrill of The Find.

Collectors are engaged in a competition that, for some, becomes an heroic mission in an indifferent or scornful world. There are few other consumer activities that match the passion of collecting as a mode of consumer behavior. And collecting is perhaps the purest example of a consumption activity that is also a form of production. At its best, collecting creates and produces a unique, valuable, and lasting contribution to the world. For example, had not the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Homer been collected and partially preserved, the world would be the poorer for their lack.

We take collecting to be the selective, active, and longitudinal acquisition, possession, and disposition of an inter-related set of differentiated objects (material things, ideas, beings, or experiences) that contribute to and derive extraordinary meaning from the entity (the collection) that this set is perceived to constitute. This definition coheres with that of Belk (1982) and Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry, Holbrook, and Roberts (1988). It is also generally consistent with prior definitions such as the following:

collection..[is] "an obsession organized." One of the distinctions between possessing and collecting is that the latter implies order, system, perhaps completion. The pure collector's interest is not bounded by the intrinsic worth of the objects of his desire; whatever they cost, he must have them (Aristides 1988, p. 330).

To collect is to gather objects belonging to a particular category the collector happens to fancy.... and a collection is what has been gathered (Alsop 1982, p. 70).

A collection is basically determined by the nature of the value assigned to the objects, or ideas possessed. If the predominant value of an object or idea for the person possessing it is intrinsic, i.e., if it is valued primarily for use, or purpose, or aesthetically pleasing quality, or other value inherent in the object or accruing to it by whatever circumstance of custom, training, or habit, it is not a collection. If the predominant value is representative or representational, i.e., if said object or idea is valued chiefly for the relation it bears to some other object or idea, or objects, or ideas, such as being one of a series, part of a whole, a specimen of a class, then it is the subject of a collection (Durost 1932, p. 10).

To qualify as a collection, the items collected must have some similarity and interrelationship. By being part of the collection each piece is transformed from its original function of toy, icon, bowl, picture, whatever. into an object with new meaning -- a member of an assemblage that is greater than the sum of its parts (Kron 1983. pp. 193-194).

Each of these definitions shares with ours the specification that the collector views the collection as an entity due to a perceived unity in its components. The basis for this unity is identified by labeling the set as "a collection of ___" and is further defined through the boundaries that the collector consciously or unconsciously heeds in adding to the collection.

While a collection remains a collection when additions stop, a collector ceases to be a collector under these conditions. Freud called such a collection "dead" (Freud, Freud, and Grubrich-Simitis 1976, pp. 313). Although the original collector may continue to preserve and display the dead collection, such curating activity is then separated from collecting activity. As the most recent collecting activity recedes into the past, the passive possessor becomes less and less of a collector. In specifying that the collector is an active agent in assembling the collection, we also eliminate the passive recipient of previously collected objects provided by others without personal choice or direction (Durost 1932).

Similarly, to acquire a number of potentially related objects without keeping them (in tangible or symbolic form) is to be acquisitive without collecting. The ingredient missing in this case is the possessive construction of a set. For instance, we have interviewed world travelers who do not perceive their travel destinations as a set, as well as other travelers who consciously collect an expanding set of travel destinations experienced within a specified domain (e.g., continents visited). As with travel experiences, a number of car collectors whom we have interviewed do not have all of their collection physically at hand. Rather, because of the expense of acquisition and storage, theirs are often serial collections involving ownership of only one or a few automobiles at one time. Nevertheless, because they view these sequential acquisitions as part of set, they qualify as collectors. Ownership (or at least a proprietary feeling) also appears to be essential to collecting. A number of our informants express sentiments similar to those of a stamp-collector interviewed by Danet and Katriel (1989):

It's mine (the collection). I can do with it what I want. I can arrange it in the album the way I want. I can display it in exhibits (p. 263).

Since ownership or possession is required for collecting, a museum curator who uses other people's money to make acquisitions for the museum is not a collector unless he or she has strong proprietary feelings for the objects acquired. However, the museum itself may be regarded as an institutional collector if the other requirements for collecting are fulfilled. While groups, families, or even entire societies or whole cultures may engage in collecting behavior, it is not uncommon that it is individuals within these institutions who develop the strong proprietary feelings required to be considered individual collectors. Thus, a couple or family may refer to "our house," but the collection is usually "mine."

Another similarity between our definition of collecting and many of those just quoted is that they jointly note that once a thing, idea, or experience enters a collection it becomes non-ordinary, non-utilitarian (at least in the case of formerly utilitarian items), and somehow "special." In a term we will develop more thoroughly later in this chapter, the collected item becomes sacred (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). While fine art items and some other aesthetic objects (such as books and recordings) may enter a collection without a major change in their extraordinary sacred character, other items are sacralized when they first enter a collection. This normally means that they stop serving their former functions as, for instance, advertisements, stones on a beach, stamps for paying postage charges, or dolls for ordinary play activity. Even those collected objects that retain their original uses (e.g., antique furniture, cars, jewelry, hats, recordings) are regarded as more than functional products, are treated with extreme care, and are often only employed ritually or on special ceremonial occasions. For example, someone who owns a rare recording might tape it for everyday listening and store the original for safe-keeping. If this is not the case and the objects are instead used routinely or casually without regard for their special significance, we do not consider them as parts of a collection.

Our definition is more expansive than the others mentioned above in going beyond material objects to include experiences, beings, and ideas as collectibles. We believe that the theoretical model developed in this paper applies equally well to collections of both tangibles and intangibles as well as both inanimate and animate objects. (Here, the latter refers to plants and animals, occasionally including the collections of persons -- as in the dwarfs who were once a part of royal collections, the wives of Henry VIII, or the husbands of Zsa Zsa Gabor. For comments on the opprobrium now attached to "collecting" people, see Danet and Katriel 1989).

Our view involves several further differences from some of the prior definitions. We do not insist that collecting is necessarily an act of formal classification, as do Phillips (1962) and Humphrey (1983), for instance. Rather, as will become evident, we believe that such classification defines one of two major types of collecting; one which epitomizes a common model of science, but which is not essential for another type of c.Alecting involving connoisseurship. There must be some systematic pattern displayed (even if not consciously discerned) in adding items to any collection, but deciding selectively whether an item belongs in the collection (or how to display it) need not be a classificatory act any more than deciding whether to add an article of clothing to one's wardrobe (or deciding how to wear it) needs to be an act of classification.

We also do not view collecting as a necessarily obsessive act, as does Aristides (1988). While it may become obsessive, compulsive, or even addictive, this need not happen. Furthermore, as argued in a later evaluative section, these undesirable labels are at least as much social as clinical in nature. Love, for example, can sometimes be seen as involving an obsessive behavioral pattern as well. While collecting is often characterized less favorably than love, we did not prejudge it to be either a positive or negative phenomenon.

In summary then, we define collecting as a form of acquisition and possession that is selective, active, and longitudinal. A necessary condition is that the objects, ideas, beings, or experiences derive larger meaning by their assemblage into a set. We turn now to distinctions between collecting and other phenomena.

Accumulating. Hoarding, and Investing

Collecting must also be distinguished from several other phenomena with which it is sometimes confused. The -simple accumulation of possessions, ideas, or experiences is excluded from our definition of collecting, first, because it lacks selectivity (Kron 1983, p. 193). Because of the lack of systematic selectivity in acquiring them, items in an accumulation also lack unity and defy categorical description. To the extent that the accumulation is merely a passive refusal to dispose of items that may have entered our possession, accumulation also lacks the agency needed for collecting. Unlike collected items that may bring pleasure and pride in possession -- and even though the underlying motive for accumulation is often security-seeking (Jensen 1963; Laughlin 1956; von Holst 1967, p. 3) -- accumulated items may tend to create clutter and to cause conflict, displeasure, or even shame (Phillips 1962; Novey and Novey 1987; Warren and Ostrom 1988). Thus, an informant in his seventies who had accumulated three garages full of miscellaneous possessions was succumbing to pressures from his family to begin discarding these things so that they were not faced with the burden of having to do so after his death.

If collections are distinct from human accumulations, they are even farther from animal accumulations, despite the attempt by some to suggest a basis for collecting in animal behavior (e.g., Humphrey 1979). We assume, first of all, that animals -- such as a squirrel piling up nuts for the winter -- lack the appreciation of any interactions within a set of interrelated objects (Stewart 1984, p. 183). Secondly, as an anonymous author notes:

A used postage stamp is to a man what a bone without flesh is to a dog: but the collector of postage stamps goes further than the dog, in that he prefers an old postage stamp to a new one, while no dog, however ardent a collector of bones without flesh, would not rather have a bone with flesh on it. There is more method in the human collector, however, since he always has before him the ideal of a complete collection, whereas no dog, probably, ever dreamed of acquiring specimens of all the different kinds of bones that there are in the world Wohnston and Beddow 1986, pp. 13-15, quoting from an anonymous article in The Times [of London], August 12, 1910; also quoted in Rowed 1920, pp. 6-7).

Unlike accumulation, hoarding is selective and active. But it differs from collecting by focusing on utilitarian items in the expectation that they may be needed in the future (McKinnon, Smith, and Hunt 1985). Because the items hoarded are typically for common uses (e.g., fuel, food staples, cleaning supplies), they are unlikely to take on the sacred character of collected objects. Simmel (1907/197 1) distinguishes the miser who hoards money from the numismatist who collects money, based on both the utilitarian character of the miser's hoard and its lack of sacredness. However both of these assumptions are challenged by the extreme case of a miser who starves or freezes to death in an effort to save still more money (Belk and Wallendorf 1990b; Michaels 1985; Schwartz and Wolf 1958). But a further distinction between collecting and hoarding is that collecting involves differentiated objects and tends to follow the rule "no two alike." while hoarders want many of the same thing (Danet and Katriel 1989). By this criterion we can still classify the self-sacrificing miser as a hoarder rather than a collector.

Further, we do not regard as collectors those who acquire a set of items solely as an investment (e.g., Duggleby 1978; Avery and Colonna 1987). Certainly a collection may ultimately be sold due to financial need or a change in taste (e.g., Christ 1965). However, when profit is the sole purpose for acquisition and possession, the items acquired are likely to lack the sacredness and unity found in a true collection. A collector who is also a dealer in the same collectible can remain a collector if the items in the collection and those that are merchandise are kept separate. We find that this is common and that such dealers generally have firm rules that objects cannot freely pass between the collection and the saleable stock of merchandise. The most prominent exception is that when the dealer upgrades a collection, the superseded items may then be sold. Another exception is when a dealer becomes disenchanted with an entire collection and sells it off, often in order to undertake a new and different collecting enterprise. For dealers who also collect, price is a much more salient criterion in the case of buying merchandise than in the case of acquiring items for the dealer's personal collection.

Care is needed in assessing investment motives however, since investment is sometimes given as an emic rationalization for collecting, especially when collectors fear they will be ridiculed if their love of the collection is instead offered as a rationale (Bloom 1989; Olmsted 1988a; Paton 1988). While collectors frequently recount lore concerning the fortunes amassed by other collectors, in fact many collections do not maintain their purchase prices, much less increase in value (Beards 1987). For this reason many collecting guides, including those in financial newspapers, advise that new collectors pursue a collection for its intrinsic pleasure and not for expected monetary gain (Cox 1985). Still, for a few collectors at least, positive investment consequences can derive from passionate advocacy of an area of collecting interest. One collector has managed not only to indulge his obsession for Rodin sculptures, but also to build both the scholarly and market infrastructure reinforcing the value of the pieces (Cox 1978).


The history of collecting that follows is necessarily a brief sketch drawn with a broad brush. For more detailed and individualized treatments, the reader might consult such excellent sources as Alsop (1982), Cabanne (1961), Caxton Publishing (1974), Cooper (1963), Impey and MacGregor (1985), Moulin (1967/1987), Rheims (1961), Rigby and Rigby (1944), Saarinen (1958), Stillinger (1980), Taylor (1948), and von Holst (1967). However, for the most part, these treatments limit their foci to fine art collecting. The reasons for this bias in favor of the history of the rich and elite collector are not difficult to discern. As Johnson (1986) notes:

Demand for certain types of objects is linked to taste and fashion.... Ownership of art objects is a mark of personal status demonstrating wealth and discrimination. Possession of desirable objects confers prestige, gives aesthetic pleasure and is a form of investment. Collectors, dealers and institutions compete to obtain them.... Rich collectors can achieve renown merely by assembling collections of esteemed I works of art'. The philanthropic act of donating a collection to a museum confers fame in that the name of the previous owner is forever linked with the bequest and in some western countries has the added benefit of tax concessions (p. 74).

In addition, it is art objects that most often are acquired through plunder, serving as trophies of conquest and visibly enriching collections of powerful nations and individuals (Chamberlin 1983). And it is collections of art objects, rather than more humble collectibles, that museums and other repositories have been inclined to preserve. Furthermore, published biographies and television treatments are most likely to focus on the rich and famous who are the collectors of such art. As a result, the extant history of collecting is strongly biased in favor of fine art collections.


The presence of unusual pebbles in 80,000-year-old Cro-Magnon caves in France suggests that collecting may have begun at the same time in human history as art (Neal 1980). The more widespread emergence of collections from hoards and accumulations may well have occurred with the growth of civilizations supporting art and science. Ancient Mesopotamian royal collections in Chaldea, Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria included gems, writings on clay tablets, birds, omens, and incantations (Taylor 1948, p. 7). It is clear from the intact riches of Tutankhamen's tomb that he collected walking sticks, staves, whips, mineral specimens, and toys (Rigby and Rigby 1944, pp. 94-102). His tomb also included relics of predecessor Egyptian collectors, including Amenhotep III's blue enamels and the botanical specimens and foreign art collected by Thutmose III. While these collections reflect individual tastes, their collectors benefitted from both royal and divine rights:

Not men but gods, however, were the greatest of the early collectors. Through their servants, the priests and the priest-kings, it was they who took a toll of all the products of the land. The ancient temples, like the churches and monasteries of our own middle ages, were repositories for great accumulations of wealth. of art and literature; and the temple treasuries were the forerunners of our banks, our libraries, our museums. Even these divine collectors began, as nearly as we can judge, with the collection of food and wealth, graduating soon to the collecting of books and [written] records, of art objects and antiques, of curiosities and relics (Rigby and Rigby 1944, p. 96).

This was the case with the early religious sanctuaries of ancient Greece, which collected painted vases, furniture, weapons, gold and silver vessels, and votive statues (Taylor 1948, p. 11). On feast days, the faithful were invited to see these treasures in the underground chambers where the priests catalogued and guarded them (Caxton Publishing 1974, p. 9). Eventually, these temple collections grew to include the rare and exotic:

Piles of ivory ... barbarian costumes, Indian jewelry, snake skins, bear hides, elephant skulls, whale skeletons, gorilla skins (thought to be those of "hairy, savage women"), reeds as thick as tree trunks, coconuts, distorting mirrors, antique musical instruments, foreign weapons, curious vessels of all sorts (Rigby and Rigby 1944, p. 115).

By the time of Alexander the Great, Greek art and antiquity collections began to be used to proclaim political and military power in an effort to acquire and demonstrate a cultural heritage. At about the same time, the individual collector finally emerged in Greece.

Ancient Romans also sought to collect Greek antiquities and art, and by the second century B.C., the nage for collecting was widespread (Rheims 1961, pp. 8-9). Copies were suitable when the Greek originals were lacking and private collectors opened their collections to the public on certain days. Antique dealers were established, and connoisseurs shopped the streets of Rome where goldsmiths, cabinet-makers, and sculptors set up their businesses which occupied one-fourth of the city. Plunder was the major source of the foreign treasures that poured into Rome. Rivalries between collectors quickly developed. One unscrupulous collector, Gaius Verres, was eventually killed when he refused to relinquish his collection to Mark Antony (Caxton Publishing 1974, pp. 11-12). Petronius collected bowls that became the envy of Nero. When Nero sent poison to him, the saucy writer drank it from a prize bowl that he smashed upon completion (Rigby and Rigby 1944, p. 135). Collections sometimes proved esoteric and eccentric. In the third century A.D., Heliogabalus is reported to have had a collection of 10,000 pounds of cobwebs gathered (by his slaves) for his amusement (Tuan 1986).

At about the same time in China (the Han dynasty), manuscripts in literature, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and war were collected in the Imperial Library, along with silk paintings, bronze vessels, and other relics (Rigby and Rigby 1944, p. 114). When the Han dynasty fell in 221 A-D., there followed a 500-year stagnation in collecting until prosperity revived interest in art, literature, and relics (Rigby and Rigby 1944, pp, 145-153). When Rome was overrun in the fifth century A-D., the west was also plunged into the dark ages, and the center of collecting shifted to Constantinople where Byzantine art, manuscripts, jewels, and religious treasures were assembled by the court (Rheims 1961, pp. 9-10).

During the Middle Ages in Europe, wealth was concentrated among hereditary rulers and prelates of the Christian Church. Collecting was infrequent, even among the upper classes. Security was the predominant motivation for the limited collecting that did occur. Even kings were more concerned with the material value of their treasures than with their artistic or historical merit (Rigby and Rigby 1944, p. 138). Since numerous treasures were melted down for the monetary value of their gold, silver, or gems (Alsop 1982), we do not include such treasuries in our definition of a collection. The Church became the foremost repository of art, manuscripts, treasures, curiosities, and relics. Cathedrals, monasteries, and other religious centers developed a new collecting rivalry, as bones and bits of saints and sacred places became coveted (see Geary 1986; Sumption 1975). Pilgrims and crusaders returned with relics and curiosities that added to church collections as well. It was not until the twelfth century that individual collecting began to regain prominence.

With the Fourth Crusade's sacking of Constantinople in 1204, treasures and relics again began to appear in European collections. Within the thirteenth century, Marco Polo also introduced Europe to the art of the Orient, providing still more exotic objects for collecting. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, church power was declining, and newly wealthy European merchants were collecting an increasing variety of luxury Items -- tapestries, stained glass, reliefs, antiquities, coins, and heraldic signs, as well as paintings (Rigby and Rigby 1944, pp. 154-155). Italy was in the forefront of such collecting, and the Medici collections were the most extravagant. By the fifteenth century, daily life was shaped by the "triumph of individualism" (Aries 1989, p. 7) which supported efforts to amass individual collections. With such encouragement, art collecting became an important enough focus of European society that the names of great painters were well known. By the sixteenth century, names of the famous collectors themselves were equally well known (Rheims 196 1, p. 11). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, starting in northern Germany, the Wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders) became a popular addition to the Kunstkamnier (art cabinet) and Schatzkammer (treasury) among the royalty and wealthy (see Impey and MacGregor 1985; Mullaney 1983). Eclecticism, the promise of magic, and curiosity were key elements in assembling the contents of a wunderkammer. Praz (19634, pp. 138-139) records that one such collection included: lamps and ink wells made of seashells, musical and mathematical instruments, stuffed serpents, Mexican curios, the rope with which Judas supposedly hanged himself, ostrich eggs, mosaics of hummingbirds' wings, portraits of famous jurists and beautiful women, carved cherry pits, automata, objects of ivory and coral, a peg used in King Solomon's temple, elephants' tusks, sharks' teeth, and a coconut mounted in silver. Such an assortment of objects could be found among royalty, as in the Hapsburg collections, as well in religious collections -including those of the Popes and those at the Royal Abbey of Saint Denis (Taylor 1948, p. 49, pp. 122-123). In part, the ideal was to show one's breadth by such a collection, but the exploration of the New World also stimulated curiosity for the strange and unusual. Whereas the medieval ideal was the compendia or systematization of knowledge of the world, during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries interest shifted to finding new knowledge and to "collecting the world" (Defert 1982). Along with various curios of the New World, Christopher Columbus returned to Lisbon with native Americans who were exhibited in the capitols of Europe (Hodgen 1964). That the collection of the world sometimes involved collecting written accounts and people (however objectionable to our current moral standards), as well as things brought back from various expeditions, exemplifies our definitional contention that collecting is not limited to material objects.

The scientific revolution that began in the late 17th century is characterized as Cartesian thinking after Rene Descartes. The same turning point has been described by Berman (1981), following Max Weber, as the "disenchantment of the world." The separation between art and science in this epoch was clearly manifested in collecting. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, collections began to be specialized with artistic versus scientific foci being the first fundamental split (Belk 1986, pp. 11-12; Caxton Publishing 1974, pp. 41-42). The first public museums since the destruction of the Mouseion at Alexandria also formed along these two lines during the late seventeenth through nineteenth centuries Wexander 1979). Royal and private collections were most often transformed into public institutions in order to initiate these museums, thus allowing the public to view and admire the formerly private treasures of the wealthy. The scientific zeal of the era gradually eliminated the more bizarre curiosities, although the fascination with the curious remained longer in the United States.

It appears that a several hundred year trend toward the democratization of collecting has accelerated in the twentieth century, with more and more people collecting. This has been possible only partly though rising real incomes, since the control of fine art has remained concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and museums. The stronger impetuses for more widespread collecting have been the broadened conceptualization of things that are collectible, the accelerated production of identical objects in series or sets, and the reduced age at which old things are seen as worth preserving. Museums have aided this trend by displaying increasingly diverse material and by expanding the array of offerings, with more marketing-oriented merchandising strategies (Kelly 1986). The democratization of collecting has also been aided by the increasingly branded and differentiated set of products available in the marketplace, providing additional objects to be collected.

Contemporary Institutional Dimensions of Collecting

The commoditization/singularization dialectic (Kopytoff 1986) that drives much collecting behavior in consumer culture underlies the institution of collecting. The symbolic value of a singularized item is frequently reinforced by a high monetary value, whether or not the item ever circulates in exchange relationships after its acquisition. The symbiosis of symbolic and exchange value (or sacred and profane dimensions) is apparent in the following examples:

* Movie memorabilia is especially rewarding to collectors. A pair of .. ruby slippers" worn in the Wizard of Oz fetched $165,000 from a collector. Another paid $12,000 for a uniform worn by Elvis Presley in G.I. Blues. A large poster for Casablanca goes for $17,500. A biweekly guide entitled Movie Collector's World already boasts 5.000 subscribers (Dunn 1988).

* The founder of the G.I. Joe Club of America, himself an owner of over 500 of the action figures, desires to build a national monument to the character. Early model versions of the toy now sell for more than $2,000 (Pereira 1989).

* A teddy bear was recently sold by Sotheby's for a record price of $85,000 (Millership 1989). The auction house also dispersed items from Andy Warhol's collection that commanded similarly astonishing prices: 152 cookie jars went for $247,830; a Black Mackintosh table for $275,000; a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow for $77,000; and three Campbell's soup can banks for $7,150 (Cox 1988).

* Before the collapse of the junk bond barons at Drexel Bumham, Lambert, the firm was able to reposition much of its material (coffee mugs, T-shirts, tennis balls and other office bric-a-brac) as collectibles, and dispose of it quite profitably (Herman 1990).

* Among the rapidly appreciating speculative investments some experts view as a hedge against conventional market downturns are Elvis memorabilia, presidential autographs, rare books, toy figurines and both classic (1930's - 1940's) and muscle (1950's - 1960's) cars produced by American manufacturers (Gottschalk 1988; Johnson 1990; Peers 1988).

* The profitability of collectibles has fueled a rise in such activity as the counterfeiting of baseball cards (Leptich 1989), the use of baseball cards as promotional premiums in such products as laundry detergents (n.a. 1988) and the manufacturing of hood or-nament replicas (Wright 1989).

* Collecting behavior radiates to increasingly novel niches. With the rise of direct marketing activity, junk mail has become a collectible for some consumers (Crossen 1989). In Japan, prepaid magnetic cards intended to render service encounters more automatic and convenient have spawned a market of more than 200,000 collectors (Kilbum 1988). Socially responsible collecting has been promoted as a marketing vehicle to subsidize efforts such as documentary projects (n.a. 1990).

That collecting can be both passionate and profitable is a common observation (Crispell 1988; Klein 1990; Lynwander 1990; Read 1990; Trachtenberg 1990; Wartzman 1990). That a collecting "industry" and elaborate social network of voluntary associations of collectors supports the enterprise is less commonly acknowledged.

A number of discrete institutions comprises the collecting industry. Formal sector organizations such as auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's, or the thousands of galleries which constitute the infrastructure of the art world, are perhaps the most widely known exemplars as a result of their importance to society's aesthetic domain of experience. Similarly, museums are widely recognized principally for their contribution to the preserving of a collectively constructed and valued version of a material cultural past. The rise of so-called "unusual" or unconventional museums (Jurnovoy and Jenness 1987) celebrating less hegemonic or elitist visions of cultural production is also linked to this conservation or preservationist ethos. The cultural significance of these organizations is explored in later pages of this chapter. Retail galleries for collectibles such as rare documents have begun to spring up in shopping malls, angering purists concerned about inflationary pricing, packaging, gimmickry, and forgery (Yoshihashi 1990). Vehicles such as Rinker's Antiques and Collectibles Market Report, and the Antiques and Collectibles Information Service, instruct consumers in all phases of the collecting enterprise. Informal or alternative sector organizations (Sherry 1990a; 1990b) such as flea markets and garage sales constitute another important conduit for the collecting industry.

Of particular importance to this chapter is the existence of specific institutions whose mission is the mass-merchandising of presingularized "collectibles" to consumers desiring to own special objects with perceived investment value. Firms such as the Bradford Exchange, the Franklin Mint, the Franklin Library, the New England Collectors Society, and the Danberry Mint, among others, offer just such portfolios to their clients. These firms provide important search and validation services to consumers for whom the joy of treasure-hunting is not so exhilarating as the certainty of authentication is comforting (Beckham and Brooks 1989). For many, the thrill of acquisition consists in the anticipation of the inevitable arrival of a preselected item, rather than in the discovery in which a personal grail quest might culminate. These commercial "societies" reinforce the social and economic significance of aspects of collecting behavior by prepackaging the experience for consumers. Firms such as Hummel, Lladro and Waterford, among others similarly encourage collecting by producing items whose principal value or point-of-difference resides in their collectibility. Thus the commercialization of a social activity - the commoditization of collecting - is at once a cooptation and a reinforcement of an important consumer behavior.

Collecting is institutionalized in a number of other commercial formats. For example, the magazine Memories is targeted to consumers for whom nostalgia -- a culture-bound syndrome discussed in later pages -has become a salient experience. The magazine allows readers to collect a mass-mediated past which is promoted as an integral component of their extended selves. The Cable Value Network includes such shows as "Collectibles" and"The Doll Collector" among its programming fare. Many newspapers now run regular feature sections on "Collectibles" which read as commercial analogs to more traditional advice columns. Entire newspapers themselves are increasingly marketed as "collectibles", and sold to enshrine such "big events" as the Kennedy assassination, or such personal events as a reader's birthday; the edition for a particular date is often offered in an enshrining document case. Each of these vehicles serves to reinforce the significance of collecting -- whether it be the economic utility, the aesthetics of connoisseurship, or the fraternity/sorority of collectorhood -- for society at large.

Finally, the prevalence of voluntary societies of collectors is worthy of note. Such societies may be relatively informal and generalized. For example, many collectors are socialized into a family of orientation where collecting is a valued ethic, and in turn socialize their own families of procreation into the collecting ethic. Intergenerational transfer of collecting behavior, rather than of specific-object collecting, appears to be a common phenomenon. Participation in a shared hobby or communal ritual seems to be an important integrative mechanism in many families of collectors. Other voluntary societies are much more formally constituted, providing individuals with a reference group with which to identify and interact, based upon a particular passion. For instance, at the 10th National Sports Collectors' Convention held recently in Chicago, collectors could buy from and sell to a range of dealers and exhibitors, have items autographed by a host of attending sports heroes, attend seminars ranging from entrepreneurship through ethics to estate planning, obtain formal and informal advice on the craft of collecting (e.g. sourcing, authenticating, pricing), and engage in the kinds of after-hours socializing that pushes the mechanical solidarity of nominal affiliation forward into the organic solidarity characteristic of small group culture. There appear to be as many voluntary associations of collectors as there are categories of collectibles. These associations serve to reinforce the social and psychological significance of collecting in consumer culture. Perhaps ironically, such associations may mitigate some of the alienation that consumer culture seems to engender.


O'Brien (198 1) estimated that one of every three Americans currently collects something. Another study found that 62.5 percent of households surveyed reported that they have at least one collection, with an average of 2.6 collections per household (Schiffer, Downing, and McCarthy 1981). Even if these figures are exaggerated, at least according to our definition of collecting, it is evident that in recent times collecting has diffused to a large portion of the population in affluent nations. Almost ten percent of American men collect coins, and about four percent of both men and women collect stamps (Crispell 1988). Thus, one reason to study the neglected phenomenon of collecting is the large number of people it involves and the large amount of time, talent, effort, and money they spend pursuing their collecting interests. Another reason is that collecting represents a striking form of consumption. Since, by definition, the objects in a collection are beyond ordinary everyday use, the passion, rivalry, and marketplace attention that these objects engender challenges rational models of behavior. Furthermore, collected objects often require considerable time and effort to maintain (Aristides 1988; Durham 1985) and are more likely to produce a financial loss than a profit, if indeed they can be sold at all (Cox 1985). Thus, while we shall delay our considered appraisal, at this point we note Singh's (1988) assessment that collecting celebrates ownership and that collectors are driven by "the obsessional greed of ownership" (p. 86). Even without celebration and obsession, collecting appears to be a quintessential form of acquisition and possession, involving extreme concentration and care lavished upon the collection by its collector. Perhaps a principal contribution to be made in future research on collecting would be a systematic collection of biographies and life histories of collectors (e.g., Carmichael 1971; Stillinger 1980) that would capture something of the richness of motivation driving this form of consumption.

The importance of collecting may also depend upon its distribution and symbolic significance in the population. To what extent does the phenomenon of collecting transcend boundaries of age, gender, and social class? Do collections act as signs of age, gender, and social status?

Age. Our interviews with young collectors suggest that they are encouraged and often started in collecting by parents and other relatives. Mechling (1989) finds that youth organizations have done much to encourage collecting by children. In some cases, a key adult acts as a mentor and guide. Several fathers encouraged their sons' baseball-card collecting and visited shops, card collectors meetings, and card conventions with them. Collections of natural materials like minerals and seashells often depend upon adults taking children to collecting sites. Adults nurture children's collecting activity; we have encountered no incidents of intentional discouragement by adults. Collecting is a cultural model "of" and model "for" reality, in Geertz's (1973) sense. Through collecting, the individual learns that "getting" and "having"are social cultural pursuits, and that activity should be directed toward becoming what you own. Danet and Katriel (1989) found that, even among the ultra-orthodox Jews of the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem, children are encouraged to collect and trade cards with photos of various rabbis. A U. S. firm, Torah Personalities, Inc., markets trading cards of the world's most famous living and dead rabbis, complete with "statistics" on the card's obverse side (Time 1989).

During the first third of the twentieth century, there were a number of surveys of collecting activity among children. An early study reported that grade school children had an average of three to four active collections and that peak collecting years were between ages eight and eleven (Burk 1900). While a 1927 study reported a lower incidence of collecting and concluded that collecting was a fad whose time was passing (Lehman and Witty 1927), a 1929 study using different methods found an even higher incidence of collecting among children than had Burk (Whitley 1929). In follow-up studies Witty and Lehman (1930, 1931) found that, during peak collecting years, girls averaged twelve collections and boys eleven. Durost (1932) reported that boys' collecting activity peaked at age ten with an average of 12.7 collections, while girls' collecting peaked at age I I with an average of 12. 1 collections. A recent study in Israel found that, between first and seventh grade, at least 84 percent of both boys and girls collect something, although in eighth grade these figures drop to below 50 percent (Danet and Katriel 1988). From all these studies, it is clear that collecting is more common among children than among adults. Its peak coincides with the onset of adolescence and the desire to individuate through doing rather than having (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Prior to this age, the collection may constitute the self, and the self may be seen as part of the collection. Even though collecting may offer the illusion of a return to childhood, one inhibition to collecting as an adult appears to be the fear that others will think that the collecting is a childish indulgence (Bloom 1989; Kozden 1989; Olmsted 1988a). Another inhibition, no doubt, is the amount of time involved. A third explanation may be the wider availability of other channels for attaining a sense of mastery and identity as an adult.

Although collections are sometimes liquidated for financial reasons during old age (Christ 1965), collections begun in youth may be continued over a lifetime (e.g., Dannefer 1981; Olmsted 1987b). Indeed, increased time resources after retirement are often devoted to collections (Dannefer 1980). The community of fellow collectors can also be an important source of satisfaction. However, given the specialized nature of most collections, they are not likely to produce integration among neighborhood friends (Unruh 1983, pp. 108110).

Gender. The studies just reviewed consistently find that, among youthful collectors, girls are at least as likely as boys to collect. Among adults, however, the literature suggests that men are more likely to collect than are women (Danet and Katriel 1989; Olmsted 1988a, 1989; Belk and Wallendorf 1990a). Rigby and Rigby (1944, pp. 326-327) suggest that the economic requirements and the competitive nature of collecting have traditionally favored males. Danet and Katriel (1986, p. 48) argue that the proactive mastery involved in collecting is inconsistent with the more passive and familial social roles that have been encouraged for women. And Saisselin (1984, p. 68) contends that historically men's purchasing has been viewed as serious and purposeful collecting, while women's buying has been perceived as (and confined to) frivolous consumption. As Baekeland (1981) emphasizes:

we rarely think of accumulations of dresses, shoes, perfumes, china and the like as collections.... Men's collections, however, be they of stamps, cars, guns or art, tend to have clear-cut thematic emphases and standards, external reference points in public or private collections. Thus women's collections tend to be personal and ahistorical, men's impersonal and historical (p. 47).

One need only look to the array of shoes assembled by Madame Marcos to find one inflated example of this distinction (see Goldstein 1987). However, it might be argued that women's collecting is transmuted into domestic production. That is, women both produce and reproduce "consumption" in their creation of the domestic economy. That economy might be regarded in part as a "living" collection. Furthermore, a more complete examination of collecting activity indicates its essentially androgynous qualities. While acquisition may require aggressive competition and mastery, preservation of a collection requires care, creativity, and nurturance (Belk and Wallendorf 1990a). Thus, collecting activity requires characteristics stereotypically associated with both genders.

A second question with regard to the connection between gender and collecting is whether males and females tend to collect different types of things. While not all objects are seen to be gendered (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1980; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1979), many objects are. Gender can be imparted through strong design differences as with motorcycles versus motor scooters (Hebdige 1988), or through more subtle features as with the size, shape, and ornamentation of hair brushes (Forty 1986). The historical studies of child collectors, cited previously, confirm that boys tend to collect different objects (e.g., marbles, nails, insects) than girls (e.g., dolls, jewelry, photographs).

Among adults in our sample of 192 collectors, some of the strongest gender differences we have found among collectors is in the overwhelming predominance of males among firearms collectors (cf. Olmsted 1987a, 1988b, forthcoming; Stenross 1987) and automobile collectors (cf. Dannefer 1980, 1981). We also find men to be conspicuously more likely to collect antiques, books, tatoos, and sports-related objects, while women are more likely to collect animal replicas, jewelry, and housewares such as dishes and silverware (cf. Belk and Wallendorf 1990a). Other studies have found men to be more likely to collect stamps and coins than are women (Christ 1965; Crispell 1988; Olmsted 1987b). Interestingly, Sigmund Freud's collection of antiquities includes a large number of phallic amulets and phalluses from statues. Similarly, the ubiquitous statuettes in his collection can be interpreted as phallic (Spitz 1989; cf. Holbrook 1988a, 1988b). It is almost as if Freud were acting out the satirical tale of Flaubert's naive collectors, Bouvard & Pecuchet:

At one time towers, pyramids, candles, mile-posts, and even trees had the significance of phalluses -- and for Bouvard and Pecuchet everything became a phallus. They collected the swing-bars of carriages, legs of armchairs, cellar bolts, chemists' pestles. When anyone came to see them, they asked: 'What do you think that's like?" -- then confided the mystery-, and if the visitor protested, they shrugged their shoulders pityingly (1880/1954, p. 131).

Again, the models of/models for reality analogy is apt. Collecting enables males to celebrate aggressive behaviors abetting commerce or the hunt, and ultimately shaping the realm of political economy. Collecting enables females to enact behaviors creating household nurturance, which shape domestic economy.

Our case studies of a husband and wife who both collected for most of their lives provide an informative contrast between male and female collecting. The woman, whose husband posthumously enshrined her collection in a museum called the Mouse Cottage, was a collector of mice replicas. The collection began during her childhood when she acquired the nickname "Mouse" because, according to the museum brochure, she was "so clever and charming in character and petite in stature." Her lifelong collection consists of toy mice of every description, displayed in homey pseudo-antique golden oak furniture, around a perennial Christmas tree, and in a dollhouse. Both the dominant pattern of Christmas as "woman's work" (Cheal 1987, 1988; Caplow 1982, 1984) and the association of the diminutive and miniaturized with women and children (Stewart 1984) reinforce the dominant theme of domestication in the Mouse Cottage. Another major feature of the collection is its Mickey Mouse replicas. In this regard it is instructive that when Mickey was initially introduced with a thinner appearance and masculine voice, he lacked his current popularity. Only by means of an emasculating voice change, a more babyish and androgynous appearance, and a concomitant social clumsiness with female mice, did Mickey gain popularity (Mollenhoff 1939, Gould 1979). The diminutive mouse (n.b. Mickey rather than Mike or Michael) is nevertheless the hero in Disney comics. He succeeds with the magical guile of a child in overcoming more adult-like villains, thus fulfilling a common childhood fantasy.

Mouse's husband also institutionalized his major collection (fire engines) by establishing the Fire Museum. In contrast to the diminutive Mouse Cottage, this museum of fire-fighting equipment (billed as the world's largest) is spacious, has a guide, and charges admission. The guide, display, and brochure all emphasize that this is a serious historical museum, in contrast to the entertainment rationale given for the Mouse Cottage. Two other collections of this collector have also been given display space: (1) his collection of paintings and bronzes of American cowboys and Indians and (2) his collection of African hunting trophies that began with a family hunting safari in the 1920s.

The collections of these two spouses present a graphic illustration of gender differences found in other collections studied as well. These differences were detected independently by the two authors who conducted research at these sites. Using the general equation, Mouse Cottage:Fire Museum:XY, we note these relevant pairs of X and Y --

Tiny : Gigantic

Weak : Strong

Home : World

Nature : Machine

Nurturing : Extinguishing

Art : Science

Playfulness : Seriousness

Decorative : Functional

Inconspicuous : Conspicuous

Animate : Inanimate

Belk and Wallendorf (1990a) also discuss further cases of gendered identity work including two collections of Barbie dolls. As with the mice and fire engines, these collectibles can provide a circumscribed arena in which a variety of gender and other identity issues are played out. In the Barbie doll cases studied however, the key gender identity issues center on the recent radical mastectomy undergone by one of the Barbie doll collectors and the homosexuality of the other. in both cases these collectors were able to express and work through these issues using their doll collections.

Social Class. A final issue in the distribution of collecting concerns its locus in the class structure of American society. To a certain degree, the poor are precluded from many collecting realms due to their low income. Although the wealth of the mouse replica and fire engine collectors just discussed belies the common assumption that the wealthy collect only fine art, it remains true that collectors of expensive fine art are almost always at least moderately wealthy (Moulin 1967/1987). Since virtually anything is collectible (Reid 1988), the contemporary collector can always find some affordable category of objects to collect. Therefore, income is not necessarily a barrier to collecting. One survey of subscribers to a general collecting magazine found that the sample had a median income about 30 percent above the U.S. population median and was over 70% white collar (Treas and Brannen 1976). Bossard and Boll (1950) found that the upper class were more likely to collect than the middle class, although more recent studies have found that the working and middle classes are well represented in such areas of collecting as baseball cards (Bloom 1989) and stamps (Bryant 1982; Olmsted 1987b). Rochberg-Halton (1979) reported that although visual art was cited as a favorite possession more frequently by members of the upper middle class in Chicago, other collectibles were cited more frequently by lower class informants. Our own data (based on the sample of 192 informants) suggest that, with the exception of fine art collecting, most collecting areas (including automobiles) appear to be dominated by the middle class. This may imply that firms specializing in sales to collectors have successfully targeted the large middle class in the U.S. (e.g., Butsch 1984).

In sum, contemporary collecting is unevenly but broadly distributed across age, gender, and socioeconomic categories. It seems to reflect a heightened acquisitive and possessive orientation that epitomizes the modem consumer culture. The considerable inputs of time, money, skiff, and energy devoted to collecting also help to make it a consumption activity eminently worthy of study. But most importantly, collecting is a passionate sphere of consumption from which collectors seem to derive significant meaning and fulfillment in their lives. It is, in Stebbins' (1982) terms, serious leisure (cf. Bloch and Bruce 1984). Smith and Apter (1977, p. 65), thus, observe of antique collectors:

Finally, collecting antiques, like any hobby pursued with intensity and passion, helps to give life meaning and purpose. The goals of antique collecting may at first seem arbitrary and the activity may initially be taken up for excitement ... but for many people the goals eventually become serious and building the collection would seem for some people to take on almost religious proportions.

This point is well illustrated in a recent play by Terrence McNally (1989) entitled The Lisbon Traviata. McNally's work offers what must be the first full-length theatrical production that takes record collecting as its central theme (but see Eisenberg 1987). On its surface, the play depicts a love quadrangle involving four homosexual men, two of whom (Mendy and Stephen) are held together emotionally by their shared devotion to opera in general and to the performances of Maria Callas in particular. Thus, much of the action and most of the humor in Act I revolve around Mendy's desperation to hear a new bootleg recording of Maria singing La Trauiata in Lisbon. This scene contains lines guaranteed to move any compassionate record collector to the deepest commiseration. In this, it reflects the playwright's own avowed musical fanaticism and obsession with opera recordings and performances:

In the first act of McNally's play, audiences are treated to an encounter between two rabid fans of Maria Callas.... Mendy goes into a frenzy when Stephen mentions a pirated recording he owns of a performance of La Traviata sung by Callas in Lisbon in 1958.... Most of the first act dwells on the two men's Callas obsession and their disdain for other great singers.... McNally, himself, admits to having been an ardent Callas fan during the Golden Age of Opera (Botto 1989, p. 66).

In Act II, we find that Stephen's apartment features row upon row of vertical shelves that house literally thousands of Ips and CDs carefully arranged in a well-organized order that permits him to pluck examples of interest from the filing system with barely a glance. In a touching comic thrust, Stephen recounts how he had to explain to his father why anyone would want more than one recording of the same piece of music. "For the same reason," he says, "that you need to watch the Super Bowl again every year." Thus does the collector notice subtle distinctions, even those among performances of the same composition by the same artists recorded on different occasions. Though McNally's play deals primarily with classical music in general and opera in particular, the same fanatic interest in different performances appears in the desire of jazz fans to hear alternate takes of pieces played sometimes only minutes or seconds apart by improvisers of the stature of (say) Lester Young or Charlie Parker. Similarly, "Deadhead" fans of the Grateful Dead strive to make, trade, and collect tapes of every concert by the group (Pearson 1987). In the case of McNally's comic hero, the obsession with hearing and owning all available performances by a favorite artist borders on the pathological. But, in general, the extent to which such subtle differences matter is the essence of the true collecting spirit.


What Collections Mean

Magic. One key to understanding the intensity with which collections are pursued is the finding that collections are often magic. In a related vocabulary, the items in a collection are frequently "sacred" (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). We have already noted that, by definition, the contents of a collection are usually set apart from the ordinary. Asked whether she ever eats using her collection of Lustreware dishes, a collector W 30) replied, "Never! I never use it. You know why? Its because they're completely non-functional." Once an item enters a collection, it does not leave, except in the case of serial collections and upgrading. A collector of nutcrackers (WF 50), after explaining that she never uses them to crack nuts, was asked if nutcrackers ever leave her collection: "Nol No way. (laughs] They're mine and they're going to stay mine." A couple (W`M 65/WF 65) who collect saltcellars was observed serving a holiday feast using salt and pepper shakers rather than objects from the sacred collection. Similarly, as previously noted, we find that collector/dealers generally keep their sacred personal collections separated from profane saleable merchandise and do not tolerate traffic between the two. It is as if the magical power of the collected objects would be diminished if they were treated as market commodities and removed from the safe haven of eternal life in the collection.

The magical quality of objects in a collection is also revealed by the reverent care given to them. Fieldnotes from an automobile show reflect some of this fetishistic attention:

One man driving his car in the "parade" awaiting space assignment, jumped out of his car when the line stopped and polished the wheels a bit. One person used a paintbrush to get the dust out of his grill. Another man was doing finishing touches to the chrome around his headlights with a toothbrush.

In a similar vein, Dannefer reports a car collector's response to a woman who asked where she could put her Coke among the clutter: "Just anywhere except on the white car -- that's God" (1980, p. 393). For some, this concern for these metal objects of affection extends beyond life itself. One informant (WM 60s) has a will leaving his Model A Fords to his 14-year-old grandson. but the will also contains a provision stipulating that if the grandson violates them or doesn't care for them properly, they will be sold to a professional restorer who can appreciate them. Another owner of four restored cars (WM 60) has willed one to each of his four children: "They promised me to take good care of them. If they don't, I'll come back and haunt them." And a recently divorced shell collector (WM late 30s) laments that he kept the house and children but his ex-wife kept the shells that she refers to as "her babies." Such personification is an important element in fetishizing objects (Ellen 1988). While Stewart (1984) distinguishes collecting from fetishism based on the order that characterizes collecting, we disagree and see collecting as often fetishistic. In our view, the compulsive desire for order in the collection only serves to reinforce such fetishism.

Reverence for the power of the collected objects is also displayed in other ways. Clark (1963, p. 15) notes that "In a Rothschild collection I always found myself whispering, as if I were in church." Collectors of contemporary art, like the billionaires who once bought Renaissance art from Joseph Duveen (Behrman 1952), find themselves wondering "Am I good enough to own this painting?" (Greenspan 1988). Danet and Katriel (1986, p. 38) refer to such reverence as "thing magic." Laughlin (1956) calls collections -- along with talismans, amulets, religious tokens, relics, and charms -- "soterial objects," after the Greek Soteria, meaning "objects that deliver one from evil."

Besides delivering them from evil, collectors also hope that the extraordinary power of collected objects will deliver them from the ordinary world of everyday life into a magical world. This belief is evident in the treasure tales that surround most collecting arenas. These tales typically involve a discerning collector using a combination of cleverness and luck to acquire a rare and valuable collectible for little or nothing (e.g., Beards 1987). In one tale, shyly told but fervently believed, a car collector " late 30s) recalled searching for years for the pickup truck that he and his deceased father had once fixed up. As the fieldnotes record:

He had looked for it for much of the 11 years since he got rid of it, but with no luck. They had lost a son and had some other difficulties, so they had despondently gone to his father's grave. He and his father had done a lot of racing together and were close. He told his father that if he was alright to give him a sign. Shortly after that, a friend told him about a Cameo, and they went to see it. When he saw the "R. & R Racing' on it, he knew it was his old truck and bought it. Ron's wife said they weren't very religious, but that made believers of them.

It often seems that the collector is assembling a miniature world that he or she can control and rule over (Berger 1972, p. 86; Danet and Katriel 1989, p. 263; Stewart 1984, p. 162). If so, it is an enchanted world of magical objects not unlike the fairy tales of childhood (Bettelheim 1975).

Other Times, Other People, and Other Places. if collections evoke magical worlds, they are aided in this evocation by their linkage with a distant, exotic otherness (Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen 1989) displaced in time or space from the here and now. The collected object is imbued with the aura of the time, place, and persons once associated with it; for instance, a collection of rocks and seashells from vacation trips (Appleyard 1979). In fact, Urry (1990, p. 32) has characterized contemporary tourists as "collectors of gazes," who are less interested in revisiting the same exotic sites than in capturing the "initial gaze" of the other. Because collecting is a longitudinal activity, even a collection of contemporary art acquires historical markers over the history of the collection. A common incentive to collect involves the desire to conserve, assemble, preserve, or rescue objects. More generally, such activity is often part of a search for self-meaning.

The ability of a collection to evoke other places is seen among two informants who totally devote their houses to their collections of artifacts from particular places -- one from Bali and the other from Nigeria and nearby African countries. In each case, the collector previously lived in these countries, although the collections were acquired over a period of time and continue to grow with return visits. Each house is filled with furniture, wall decorations, masks, musical instruments, carvings, and other artwork from the foreign lands. In one collection, the material overflows numerous glass front cases and is stacked up to five items high in each room on all three floors of the house. And, in both houses, every piece recalls for the collector the story of its acquisition. The initial guided tour in one of these houses took five hours. In a less literal way, stamp collections and books provide means of tangibly acquiring other places. One of Olmsted's (1987b) collectors remarked, "Stamp collecting is also a way of traveling and getting acquainted with other countries" (p. 3). Although she no longer climbs, Janet Smith (1988) relives adventures of climbing in the Alps through her collection of Alpine climbing books and journals, and she notes, "I can't think of any keener invitation to take an ego-trip down Memory Lane" (p. 480).

Not only place, but also time is acquired and made manifest in a collection. Sigmund Freud's interest in collecting the antiquities of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt appears to have arisen in part from his fascination with the Egyptian illustrations in the Philippson Bible he read in his home as a child (Kuspit 1989). Some of his antiquities were acquired during his travels to the ruins of these ancient civilizations. When these pieces were brought home, they served as reminders, "promising him that after the long winter in Vienna he could return" (Bernfeld 1951, p. 109). In fact, Freud's travels were often shaped by his penchant for collecting, as Walter (1988) notes:

During his visit to America in 1909 he showed no interest in the country, saying that all he wanted to see there was Niagara Falls. Refusing to read travel books before the trip, he studied a book on Cyprus instead and wanted to see the principal collection of Cyprian antiquities that was on exhibit in New York. In that city, the place that attracted him was the Metropolitan Museum, where he spent his time absorbed in the antiquities of Greece (pp. 102-103).

Not incidentally, Freud also used archeological metaphors in his work -- as in his references to psychoanalysis as the archaeology of the mind and his symbolic interpretations of key myths such as that of Oedipus. It has even been suggested that his crafting of the psychoanalytic enterprise was dominated by an object-oriented passion for archaeology (Walter 1988, p. 111). In Kuspit's view, it was Freud's hope "to have some of the heroic quality associated with archaeology rub off on psychoanalysis" (1989, pp. 133134). The collector of antiquities, in Hillier's (198 1) words, is "an archaeologist without a spade" (p. 71). As Rheims (1961) reflects:

An object's date is of prime importance to a collector with an obsession for the past. He values it for its associations, that it once belonged to and was handled by a man he can visualize as himself. The object bears witness: its possession is an introduction to history. One of a collector's most entrancing day-dreams is the imaginary joy-of uncovering the past in the guise of an archaeologist (p. 211).

In this daydream the collector also magically transcends time and travels to another era.

The desire to bask in the imagined glory of the past is also evident in the strong emotional attachment that many antique collectors have to the persons, eras, and places that their collections represent (e.g., Kaplan 1982; Stillinger 1980). Collections of family photographs (Hirsch 1981), autographs, locks of hair in Victorian hair wreaths (Miller 1982, Payne 1988), and contemporary baseball cards are all, in this sense, collections of people. The attraction is all the stronger when the contagious magic of a prominent provenance is attached to objects in the collection. Thus, one collector was especially attached to an antique music box because it once belonged to Winston Churchill. As Malinowski (1922) observed:

When, after six years' absence in the South Seas and Australia, I returned to Europe and did my first bit of sightseeing at Edinburgh Castle, I was shown the Crown Jewels. The keeper told many stories of how they were wom by this and that king or queen on such and such an occasion.... I had the feeling that something similar has been told to me.... And then arose before me the vision of a native village on coral soil ... and naked men and one of them showing me thin red strings and big worn-out objects, clumsy to sight and greasy to touch. With reverence he also would name them and tell their story.... Both heirlooms and vaygu'a are cherished because of the historical sentiment which surrounds them. However ugly, useless, and -- according to current standards -- valueless an object may be, if it has figured in historical scenes and passed through the hands of historic persons, and is therefore an unfailing vehicle of important sentimental associations, it cannot but be precious to us (pp. 88-89).

Sometimes this attachment even takes on metaphysical qualities. Three different antique collectors we have interviewed have explained their unaccountable attraction to and intuitive knowledge about particular antiques- as being due to some association with their past lives. In a less mystical sense, many collectors strive after an image of their own childhood through their collections. As Frances Graham, editor of Antiques & Collecting Hobbies magazine explains:

People want things from their childhood for two reasons. Either they had something as a child and have fond memories of it, or they wanted it and couldn't have it, so they're buying it for themselves now (Crispell 1988, p. 39).

Having objects from our past can provide a sense of stability in our lives (Forty 1986). Baseball-card collectors often begin their adult collections by trying to recreate a childhood collection that their mothers once discarded (Bloom 1989). There also appears to be some striving to regain love and security in these cases. The acquisition of objects desired earlier in life is evident among many car collectors who begin in mid-life by acquiring the car they had or wished they could have had as an adolescent. Like Dannefer's (1980) interviews, some car collectors we interviewed said they can predict the market price of cars by anticipating increased popularity of the "hot cars" when men now reaching 40 were in high school. Increased financial resources at this stage of life may facilitate this tendency, but the desire to reflect on earlier life at mid-life and the more general nostalgic inclination to use collections of the past to give meaning to the present may be stronger motivating factors (Belk 1990, Davis 1979).

Because the collection takes the collector into a new realm of experience (baseball cards into the world of childhood heroes, dolls into the world of fashion models, stamps into exotic lands), it allows pleasurable expression of fantasy (Gotelli 1988, Rheims 1961, Travis 1988). Through such activity, the collector can potentially experiment with a fantasy life without suffering the consequences and disappointments of enacting it (Friday 1975).

Thus, for various reasons, collections signal other times and other places. As the preceding section emphasizes, collections also mean magic. These meanings are basic to all collectors and collections. The next section explores other meanings of collections that are relevant to the motivations for collecting.

Motivations for Collecting

Acquisitiveness Legitimized as Art or Science. While many motivations have been offered to explain collecting, two basic motivations that are useful in understanding the pervasiveness of collecting are legitimization and self-extension. Legitimization concerns the willingness of society to approve or condone behavior that might otherwise be construed as acquisitiveness, possessiveness, or greed, by applying the labels "collecting" and "collectors" to certain activities and people. The process of learning what defines legitimate collecting activity begins in childhood, as Clifford (1985) explains:

Children's collections are revealing ... a boy's accumulation of miniature cars, a girl's dolls, a summer vacation "nature museum" (with labeled stones and shells, a hummingbird in a bottle), a treasured bowl filled with the bright-colored shavings of crayons. In these small rituals we observe the channeling of obsession, an exercise in how to make the world one's own, to gather things around oneself tastefully, appropriately. The inclusions in all collections reflect wider cultural rules, of rational taxonomy, of gender, of aesthetics. An excessive, sometimes even rapacious need to have is transformed into rule-governed, meaningful desire. Thus the self which must possess, but cannot have it all, learns to select, order, classify in hierarchies -- to make "good" collections (p. 238, italics added).

Thus do we begin the process of channeling our materialistic desires into "meaningful" pursuits; to become collectors rather than hoarders or misers; to produce knowledge and beauty rather than displaying selfishness.

The general social sanction for collecting over hoarding and accumulating is sometimes aided by self-deception. A collector of all manner of elephant replicas told us he expected that history will some day stand in awe of what he has accomplished in building his collection. Specialized clubs (including one for elephant replica collectors), publications, shows, and meetings help foster this feeling that collecting is legitimate. Olmsted (1987a, p. 16) detects this legitimization process in the rhetoric of gun collectors at gun shows. Fine (1987) sees a similar process operating through the "community of [common] knowledge" and boundary-establishing stories among mushroom collectors. We observed a similar set of legitimizing activities at a meeting of a midwestern "sports [baseball card] collecting club." The meeting began with a quiz asking 20 questions such as: who has the highest batting average in baseball this year, who has the most American League strikeouts, and who is leading in stolen bases. The person with the most correct answers (after a tie breaker between the two who each had 17 correct) won tickets to-an upcoming baseball game. At the same meeting, one of the several members who had attended a national baseball-card collectors show reported on what took place there. A debate on whether to spend $13,000 and first-class airfare from Seattle to bring Al Kaline (in the baseball Hall of Fame) to the local show was followed by a show-and-tell in which members appreciatively learned of each other's recent card acquisitions. Each of these activities, in addition to the large meeting turnout, helped club members feel that their collecting is justified, legitimate, and important.

The general legitimization of collections, coupled with tenuous price guides and rationalizations that collecting is a good investment, means that even a person who is not normally materialistic or self-indulgent can safely exercise these traits in the arena of collecting. Saarinen (1958, pp. 349-355) describes John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as such a man. Even though he was fond of jewels, collecting art was as close as he would allow himself to come to what he perceived as self-indulgence. He argued that since these works would eventually be willed to a museum, he could feel guilt-free in acquiring them and possessing them for a time. Meyer (1973) notes this legitimization of collecting through feelings of grandiosity:

The great collector has a sense of destiny, a feeling that he is mankind's agent in gathering and preserving what might otherwise be heedlessly dispersed. And the collector is capable of collecting anything -- one has a complete cabinet of all varieties of Coca-Cola bottles, while another displays an array of Ford Radiators (p. 187).

Whether a collection is believed to be legitimized as contributing to art or to science depends in part upon what is collected. But it also depends upon the type of collector. For instance, Rubens kept an extensive art collection in his studio, but rather than serve as a source of aesthetic inspiration, it served a more scientific or technical purpose in providing examples for his assistants (Bellony-Rewald and Peppiatt 1982). The type A collector takes the taxonomic approach thought to characterize science, while the type B collector follows aesthetic criteria thought to predominate in the world of art (Danet and Katriel 1989). In both cases, the rigorous pursuit of these criteria gives collectors confidence in the acceptability and importance of their activity. And as others have observed, underlying the acquisitiveness sanctioned in these ways is a desire for security (Belk 1982; Beaglehole 1932; Danet and Katriel 1986; Rigby and Rigby 1944; Saarinen 1958, von Holst 1967).

Collections as Extensions of Self. Another general motive for collecting, at least in an individualistic and possessive culture, is to gain an expanded or improved sense of self through gathering and controlling meaningful objects or experiences. As John Dewey (1922) puts it:

No unprejudiced observer will lightly deny the existence of an original tendency to assimilate objects and events to the self, to make them part of the "me." We may even admit that the "me" cannot exist without the "mine." The self gets solidity and form through an appropriation of things which identifies them with whatever we call myself ... .. I own therefore I am" (p. 116).

Behind the desire to control and master the objects in a collection (Belk, et a]. 1988; Bryant 1982; Danet and Katriel 1986; Rheims 1961; Stebbins 1982), it appears that there is an intention to build, restore, or alter the extended self Wexander 1979; Beaglehole 1932: Belk 1988; Danet and Katriel 1986; Moulin 1967/1987; Stillinger 1980). For this reason, as noted earlier, collections are almost always personal possessions rather than group or family possessions, at least within the hedonistic and individualistic ethic of modem consumer culture (Campbell 1987). The tendency to connect the collection to other times, places, or people is also due to the individualistic desire to extend oneself through the collection. Moulin (1967/1987) found that such an outlook was much in evidence among French art collectors:

Ultimately they identify with what they own, with the collection they have ,.created," which gives them a sense of accomplishment.... for collectors the attitude is, "I am my paintings." Identification with the painting gives them a positive sense of themselves (p. 83).

We found this attitude expressed at a comic book show where visitors could bring their comic books to be appraised by the experts who had set up displays and sales booths. The hesitant and reluctant approach that the visitors made as they neared these experts, treasures in hand, reflected their fear of a negative judgment upon them if the comics turned out to be worthless or of minor significance. 'Me feeling of dejection when such a judgment was received may not be so much a disappointment at the collection's lack of financial importance as a feeling of loss-of-self. But perhaps the most telling signal that collections are seen as extensions of self involves the involuntary loss of collections. One man (WM 40) who lost his lifelong collections of phonograph records and books in a flood felt profound despair and the sinking feeling that now his life was a failure rather than a positive contribution to the world.

Sense of self is also involved in the goal of the collector to complete the collection, for to complete the collection is symbolically to complete the self (Belk 1988, Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982). While this tendency may be stronger among type A collectors (Danet and Katriel 1989), even those employing purely aesthetic criteria are interested in having a balanced or aesthetically pleasing whole that represents them as possessing parallel traits (Storr 1983). At the same time that collectors strive to complete their collections, there is a great fear should this ever be close to happening; for if a collector is through with a collection, who is he or she then? A finished collection, like a finished life, connotes death. Collectors can calm this fear of completion by upgrading the standards for the collection, branching out into related collecting areas, or starting entirely new types of collections. These strategies show too that the collector's joy lies in the process of collecting rather than in the outcome, reflecting a focus on what Maslow (1968) termed being needs. Collecting in multiple categories is an especially common strategy to forestall completion. Thus, one of our informants (WM 40) collected stamps, coins, baseball cards, football cards, sports-team t-shirts, jerseys and hats, vintage cars, big band 78 rpm records, and antique furniture. A husband and wife " 65, WF 65) collected (between them): dolls, saltcellars, purses, glassware, plates, jewelry, spoons, watches, several types of figurines, and antique furniture. While these collectors are extreme examples of maintaining multiple collections, the tendency eventually to begin a collection of collections is widespread among collectors. Along with the other strategies noted, multiple collections can indefinitely preclude a shift to non-collector status due to the completion of a collection.

Temporal Aspects of Collecting

Over the life of a collector and a collection, consistent patterns tend to emerge. These patterns involve the birth, life, and death or immortality of the collection. While collections can be of diverse types, they tend to follow a similar life cycle.

Collections Seldom Begin Purposefully. Ironically. in light of the seriousness and purposefulness that the collection generally attains, its start is seldom preplanned. The collector rarely consciously ponders what to collect or whether to collect. The elephant replica collector, mentioned previously, began when he received an elephant figurine as a wedding gift. In fact, gifts often act as the seeds around which a collection eventually forms. Alternatively, a collector may purchase an interesting curio, perhaps on a vacation, and become interested in pursuing the interest it stimulates. It may take the acquisition of several items before the collector sees the pattern, becomes committed, and begins to say "I collect ____." Once this occurs, others may begin to give the collector gifts of items for the collection, helping to reinforce this self-definition. In order to be regarded as a true collector, however, the owner must also actively participate in acquiring additional objects for the collection.

Olmsted (1988a) asked the owner of a used marine supply store if he was a collector:

If you had asked that two months ago, I would have answered no, I am a dealer. When I buy for the shop I often buy knives. When I get a real nice one I throw it in a drawer in my bedroom dresser. One night my wife asked me when I would bring those knives to the store. I said there was only a few, I probably wouldn't bother. She said "I counted them last night. There are 75 pocket knives in that drawer." They still aren't in the shop, so I guess I am a collector now (p. 3).

Connell's (1974) The Connoisseur tells a similar story of a man slowly but inexorably drawn into avid collecting. He initially picks up an interesting piece of pottery at a curio shop in the American Southwest while there for a professional convention. Out of curiosity, he stops at a university anthropology department before leaving town to inquire if it might be a genuine Mayan piece. Learning that it probably is, he acquires several books about such pieces to read on the plane on the way home. Over the next several months he is slowly seduced -- first, by the remarkable collection of a former stranger who now welcomes him as a fellow collector and, later, through his efforts to authenticate a forgery he buys at an auction and through the ministrations of several dealers. He eventually becomes so immersed in his pursuit of Mayan pottery that he woefully neglects his family. Although collecting does not inevitably become destructive, it does commonly begin with such incidental purchases, finds. or gifts.

Tendency Toward Specialization. Like Vie Connoisseur, the collector almost always begins to concentrate on one or several specialties within a broader area of collecting. For instance one purse collector (WF 65) looks for French beaded purses, sterling silver mesh purses, and "miser's purses". The primary reason for such specialization is to set challenges that offer a realistic chance of success (completion and superiority over other collectors). Just as academics within any field tend to specialize in only a few topics within an already bounded field, so do collectors. In this way, they greatly enhance their chances of becoming authorities and having superior collections. This trend is a modern one that was not in fashion among the Renaissance collectors who assembled wunderkammern. Contemporary collectors we have encountered include a man who only wanted Mickey Mouse Replicas from the 1950s, a woman who only collected oyster plates from the Eastern U.S. (with indentations for 5 rather than 6 oysters), and a man who collects only Model A Ford Roadsters. Similarly, Olmsted (1987b) found that stamp collectors were most likely to switch from collecting stamps of the world to collecting only a few countries or specific issues, and Stenross (1987) found that gun collectors are likely to specialize by time period, country of production, and type of gun.

Unlike the decision to start collecting, the decision to specialize in a particular subarea is made more deliberately. An art collector we interviewed decided to specialize in netsukes and Japanese block prints, partly because he spent time in Japan when in the military and later lived there for three years as an attorney. A collector of British Army ceramic medals was pursuing the grail of a Royal Order of the Garter medal ("like the one Winston Churchill was buried with"). And a comic book collector was concentrating on issues of Swamp Thing after number 20, when a writer he admires took over the scripts. In each of these cases of specialization, there was a more elaborated cognitive rationale than had been formulated to explain the initial interest in the general area of the collection. At a more societal level of analysis, undoubtedly structural variables such as family background and education also play a role in such choices (cf., DiMaggio 1987), but we think the incidental start of collections cuts across these structural variables.

Collection as Cumulative Experience. A collected object becomes a reminder of the story of its acquisition. The object is, thus, a cue for recalling and retelling this story (e.g., Benjamin 1955). The images that a collection conjures up may therefore be a part of the collector's personal history of times and places. Stewart (1984, p. 151) calls these associations "souvenirs" (because of their metonymic authentication of the past) and distinguishes them from collections (which she contends involve only a metaphoric derivation of authenticity from the past). However, we consider personal history to be an inescapable part of collections. "it is as if," says Abbas (1988), "the experience of possession could be transformed into the possession of experience" (p. 230).

A collection, therefore, is more than just a small museum of the objects collected. It is also the major museum of the life of the collector qua collector. The term "museum" is literally appropriate for more than half a dozen of our informants who have transformed their collections into public museums during their lifetimes. Another several dozen informants have had their collections temporarily enshrined in other exhibitions open to the public or have opened their homes to interested viewers at certain times of the year. And, in several cases, the collectors have received mass media attention to their collections. In each case, we find that these collectors share a pride in showing their particular proof of a life well-spent. Since those who patronize these displays are self-selected and generally find them interesting, the collector's feelings of accomplishment tend to be reinforced by the comments of these visitors. While some people may write autobiographies or consolidate their life experiences into photograph albums, for the collector, the collection is autobiography. It is both reified experience and the demonstration of an accomplishment. It is a monument to the self.

The Quest for Immortality. If the collection is an autobiography and a monument, it is not surprising that collectors are concerned with the fate that will befall their collections after they die. As Rigby and Rigby (1944) observe:

because the collector has identified his creation so closely with himself (a very strengthening bond for some men), he sometimes feels that, like a strong boat, it will bear him through the centuries after his body has gone to the earth again (p. 47).

It is not necessarily the case that the collector wants the collection to perpetuate his or her identity-, there may also be a concern for the immortality of the collection itself The feeling is often one of seeking a way that the entity of the collection can be preserved and cared for a caring heir is sought who will appreciate the collection.

Because suitable heirs in the immediate family are often hard to find (for reasons we shall later explore), an heir is frequently sought among grandchildren. Thus, the elephant replica collector hopes his two-year-old granddaughter will take over his collection and was preparing her by reading her elephant stories and giving her elephant gifts. A baseball-card collector had already willed his collection to his two-year-old grandson. A stamp collector is giving his grandchildren stamp books in hopes that one will "get the bug" and take over his collection.

Another way in which collectors attempt to gain immortality is by convincing a museum to preserve their collections. Behrman (1952) notes of Duveen's sales to wealthy collectors, "he was selling immortality. Since most of his proteges were aging men, the task of making them yearn for immortality was not hard" (p. 102). Their immortality was assured by buying high-quality pieces that museums would be anxious to accept. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult as the prices of fine art skyrocket and museums increasingly refuse gifts that will limit their flexibility in the future. When no heir and no museum acceptance is likely for the collection, the collector can only hope that the collection will go to "a good home." As Lord Kenyon contemplated the fate of his autograph collection, he reflected:

No one will ever be as fond of my pets as I have been.... I look upon them almost as one might upon the children whom he must leave behind.... None the less dear to me are these relics of the leaders of life and of literature. Some one will preserve them, and perhaps fondle them as I have done. I trust that they may come under the protecting care of a true collector, a real antiquary -- no mere bargain-hunter, no 'snapper up of unconsidered trifles,'but one endowed with the capacity to appreciate whatsoever things are worthy of the affection of the lover of letters and of history (Joline 1902, pp. 306-307).

In more contemporary times, another way for a collector to achieve immortality is to have their collection featured in a publication like Architectural Digest or Connoisseur. For example, a Connoisseur article featuring the collections of His Serene Highness Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, quotes the self-congratulatory Prince as saying "I especially love the jewels of Marie Antoinette," 'We have 480 clocks, 300 of which are prize pieces," "I can't begin to figure out how much we've got," and 'What I have would fill the Metropolitan Museum" (Dradgadze 1988). The title of another article laments, 'The Warhol Collection: Why Selling it is a Shame" (Kaylan 1988). And thus, the life cycle of the collector is completed: from a typically accidental start, through specialization and the accumulation of experience, to a final hope that the collector or at least the collection will achieve some measure of immortality.


Collectors and Collections

A critical question about collecting concerns its desirability. While we have noted that collecting is generally a socially sanctioned form of acquisitiveness and possessiveness, we have not considered what beneficial and harmful effects collecting has on the individual who practices it and the society which sanctions it. We will first consider positive and negative aspects of collecting for the individual and then consider implications of collecting at the societal level.

Olmsted (1988a) contends that collecting is a form of deviance that largely escapes criticism because it is more prevalent among the upper than the lower classes of society. Nevertheless, most fictional portrayals of collecting depict collectors in negative ways, ranging from odd to pathological, that suggest opprobrium (e.g., Balzac 1848/1968; Chatwin 1989; Connell 1974; Dreiser 1925; Flaubert 1880/1954: Fowles 1963; Galsworthy 1906/1967: Williams 1945/1984). Based on our interviews with collectors, we detect both positive and negative aspects within collecting.

Positive Aspects for the Individual

Collecting and Meaning. While we have thus far presented collecting primarily as a consumption activity, it is also possible to consider it as a form of production. The production of a collection is a creative act that brings something new into existence: the entity of the collection of particular things selectively assembled. Depending on the type of collection and collector, the result of this assemblage may be the production of knowledge and/or beauty. From the perspective of the collector, these productions may be experienced as further producing enlightenment, learning, aesthetic joy, or feelings of mastery, meaningfulness, and accomplishment (Torgovnick 1990). In this sense, collecting (especially in an achievement-oriented society -- McClelland 1971) may provide a purpose in life and a degree of satisfaction that, when the collector is employed, exceeds that present on the job (Ackerman 1990). On a less grand scale, collecting focuses activity, or as some collectors say, "It keeps me busy' (Soroka 1988; Travis 1988).

In addition to creativity, a second source of meaning derived from collecting is that it can be a form of play. It can be serious instructive play, joyful releasing play, or passionate escapist play. In the latter cases, especially, collecting may provide sources of satisfaction not often available in the workplace, where play is often frowned upon. It may offer the adult a chance to engage in a generally approved behavior that would other-wise be disparaged as childish and miniature. Given the presumed human need for play, this opportunity may be quite healthy:

There is nothing rational about collecting, but this personal expression is reassuring -- it shows that there are still among us, in this doggedly materialistic society, many poets and dreamers, prepared to indulge their fantasies (Caxton Publishing 1974, p. 185).

As with games and many other forms of play, collecting is a structured rule-governed activity. There are rules to be learned in any collecting area, and participation in these shared rules helps the collector feel justified, secure, and appropriate in the pursuit of the collection. Further, one's ability to follow rules provides an all-important sense of mastery or competence (White 1959). This play-related aspect of mastery hinges on the ability to achieve closure or order and serves as one key source of motivation for collecting behavior (Danet and Katriel 1989).

Thus, a third source of meaning in collecting involves wresting personalized control from an alienated marketplace. Miller (1988) finds that residents in a council housing estate have created inalienable culture from alienable goods through the personalized redecoration of their rented kitchens:

the collector is engaged exactly in a struggle against universal commodification. His possession of objects strips things of their commodity character (p. 2/20).

By reassembling the things of the world in a newly meaningful way, the collector decommoditizes and sacralizes consumer goods in a manner that can transcend the standard package of commodities in a consumer culture.

Finally, a fourth source of meaning in collecting concerns the extent to which collections permit their owners to achieve a sense of uniqueness. Fromkin and Snyder (1980; Snyder and Fromkin 1980) have documented the American need for uniqueness. Collecting can provide a basis for identity formation (Erikson 1959) for many collectors, allowing them to feel more fully individuated (Jung 1921/1971) and different from others. The collection is tangible evidence that the collector is unique (Mine 1988). This is because, almost by definition, each collection tends to be unique, the one-ofa-kind creation of its owner. Thus, collections confer a heightened sense of individuality, autonomy, and specialness upon those who possess them. Along these lines, Rigby and Rigby (1944) repeat the collecting story about an Englishman who pays a fortune for the only known duplicate of a rare book in his collection and then triumphantly throws it into the tire so that he can enjoy the satisfaction of owning the only extant copy.

Collecting Creates Comrades and Sustains Social Ties. A second set of individual benefits that may result from collecting is the establishment and maintenance of a social network comprised of fellow collectors as well as dealers and other experts. Just as their common interest in a sports team may bring together disparate fans in a common cause, so does collecting. Personal friendships may result, especially among more avid collectors who regularly attend auctions, shows, club meetings, and other gatherings. In fact, one large scale survey of collectors attending an auction found that friendship was the primary reason given for collecting (Soroka 1988). Although it is the exception rather than the rule, we find that sometimes those brought together through collecting are members of the same family -- husband with wife or children with parents. When this is the case, collecting not only creates new social networks but integrates existing ones (Parsons 1951).

A collection may also serve to connect the collector to others by potentiating more appropriate gift-giving, since gift-givers are able to clearly identify the collector's interests (Gotelli 1988). However, as noted previously, such gifts are often perceived by collectors as robbing them of the joys of participating in the process of search and the application of personal taste and knowledge.

Collecting may also be an attempt to fill the void left by the loss of loved ones. Freud was not the only collector who started collecting after the death of a same-sex parent. We have found this among several other collectors as well. "Empty nest" households are also prone to start or increase collecting activity (Christ 1965). In such cases it appears that the objects collected may be acting as a surrogate family for the collector. Emic references to these objects as part of the family are not uncommon among our informants. In the same way that pets may sometimes be regarded as part of the family, so may the objects collected (Baekeland 1981) -- with pets themselves sometimes being part of such collections. Freud's good morning greeting to a Chinese statue is one example of this personification and anthropomorphism.

Collecting Captures Cherished Memories. Besides its role in social bonding, collecting may permit an individual to capture and preserve certain cherished memories of past experiences and precious human relationships with people and places which are now distant in time and space, if they remain at all. In some cases, this sort of nostalgic meaning may help to compensate to some extent for the loss of a loved one or partially to assuage an otherwise unbearable sorrow. Certainly, family photo albums play this role for many of us.

A touching evocation of this aspect of collecting appears in the recent movie written by Stu Silver (1987) called "Throw Momma from the Train," in which Owen (Danny DeVito) tries to persuade Larry (Billy Crystal) to murder his unbearably harridan-like mother (Anne Ramsey). The resulting black comedy (heavy with satiric overtones that parody Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train") eventually takes Larry to Owen's house, where he meets the shrew herself and where Owen shows Larry his prized collection of coins.

Owen: You want to see my coin collection?

Larry: No!

O: I collect coins. I got a dandy collection.

L: I don't want to see it. Owen.

O: But it's my collection.

L: I don't care. Look. Owen; I'm just not in the mood. OK?

O: [Removing a box from under the floor boards, lying on his belly like a small child at play, and beginning to extract the coins from their envelopes] I never showed it to anyone before.

L: [Impatiently] All right, I'll look at it.

O: No. it's OK

L: Show me the collection.

O: No, you don't mean it.

L: [With exasperation] Show me the damned coins!

O: [Happily] All right. This is a nickel. And this one, also, is a nickel. And here's a quarter. And another quarter. And a penny. See? Nickel, nickel, quarter, quarter, penny.... And here is another nickel.

L: [Bewildered] Why do you have them?

O: What do you mean?

L: Well, the purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something, Owen.

O: Oh, but they are. This one, here, I got in change when my Dad took me to see Peter, Paul, and Mary. And this one I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the Circus. My Daddy let me keep the change. He always let me keep the change. Uh, this one is myfavorite. This is Martin and Lewis at the Hollywood Palladium. Look at that. See the way it shines, that little eagle? I loved my Dad a lot.

L: [Realizing ... I So this whole collection is, uh .... ?

O: Change my Daddy let me keep.

L: [Tenderly] What was his name?

O: Ned. He used to call me his "Little Ned." That's why Momma named me "Owen." I really miss him.

L: [Gently] That's a real nice collection, Owen.

O: Thank you, Larry.

The economy with which the creators of "Throw Mama from the Train" have evoked the collecting spirit in this scene strikes us as a masterpiece of compactness. The relevant moral is articulated by Larry: "The purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something.... That's a real nice collection. Owen." In sum, the point that should not be missed -- in the present chapter as well as in the scene with Larry and Owen -- is that collections are one type of consumption that can draw forth powerful feelings of tremendous significance (in this case, loving memory of a lost father). Collecting is a consumption experience that engenders and reflects deep and profound meanings in people's lives.

Collecting Evokes Deep Emotional Involvement. As this episode from the movie clearly illustrates, collections tend to be strongly cathected as vehicles for arousing, expressing, and even embodying powerful emotions and deep involvement. Danet and Katriel (1989) point out that "collectors of all ages share [this intense emotional involvement" (p. 1). Bloch and his colleagues have written insightfully about related phenomena, which they call "product" as opposed to "purchase" involvement:

enduring involvement with a product derives from the product's relatedness to a consumer's needs, values, or self-concept.... At very high levels, enduring involvement may be termed product enthusiasm and is characteristic of product enthusiasts such as car buffs, wine connoisseurs, or avid video gainers. Product enthusiasm entails a strong, abiding, hobby-like interest in the product class in question which transcends the temporary purchase process arousal investigated in most involvement research (Bloch and Bruce 1984, p. 197).

The transcendent qualities of collecting have been characterized earlier in this chapter as magical or sacred. When this sacredness reaches the highest level, the accompanying emotion is that of ecstasy. We count this kind of emotional commitment as a social advantage. It seems to encourage and to channel the expression of undeniably powerful feelings that touch the core of the human condition.

Negative Aspects for the Individual

The advantages just discussed all serve to encourage people to participate in collecting. However, collecting also has a number of disadvantages. Interestingly, many of these are closely connected to the advantages. That is, the same phenomena that produce positive consequences for the collector can also produce negative consequences in people's lives. Although collecting provides a basis for identity formation, it may simultaneously limit Identity development to one arena. That is, it may encourage depth at the expense of breadth. While collecting provides tangible social expression of a facet of the self, it often houses that identity in tangible objects that can be lost, damaged, or destroyed. In tangibilizing the self, the collector runs the risk that this tangible evidence will be destroyed (Jones 1986). Although gift-givers may welcome others' collections because they provide a ready guideline for deciding what to give, this encourages a shallow understanding of the collector by these givers. They may see the collector in terms of what he or she has, rather than who he or she is. Such gift-giving commoditizes the identity of the collector, and denies him or her the pleasures associated with hunting for appropriate additions to the collection. it misunderstands the pleasure of collecting as resulting from having rather than doing.

In focusing talents and energies on the collection, the collector restricts his or her range of experience and the people with whom he or she interacts. For many, collecting means lessened contact with other people because increasingly the focus of attention is narrowed to the objects of the collection (Travis 1988). Collecting for such people begins to reflect an obsessive interest in perfection (Rheims 1961; Woodman 1982). Focusing attention so totally on a collection may, however, be seen as trivial by others K, Reid 1988). Collections which permit some fantasy enactment can illuminate the disappointing ways that reality fails to match fantasies. And in the hunt for additions to a collection, limited funds may result in a feeling of frustration and incompetence.

Addictive Aspects of Collecting. In examining literary and social science treatments of collecting, and in reviewing the emic constructs captured in our fieldnotes, it is apparent that collecting is a highly cathected activity for many consumers. Some regard it as a passion, others as a disease. it is frequently described as a pleasurable activity that can have some unpleasant consequences. In its pleasurable aspect, collecting embodies the characteristics of flow as described by Csikszentrnihalyi (1975) and reported by Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989). It is an optimal experience (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1988) that is psychologically integrating and socially beneficial. In its darker aspect, collecting is an activity over which many consumers fear losing control. In Chatwin's (1989) chilling phrase, the collection can hold the collector prisoner. Whether likened to idolatry or illness, collectors acknowledge the very real possibility that collecting can become additive. Danet and Katriel (1990) suggest that the seemingly self-deprecating admission of addiction to one's collection can be a way of disclaiming responsibility for uninhibited collecting. At the same time they recognize that "serious" collectors relish their ability to freely express passion in their collecting activity. What apparently is being negotiated in the area between passion and addiction is the definition of whether the collector controls or is controlled by the activity of collecting.

We use the metaphor of addiction in full awareness of the highly charged socio-clinical political arena in which the term exists. Peele (1985, p. xii) notes that the idea of addiction has always expressed central cultural conceptions about motivation and behavior." This is especially true when the focus of the addiction itself embodies such quintessentially central cultural preoccupations -- work and play, production and consumption, mastery and control -- as does collecting. Here the line between a prosocial, life-enhancing "positive addiction" (Glasser 1976) and a more conventionally construed dysfunctional addiction is much more difficult to draw. Certainly, the tendency to pursue an altered state of consciousness of the kind produced by any ritual activity, whether behaviorally via collecting, or pharmacologically via chemical use, is a cross-cultural universal. Some theorists have elevated (or reduced) the tendency to the level of a drive (Seigel 1989). The means by which the tendency is implemented are valued differentially across time and space. That these means are subject to abuse is widely recognized. Thus, what follows is a culturally constructed account of some of the difficulties encountered by collectors who have become addicted to collecting.

Although addictive collecting is not present among all collectors, there is compelling evidence of its pervasiveness in the observations of others (Rheims 1961), self-reports in surveys (Travis 1988), and the emic self-labels used by our informants (e.g., "magazineaholic". "getting a Mickey (Mouse) fix", "print Junkie"). In the words of one of Danet and Katriel's (1990) informants, "Its a disease." A colleague of Freud reported that he described his collecting passion as "an addiction second in intensity only to his nicotine addiction" (Gay 1976, p. 18). Before pursuing this diagnosis, we must define what we mean by addiction, and how it is evidenced.

Addiction Defined. Most commonly, addiction implies a substance upon which a person is physiologically, as well as psychologically, dependent, such as alcohol or cocaine. However, according to some authors, it is possible to be addicted to behaviors as well as substances (Schaef 1987). This is a non- physiological type of addiction. Although this is a position not accepted by many researchers, there is no consensus definition of addiction (cf. Jenike 1056; King 1981; Lang 1983; Marlatt, Baer, Donovan, and Kivlahan 1988; Money 1980; Nathan 1980; Salzman 1980; Smith 1986; Sutker and Allain 1988; Winston 1980; Yates, Leebey, and Shisslak 1983). In our analysis we employ a broad functional definition that is best formulated by Peele (1975):

An addiction exists when a person's attachment to a sensation, an object, or another person is such as to lessen his [sic) appreciation of and ability to deal with other things in his environment, or in himself, so that he has become increasingly dependent on that experience as his only source of gratification.

Addiction to a behavior can then be assessed by looking at the consequences of attachment to this behavior as a source of gratification. A person might be addicted to a love relationship (Peele 1975), shopping (O'Guinn and Faber 1989), television viewing (Smith 1986), working, running (Yates, Leebey, and Shisslak 1983), eating, or dieting (Bruch 1968, Spignesi 1983). That is, even activities which are included in a normal, healthy lifestyle for most people can become the focus of addictive tendencies for others who become dependent on this behavior as their primary source of gratification. 'Me question then becomes whether the clinically addictive behavior is seen as undesirable enough to be culturally labeled as an addiction (Walker and Lidz 1983).

Addictions that escape society's condemnation may be evidenced by noting the person's limited interaction with the environment. Addicts exhibit an intense focus of behavior in a single direction, performing the same behavior repeatedly to fill their time (Travis 1988). Crucial to the addiction pattern in many definitions is a lack of satiety with an increasing rather than decreasing desire to engage in this behavior. In other words, addicts do not adhere to the law of diminishing marginal returns, but rather seek ritualistic and repeated use of a behavior pattern for gratification (Peele 1975). The ritual provides a sameness of stimulation, rather than variety and growth. Addiction gives into the human tendency to become fixated on something in a way that resists both change and growth (de Dampierre 1987).

A widespread clinical perspective on addiction places the genesis of the addictive cycle in feelings of low self-esteem and a sense that the world is unpredictable, which produce anxiety in the individual. The person attempts to control these feelings of anxiety and unpredictability by using the addictive pattern of behavior to block experience of the variable world. By contrast, the predictable routine and pattern of the addiction feels comforting and reassuring. However, the addicted individual may eventually experience problems (e.g., physical, familial, financial) resulting from this behavior. These problems produce feelings of lower self-esteem and gender anxiety. Because the person continually reverts to the addiction to block these feelings, clinicians refer to this as the addictive cycle. This cycle is extremely difficult to break. Even recovering addicts may find that a craving for the addictive substance or process can be induced visually, as with cocaine addicts who sometimes experience such cravings merely by seeing drug paraphernalia or driving by the place where they used to buy drugs (Barnes 1988).

It is equally important to define what addiction is not. Addiction is not merely absorption in a behavioral process which is used to intensify (rather than block or avoid) novelty and stimulation (de Dampierre 1987). This is often a difficult assessment for a researcher to make, but certainly an important one. It is also useful to note that addiction is not the same as a habit, which may be performed to enable the conduct of other aspects of life. Habitual behavior patterns may help the person better cope with the rest of life, while addictions do not. Similarly, something cannot be labeled an addiction merely because it is time-consuming; what is crucial is whether for the time spent, one experiences an enhanced and abiding feeling of mastery and self-esteem. Failing this, the time-consuming habit becomes a limitation or restriction and, ultimately, a self-defeating confinement.

There are other concepts used in the literature on addiction that are useful in understanding collecting addictions. The term "cross-addiction" is used to refer to the tendency of a person who is addicted to one substance to substitute other substances in a generalized pattern of addiction. This perspective sees addiction as a pattern residing primarily in the person, not in the interaction of the person with a particular environment or a particular substance. The term "co-dependency" is used to refer to the tendency for entire families to develop behaviors that foster the continuance of the addict's addictive cycle. That is, the structure and pattern of life in a particular family may actually perpetuate one family member's addiction, despite the fact that the nonaddicted family members find the addiction troubling. The addictive pattern of one family member structures family expectations about what can be expected of the addict. As a way of handling their own anxieties about their worth and the predictability of the world, other family members may become dependent on the predictability of the addicted family member's addictive behavior. The addiction allows various family members to play either the role of the patient, the helpful care-giver, or the wronged party. Co-dependents are addicted to someone else's being the one with "the problem" (Schaef 1987). Continuance of the addiction enables other family members to continue relationship patterns to which they have grown accustomed, allowing them to remain the same rather than challenging them to change. With these definitions and terminology in mind, we can now begin to assess the addictive patterns of behavior present in collecting.

Addiction in Collecting. Although almost any behavior can become addictive, the pattern of behavior characteristic of collectors makes it especially prone to addiction. Most collectors interviewed mentioned the search for additions to a collection as the central activity of their collecting behavior, Rather than spend time examining or organizing items that are already in the collection, collectors prefer to search or shop for additions to the collection. Search behavior may be compulsively and ritualistically enacted (cf., Reid 1988). Acquiring rather than possessing provides the temporary fix for the addict. A sense of longing and desire (Johnson 1983; Campbell 1987) -- a feeling that something is missing in life -- is temporarily met by adding to the collection. But this is a temporary fix, a staving off of withdrawal, followed by a feeling of emptiness and anxiety that is addressed by searching for more. Shopping and searching are the ritualized means by which the collector obtains a sense of competence and mastery in life. These activities are the bittersweet consequences of experiencing longing in the arena of the marketplace.

Emic descriptions of shopping for additions to a collection highlight this ritual aspect of search behavior. It is patterned, repetitive, and carries with it particular liturgical rules concerning appropriate sequence. For example, one Barbie doll collector (GWM 35) who spends considerable time at doll shows explained particular rules that guided his doll buying pattern, such as having the dealer completely undress then redress the doll to allow him to see if any part of the body is damaged. Only when carried out in this ritualized way does the addict feel "right". Objects found in the search-are often seen as having irresistible power over the person, as with a collector of antique bronzes (WF 45) who recounted, "I just had to have it. It had to be mine."

By placing the source of such power outside of themselves, addicts reinforce their belief that it is impossible for them to resist the temptation (Sandor 1987). They are possessed by the collection as much as they possess it. Through believing that this mysterious power is beyond them, they begin to construct a first-order lie -- a lie to the self -- that negates the possibility of taking control of the addictive behavior pattern (Schaef 1987).

But searching for additions to a collection, although of central importance, is not the only addictive focus for collectors. Compulsive attention to and control over the objects in the collection provides an additional source of feelings of control and mastery (Danet and Katriel 1988, 1990) -important feelings to an addict (Kisly 1987). For example, one interpretation of the propensity of collectors to will their collections to museums is that, by doing so, they retain a certain sense of control of the collection by insuring that it will not fall into the hands of another collector (Rheims 1961).

Collecting activity allows a collector to avoid other aspects of life. It is a form of withdrawal from other aspects of life that is nevertheless often positively sanctioned, as evidenced by media attention featuring collectors as heros. Rather than widening our scope, an addiction narrows and deepens it (Kisly 1987). This is an observation that many collectors object to; they counter that through their collections they have met many interesting people and have learned many things. For some, this may be correct, but for others the strength of this objection may be a first-order lie to themselves, as is commonly noted among addicts (Schaef 1987). On the whole, collecting, particularly for the addict, involves the individual in a repetitive, predictable pattern of behavior which can provide a form of solace for someone who is troubled by living in an unpredictable world. 'Ibis is acknowledged indirectly by the more than 2/3 of a sample of 1200 collectors who agreed that the label of addict was appropriate to describe their involvement in collecting (Travis 1988).

Some collectors exhibit cross-addictions to other substances and processes. Several informants are especially notable in this regard. One couple (WM 65/WF 65) is so addicted to collecting that they collect flow blue plates, beaded purses, silver spoons, open salt dishes (both glass and crystal), first-day-of-issue Franklin Mint coins, stamps, deer replicas, Cupid Awake and Cupid Asleep pictures, mother of pearl opera glasses, leather bound books by James Whitcomb Riley, numerous kinds of figurines of women, and perfume bottles, to mention just a few of their collections. Another man (WM 45), a collector of Mickey Mouse memorabilia, had previously been addicted to heroin as well as alcohol. He quit both of these substance addictions, but admitted that he later became psychologically addicted to collecting the Mickey toys. Thus, cross-addictions to other behaviors as well as other substances are evident in some people who are addicted to collecting.

A phenomenon of considerable interest in the mental health literature in the last few years has been the recognition that children of addicts may often manifest addictions of their own as adults. Having grown up in families where co-dependency on the addiction of another family member was present, they may later in life become the addict in their own families. We often found inter-generational transfer (both downward and upward-- Soroka 1988) of collecting, but generally in a different specialty area. The son (WM 35) of a collector of porcelain dolls grew up to become a Barbie doll collector. The collectors of multiple types of items mentioned previously started one son collecting open salt dishes, and began to work with a granddaughter on a stamp collection. A father who collects baseball cards (WM 35) reported that he is teaching his children some important values by helping them become baseball card collectors. He believes this is a way for his son and daughter to learn to take care of things. He credits his own maternal grandfather with instilling certain values in him through the baseball games they watched together -- standing in the living room with their hands over their hearts when the national anthem was played at the beginning of the games. We also found evidence of a complex web of addictive co-dependency among family members who may not be addicted themselves. Collecting, while probably due more to social enculturation (nurture) than to genetic determination (nature), does appear to run in families (Olmstead 1988; Rheims 1961).

But unlike most other areas where addictions are formed, collecting is culturally sanctioned, rather than disapproved or scorned as a character flaw. Collecting represents immersion in acquisitiveness, individualism, competitiveness, and display of personal accomplishments through material objects -- all central values in American culture. By contrast, collecting does not represent asceticism, collectivism, cooperation, or introspective learning and spiritual growth. Instead the collector says, through the collection, "See what I have, and you don't." Rather than being viewed as unhealthy, addiction to collecting is regarded positively in our consumer culture and is often treated as an achievement to be admired (cf., Owen 1988). In its core assumption of exclusive possession, collecting celebrates private property as a societal value. Further tribute is paid to this addiction by the enshrinement (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989) of collections in museums, which often devote as much attention to the collectors as to the artists or creators of the collected item (Berger 1972). One writer has called museums the "churches of collectors" (Rheims 1961), implying the utmost, regard given to this activity in contemporary Western culture. Our field data on collecting support the notion that contemporary U.S. culture is an Addictive System (Schaef 1987) in its encouragement of individual addictions to collecting behavior.

Rivalry with Spouses and Children. While collections can sometimes create surrogate companionship through personification and anthropomorphism, this same tendency can also alienate living members of the family. We were at first perplexed by the tendency of children and spouses to deny the collector's fervent wish that they adopt and care for the collection when the collector grows old or dies. The explanation for this puzzle, we believe, is that the collection is regarded by these children and spouses as a rival. It has occupied a considerable portion of their loved one's time and attention and therefore is now resented for having alienated the collector's affections from them. It has become an enemy -- a target for derogation rather than an object of reverence.

Here, it is instructive to further consider Sigmund Freud's collection. Two dominant themes in the collection, not surprisingly, are sex and death (Ransohoff 1975; Spector 1975). We have previously noted Freud's tendency to fondle objects from his collection while talking to patients and his observation that collecting represents a libidinal transference. He also expressed a wish to be buried with his antiquities, and his ashes were accordingly interred in one of his Egyptian urns (Spector 1975). But it is the sexual theme in collecting that makes collections potential rivals for a loved one's affections. Thus, Olmsted (1988a) suggests that collections may be an increasing cause of divorces. As Baekeland (1981) notes of his art-collector patients:

To a man. they report that they usually know immediately whether or not a piece really appeals to them and whether they want to possess it. They often compare their feeling of longing for it to sexual desire. This suggests that art objects are confused in the unconscious with ordinary sexual objects, an idea that gets some confirmation from the fact that many collectors like to fondle or stroke the objects they own or to look at them over and over from every angle.... The only other context in which looking, fondling and caressing loom so large is sexual foreplay (p. 51).

In this connection, we are reminded that Freud (who so easily saw beneath the surface of things) was either unable or unwilling to apply his own theoretical perspectives on sex, death, and anal retentiveness to collecting activity in general or to his own fetishisms in particular (Fenichel 1954; Merminger 1942).

Post-Mortem Distribution Problems. As noted in the preceding section, one major problem in bequeathing collections is finding willing heirs (McCracken 1988a). While commercial dealers and museums compete with each other and with individual heirs in a climate of market growth for some collectibles (Nason 1987), there is often no accounting for any one particular collector's taste. What is supremely important to the avid collector is often unimportant to most others. Other problems are created in alternative forms of disposition. Because collections represent the distilled effort of the collector, they may also come to represent the distilled essence of the collector. Reluctant heirs may therefore feel ambivalent about possessing, selling, or, worse, junking the collection. In anticipation of this problem, collectors may seek to make arrangements for the disposition of their collections or even to dispose of them themselves in preparation for death. In some extreme instances, collectors want their collections buried with them or destroyed at their deaths (Baekeland 1981; Rigby and Rigby 1944). Hence, ironically, toward the end of the collector's life the collection can shift from being a source of great satisfaction to being a burdensome problem.

Sociocultural Importance of Collecting

Apart from individual benefits and problems of collecting, why do contemporary western societies seem to approve of collecting? What benefits and problems does collecting create at a societal level? Clearly, collecting create - s problems to the extent that it channels labor, love, and money into activities not generally considered to be productive. Similarly, the collecting passion has occasionally led to robbery, pillage, murder, colonialistic exploitation of Third World cultures, and in some cases, the wholesale destruction of indigenous cultures (e.g., Chase, Chase, and Topsey 1988; Clifford 1988; Cole 1985, Nichols, Klesert, and Anyon 1989). To the extent that the collection is regarded as a rival for the collector's affections, it weakens the family as a social institution. Unless Olmsted (1988a) is correct that collecting is positively sanctioned because it is more prevalent among the upper than the lower classes, for societies to tolerate and generally sanction collecting, there must be some benefits to counter these formidable problems which threaten the social order.

A material argument, often given by collectors themselves, is that the artistic and scientific legacy of collections benefits current and future generations. However, this argument seems to be more of a rationalization than an explanation for the societal acceptance of collecting, particularly in light of the content of many collections (e.g., beer cans, Franklin Mint figurines, elephant replicas) and the problems of disposition mentioned earlier. One alternative reason that the possessiveness involved in collecting may be sanctioned is that, like home ownership, ownership of an extensive collection may create responsible law-abiding citizens with a stake in the stability of the nation and community. Competitive rivalry between collectors, like many sports competitions, also serves as a channeled release of aggressions and a visible reinforcement of what remains of the Protestant work ethic. Even though the achievement does little to increase national productivity, the intense individualistic competition engendered by collecting symbolically endorses the social Darwinism of capitalism. Collecting may stabilize and solidify class boundaries by allowing successful competition within narrow collecting categories that members of a social class have the money. support, and knowledge to pursue. In this way, competition is deflected laterally rather than vertically in the class structure. Further, the acquisitiveness involved in collecting both symbolically and materially supports a profit-based capitalist system dependent on escalating consumer desires. In fact, collecting epitomizes and reifies consumer desire for ever more and better material things. Just as consumers learn to enact the economic myth of insatiable needs, collectors learn to push the horizons and boundaries of their collections past the possibility of completion. Collecting codifies the current credo that the one who dies with most toys wins. Even in toy collecting, however, this is usually modified to "most and best." Increasingly, selectivity based either on symbolic or exchange value rather than mere quantity, may be the guiding principle behind contemporary collecting (Landis 1990a). Whether this potentially elitist trend becomes a brake to the otherwise democratic trend in remains to be seen.

Thus, although collecting creates some social problems, it also enacts the values that provide impetus and momentum to consumer culture. Appetitive behaviors such as collecting are the constituting essence of consumer culture and of the identities forged in its crucible. Collecting is at once the process by which such a culture evolves and the diagnostic product of the culture itself. It permits the formation both of a "proper" (that is, "rule -governed") relation of people with objects and a "deviant" (whether "idolatry" or "erotic fixation") one as well (Clifford 1988, p. 219). Whether it aspires to aesthetic redemption (Clifford 1988) or decays to personal fetishism (Stewart 1984). collecting shapes and reflects the identity of the culture and the individual. In McCracken's (1988b, p. 133) view, collecting is a bridge to displaced meaning: the elusive nature of collectibles allows collectors to invest them with idealized values realizable in their pursuit. Collecting is a vehicle by which authentic experience is sought. The nature of authenticity is negotiated through collection.

Authenticity may take a number of forms. Collectors may harness and tame the cultural imperatives of acquisition, ownership, and display -- canalizing these forces in a way that minimizes the social consequences of their abuse and maximizes the individual's sense of competence and mastery. Here, both society and individuality are affirmed; desire is transmuted to everyone's gain. To the extent that nostalgia is encouraged by collection, authenticity assumes the form of a selectively recollected and reconstituted past. For those susceptible to nostalgia, collecting may be both a vehicle of alienation and salvation from contemporary culture. Whether such consciousness is viewed as "false" or "expanded", the collector is able to access a cultural vision that is personally meaningful. At any rate, the ritual or ceremonial celebration of authentic U.S. experience -- the probing of the tension between work and play, production and consumption, order and disorder, spurious and genuine -- is a principal sociocultural function of collecting.

As a reaction against cultural imperatives, authentic experience may be intimately entwined with counterculture. It may also be embodied in the recontextualizing of a stigmatized past, which may provoke a number of ethical concerns. Collectors of such "uneasy pieces" (Landis 1990b) as Nazi war memorabilia or racist black Americana on the order of Little Black Sambo cookie jars preserve a haunting heritage that could be rekindled as easily as reviled. When blacks collect these racist memorabilia, the intent is either to preclude forgetting the horrors of racism (as with Jewish preservation of the memory of the Holocaust), or to appropriate these symbols and thereby to rob them of their power through another sort of recontextualization (Adler 1988).

Collecting resists the forces of homogenization in a commoditized -world. Stewart (1984) regards collecting as the total aestheticization of use-value. Pushed to the limits of commodity fetishism, collecting is the eroticization of use-value. It is a way of reenchanting the world, of reanimating our relationship with objects. It is a form of play that may permit a relearning or realigning of priorities in the world of goods.


If collecting began in prehistory, it shows no signs of abating in our hyperindustrial post-modern era. If a certain abundance and surplus is necessary to support the non-utilitarian use of things in collections, then only severe economic hardship or a significant reorientation of consumer culture could curtail collecting. Short term hardships, such as changes in laws eliminating tax breaks for donations to museums, may actually accelerate the pace of collecting, as collectors auction their wares, and as museums sell portions of their collections to finance new acquisitions (Stout, 1990). Collecting is a paramount feature of consumer behavior that deserves far more attention than it has received. Quite conceivably, the study of collecting could become the cornerstone upon which an ecology of artifacts (Krippendorff 1989), essential to understanding the nature of contemporary consumer culture, is ultimately founded. The mythology governing such an ecology is discernable in microcosm in the collector's world. Collecting represents acquisitiveness and possessiveness, freed from lingering guilt and imbued instead with a noble sense of purpose and destiny. The rhetoric that collectors use to describe the development of their collections is not dissimilar to that used by religious converts to describe their calls to serve God. In the case of collecting, however, the god being served is often materialism -- a pure unadulterated fascination with getting and keeping things -even when these things are intangible objects such as experiential memories. The process of collecting is legitimized and institutionalized through the fellowship of other collectors, collector organizations, public institutions, and dealers. This same community helps sacralize certain consumer objects through ritual, mystery, myth, and reverence.

The fusion and cathexis of work, play, and love that collecting represents often occurs in the service of self-enrichment through an Idiom that consumer researchers have only recently begun to investigate. Collecting is a culturally sanctioned, anxiety-reducing way to present one's self with a gift (Mick and DeMoss 1990, Sherry and McGrath 1989). Freud was aware of his own penchant for giving gifts to himself, as an excerpt from at letter to a colleague suggests (Dudar 1990, p. 103):

I got myself an expensive present today, a lovely little dipylon vase -- a real gem -- to fight my ill humor. (Spending money is indicated not only for states of fear.)

The nature of collecting as a gift to the self merits investigation in its own right. It may be one of the only forms of self-indulgence that resolves the demands of conflicting ideologies in a culture of consumption, because it seems to many to serve a higher purpose than other forms of consumption. It may be one of the few sacralization rituals that hallows the individual and enobles society in the same enterprise. Consequently, collecting manifests itself as an elegant way to serve beauty and utility, self and others. Through such giving, a relationship with the self is developed over time, and cultural values are affirmed in the bargain. In this sense, goods are truly good to think (Douglas and Isherwood 1979). While Freud, as many of us, may have had little to say in public about the personal significance of his collection, his harnessing of the discordant forces of his episteme and sublimation of them in both philosophy and practice were greatly facilitated through his collecting.

The history of collecting, its contemporary institutional aspects, and the societal functions served by collecting activity in large scale capitalist economies help explain the singular importance of collecting in contemporary consumer culture. For these reasons, to study collecting is not only to study the distilled essence of consumption, it is also to study the course of the modem consumption experience. Together with the intense focus of energies that collecting brings forth in the collector, these are important reasons to make collecting a key element in the consumer research agenda.


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Russell W. Belk
Melanie Wallendorf
John F. Sherry, Jr.
Morris B. Holbrook


SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey | 1991

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