Frequently derided by those for whom it has no attraction, collecting – defined as the systematic seeking and acquisition of items – has been dismissed as the province of ‘anoraks’ (a pejorative no longer exclusively applied to railway enthusiasts) and, by Freud, of the anally retentive. Despite all detractors, however, there are dedicated collectors of anything that can be stored, listed or enumerated, from the valuable and tangible, like antiques, to the financially worthless and intangible, such as train numbers. Collectors’ fairs, catering sometimes for intensely specialised markets, abound and the market for specialist magazines is a huge and lucrative one.
What, then, is the attraction of collecting? To some it represents the process of acquiring more of something they particularly like, but cannot consume. No-one would accuse the gourmet of ‘collecting’ food, for each meal is disposed of in enjoyment as it is acquired, yet in comparison the antiques collector is doing little more than acquiring that which pleases the eye, rather than the taste buds, and which is not consumed by that enjoyment.
For others, collecting represents the excitement of the pursuit of the rare. In record or book collecting for example, the most sought-after items are those of which few exist, usually because they represent the early work of an artist who only achieved popularity at a later date. This aspect is particularly pertinent to those interested in the ephemeral – one of the most expensive hobbies, in terms of the original value of the items sought, is collecting toys, where the normally short lifespan of an object bought originally to be played with (and thus damaged or broken) make a pristine example in its original packaging rare and thus immensely desirable. Toys also have the cachet of nostalgia, and the most-valued items are likely to be those representing the childhood of the generation with the greatest disposable income – hence the disproportionate value of items from the 1960s.
In addition to hunting down the rarer item, the process of collecting will often involve the pursuit of a complete set. Thus, the record collector may be intent on obtaining the entire output of a particular artist, the book collector the complete works of a particular author, and the railway enthusiast a ‘sighting’ of every locomotive on a certain line. In this, the art of collecting can verge on the obsessive, with individual collectors spending extortionate time and money (and, in extreme cases, resorting to theft) in the quest to build the ‘complete’ collection. Perhaps more sad is the individual who achieves their aim and finds themselves with nowhere to take their hobby.
Such are the merits to the individual; what of the wider merits? For those leading a busy, stressful existence, collecting can offer a therapeutic chance to impose some order on an otherwise chaotic life; many find reviewing and cataloguing their collection ideal relaxation. Moreover, the collector of the obscure or unappreciated can make a valuable contribution to culture as a whole by bringing together and preserving a genus that might otherwise disappear unnoticed. A prime example is Robert Opie’s massive collection of advertising and packaging material built up over a lifetime now provides a unique window into everyday domestic life in Britain over more than a century.
Trivial? Sometimes. Pointless? Only to those for whom it has no appeal. Certainly, collecting can be cheap, absorbing, therapeutic, rarely harmful, and occasionally of surprising value to wider society. We would be the poorer without it.
So that’s my excuse – what’s yours?