The Art of Collecting


Last month The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection launched at the Tate Modern. One of the world’s greatest private gatherings of photography between the 1920s and 1950s, the selection includes iconic names like Matisse, Picasso and Doretha Lange, as well as famous images such as Man Ray’s Glass Tears. As a musician best known for his camp, over the top style, it’s hard to imagine Sir Elton being interested in masterpieces of photography, but the Rocket Man has been collecting his impressive range of works for the past 25 years.

And he’s not the only one with a surprising fascination. There are many big names with equally huge, and sometimes bizarre collections. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t aware of Angelina Jolie’s assortment of antique knives, or Tom Hanks’ range of vintage typewriters. Then there’s actor Johnny Depp, who just seems to hoard anything and everything, from insect skeletons to items owned by beat poet Jack Kerouac.

But what is it that possesses people to collect? Well, psychologists from Freud to TV’s Dr Phil have tried to explain why we, humans, feel the need to amass heaps of stuff we don’t need, just for the pleasure of seeking and owning them. They have yet to agree on a conclusive answer, but of course, that doesn’t stop them from guessing.

Johnny Depp's collection of Barbie Dolls

Johnny Depp's collection of Barbie Dolls

One theory put forward by evolutionary scientists suggests that man began collecting 12,000 years ago as a way to signal to a mate that they could accumulate resources. That guy over there with all the rocks? Total dreamboat!

Another is that adults who were unloved or neglected as children seek comfort in gathering belongings. This philosophy seems to make sense if you’re thinking of dolls or other childhood ephemera, but it’s not that simple.

Case in point, Bronies – adult men who love My Little Pony. Originally popular in the 1980s, My Little Pony had a resurgence in 2010 thanks to the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and surprisingly, little girls weren’t the only ones impressed with the reboot. Seemingly out of nowhere, this micro-community of all-male, My Little Pony-loving 4chan users appeared, and they became known to the mainstream after the 2012 documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony.

Predictably, most people found the whole “grown-men loving a toy for little girls” thing a bit hard to deal with and cried pervert, but it’s actually the opposite. It turns out most Bronies are attracted to the innocence that My Little Pony collectables represent, which makes sense if you had a crappy time growing up. But with an estimated 12.4 million Bronies in the world, not all of them could have had difficult childhoods, meaning there must be another reason for their epic love of all things My Little Pony.

Another supposed reason we humans have the urge to collect, is apparently, existential dread. Our bodies might die, but the collection lives on, so in some small way, so do we. Therefore, some choose to name their collections after themselves (hence why the Miami Art Museum is now the Perez Art Museum) or donate them as part of their last will and testament. Still, this option might not be great for our loved ones. If your collection is not deemed worthy of donation, the likelihood is that your family will end-up inheriting a load of junk – we doubt Quentin Tarantino’s kids are looking forward to receiving his selection of board games based on 80’s TV shows.

Nevertheless, some people get lucky and inherit a goldmine, which leads us to our next theory – wealth. Whether its cultivating an art collection or stockpiling coins, there’s no doubt that some portfolios are worth a fortune. But are these “real collectors”? Cultural historian Phillipp Blom would argue not. Apparently, true accumulators are not searching for an investment or a way to enhance their status, rather they appreciate objects for their importance in the collection, removing them from the wider world in the process. “Collected objects are like holy relics: conduits to another world,” says Blom. “They have shed their original function and become totems, fetishes. Collecting by its very nature is animist and transcendental.”

This explains our obsessions with items owned by celebrities. Objects previously belonging to the rich and famous tend to sell for more, and not only to collectors. This is because of the belief in “contagion,” that an item can be imbrued with the essence of its former owner. In fact, two psychologists at Yale University explored this concept in more depth, using data from the auctions of three high-profile estates, and found that people were willing to pay more for things owned by well-liked celebrities such as John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

In a study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), researchers George Newman and Paul Bloom wrote: “Contagion is a form of magical thinking in which people believe that a person's immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred to an object through physical contact.” But even those who don’t believe in the supernatural tend to do the same thing, creating a strong link between items and their previous owners, especially if the object was likely to have been used a lot - such as a fork or piece of jewelry.

But do objects lose their value once they have been acquired? Part of the fun of collecting is the collecting itself, and for many the thrill of the chase is the best part of the process. Or, as Psychologist Dr Rebecca Spelman puts it: “They get great enjoyment from applying their thoughts and energies into tracking items down and then, when they are successful, it gives them a thrill. The pleasure-seeking sensors in the brain light up and then they want to experience that again, and so a new search begins.”

So, whatever you may find yourself collecting, it looks like there might be several reasons why. Or maybe you just really like stamps. Who knows?