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Why We Collect

Jonathan Clements

IT SEEMS ONE IS NEVER enough. I’ve known folks who collect handbags, wine, Mark Twain first editions, pennies, vintage posters, Pez dispensers, old cars, British royal family memorabilia, antique furniture, lunch boxes, motorcycles, Beanie Babies, Portmeirion china and more.

Near where I live is the Barnes Foundation, which houses Albert Barnes’s art collection, with its 181 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Doesn’t that seem a tad obsessive? Most of us, I suspect, would be content with just three or four Renoirs.

I thought that maybe millennials—the Ikea generation purportedly more interested in experiences than possessions—would be less inclined to become collectors. But after asking around, I’m not so sure. It seems baseball cards are still a thing and, perhaps more surprising, so too are Pokemon cards.

Why do we collect? All kinds of explanations have been offered. Perhaps a collection is a way to signal our worthiness as a mate by proving our ability to amass resources. Maybe it’s a way to show our loyalty or to bring some order to our otherwise chaotic lives. Perhaps it reflects a craving for immortality because our collection might live on even after we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Sigmund Freud, apparently, thought the urge to collect was triggered by the trauma of improper toilet training. Based on all the collecting that’s going on, it seems improper toilet training is rampant.

Frankly, I don’t see much wrong with collecting, as long as it doesn’t turn into hoarding and it doesn’t break the bank. For collectors, there’s obviously a thrill to the chase. But it’s worth pondering how the chase will end.

As with almost everything, there are diminishing returns. I own four paintings by Robert Kipniss. I used to live in an apartment next to his studio, and we’d occasionally chat in the hallway and the building’s gym, so his work has added meaning for me. Still, would a fifth painting bring the same thrill as the first four? Almost certainly not.

When I was a teenager, I used to collect stamps, a hobby I shared with my grandfather, whom everybody called Clem. When Clem died 34 years ago, I inherited his stamp collection, which I’ve been lugging around ever since and which today fills two cardboard boxes in my basement. I doubt I’d get much if I tried to sell the collection and, in any case, it feels wrong to let that piece of him go. On the other hand, if I don’t deal with the stamp collection, I’ll be bequeathing that burden to my kids.

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As I see it, we’re all part of a conversation that began long before we were born and will continue long after we’re gone. We’re influenced by the past and, in some small way, we’ll influence the future. That’s why it’s so important to be thoughtful about our words and our actions.

And perhaps also our stuff—because at least some of it will outlive us.

For earlier generations, wealth was measured in things: silver cutlery, bone china, fine furniture and, of course, land and houses. But today, much of the world’s wealth consists of stocks and bonds. More recently, we’ve seen a move to ascribe value to digital assets like cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens. I’m no fan of bitcoin and NFTs, but it’s a sign of where the world’s headed. There’s less interest in things, at least as a store of wealth.

That doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t collect stamps, coins and antiques. But it’s worth asking, will my heirs want what I’m buying today? No, not every purchase we make should include a consideration of future generations. But it’s another way of forcing ourselves to consider whether this is something that will have lasting appeal—not just to others, but also to ourselves.

I think I’ll continue to enjoy my Kipniss paintings, even as I continue to fret over Clem’s stamp collection. What about the other stuff I’ve picked up along the way? A few items continue to hold meaning. But mostly, I see great virtue in having less.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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Handy Randy
Handy Randy
2 months ago

Jorge Luis Borges, famed Argentine author, said “I cannot sleep in a room without books”

Liarspoltergeist
Liarspoltergeist
3 months ago

“Kipniss” sounds similar to keep this.

Linda Grady
Linda Grady
3 months ago

So I learned about the Barnes Foundation (thanks, Jonathan) for when I visit relatives in Philly, sometime soon, I hope! By the way, is anyone interested in seven antique saws, a multi-pocketed garment bag in perfect condition, or four matching small valise-type suitcases? 😂 I couldn’t even give them away on Facebook Marketplace or at a yard sale, even when I marketed the suitcases, with built-in combo locks, as “portable secure storage devices for your valuables.” 😂 Swedish Death Cleaning well in progress!

Michael1
Michael1
3 months ago

As we speak, we’re currently doing a major downsizing of belongings in preparation to either move somewhere or go nomadic for a while. We’ve gone progressively smaller over the last few years anyway. But this time it’s serious, and much less is making the “keep” cut.

AKROGER SHOPPER
AKROGER SHOPPER
3 months ago

A raw note was struck Jonathan. Meters, all kinds some in wood boxes with leather handles, are keeping the dust off the shelf here. Oh, and vacuum tubes you never know when someone will need a 6SN7. Not to mention tube testers for the tubes. Our Sunbeam toaster, it automatically lowers the toast, then raises the toast broke the other day. Lucky for me, I had a replacement Toastmaster ready to go while the Sunbeam gets repaired. The Toastmaster was a curb side find fourty years ago when the neighbor passed and their kids tossed it. You just never know when it will be needed, like money in the bank for a rainy day.

Steve Skillman
Steve Skillman
3 months ago

I’ve always loved the story from Victor Borge:

Looking at his watch, he says “This watch means a great deal to me. My grandfather gave it to me just before he died. For 20 bucks.”

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
3 months ago

The only things I like to collect are ownership interests (stocks) in high quality companies. Otherwise, I want things that I own to be useful and generally follow the notion that less is more.

Mark Eckman
Mark Eckman
3 months ago

I’ve been collecting quotes since the early 1990s. They are humorous, educational, inexpensive, and only require space on my hard drive. Here’s one from Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” It applies to collecting, investing, retirement, and so much more.

Michelle K
Michelle K
3 months ago

Over the years, I’ve been mindful of how many photos/videos I take of my children. Even though most photos are electronic, no one will want thousands and thousands of photos of my kids one day. Especially their future spouses! Even my own children quickly tire of looking at photos from their early years. I try to live in the moment and snap just enough photos to satisfy my needs.

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
3 months ago

No one has mentioned collecting money, like Scrooge McDuck. You can roll around in it and have a great time (humor intended). My weakness is/was books. I had quite a collection (nothing collectible, just books I enjoyed) going and got tired of moving them around storing them. I sent them all off to a service that scanned them, sent me the PDFs, and recycled the paper. Same thing for music CDs. All converted to digital. When I die, my executor will only need to hit the “Delete” key to get that collection cleaned up. / My mother collected Normal Rockwell statues and plates. After she passed away, I tried to sell her collection and found the market was not interested. They said maybe in 80 years or so it might be worth something. So, it went to the estate sale, and I have visions of a family somewhere eating dinner off of Norman Rockwell plates that they picked up at the estate sale for a few bucks.

To Jonathan on the stamp collection: I know a guy who collected stamps and decided to sell them. He called a store that buys collections and asked them if they were interested. The store owner said, “Sure, how much does your collection weigh?” He was buying them by the pound. So much for mainstream philately.

Last edited 3 months ago by SanLouisKid
Scrooge_McDuck88
Scrooge_McDuck88
3 months ago
Reply to  SanLouisKid

Ah!

Ted Meek
Ted Meek
3 months ago

I have “collected” every issue of Sports Illustrated since I graduated from college in 1972. It was my first discretionary purchase at about 10 cents per issue. I had a black & white TV, so it was only view into the world of sports with color. I was employed in the printing industry so it was also interesting trying to see how the issues were designed and produced. Then, the issues and my world started dramatically changing around 2000. The magazines were getting thinner, ESPN was getting bigger, and the internet was exploding. Now, I get one issue per month, the content is weak, and it is just a matter of time before it will go out of print. The collection (about 2700 issues) is worthless and I am tired of moving it (7 times), but it parallels my life and the evolution of our World over the past 50 years. I doubt anyone will want it when they slide me into my eternal resting spot. Wait a minute! I could find another spot for my wife and keep them right next to me. I will finally have the rest of time to read them.

James McGlynn CFA RICP®
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
3 months ago

Sounds like you need to add a “Swedish Death Cleansing” section to HumbleDollar for readers to get rid of their relatives collections. A friend of mine has his fathers collection of spinning tops. I’m no prolific philatelist or numismatist but I do have a few coins myself that never see the light of day. And who doesn’t have boxes of photos that weren’t even noticed with the pandemic lockdown?

Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
3 months ago

I know it’s hard to believe but people often collect things because they represent things that they love or people that they love. Some people collect baseball cards because they love baseball passionately. Have you ever been to a baseball game? I admit going to a baseball game is not a very good investment. Others collect because their mother or father collected the same things and collecting is a way to hold that person close to them all the days of their lives.

Ormode
Ormode
3 months ago

I couldn’t resist looking up Kipniss on Invaluable. It seems like he’s pretty prolific, and prices are still moderate. The question is, do you like that sort of thing? There are many other styles of painting available in the $1000-5000 range.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
3 months ago
Reply to  Ormode

I very much like his style. But I also have paintings by other artists with distinctly different styles.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
3 months ago

We downsized dramatically when we moved to our current home. I occasionally miss the many tools I didn’t bring, but I’ve made do. We rented a storage compartment for a year and a half. We’ve almost emptied it and I’m bound and determined to not pay another month’s rent. My wife and I are firmly in the “Experiences, not stuff” camp. We are currently trying to get rid of Aunt Pat’s china.

Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
3 months ago

Several year before he died, my father brought me a couple dozen dusty antique tools and other things that had belonged to his father. He said with a smile that he had been storing them in his attic for the last fifty years, and now it was my turn. Not exactly a collection, but your stamps brought it to mind.

Paul Decker
Paul Decker
3 months ago

I am a tool collector. Tools for use, not just for show. It’s a hobby (I’m a mechanical engineer) and it’s fun just getting the shop set-up. But at some point I am also able to fix just about anything or build a really nice piece of furniture. I had always thought it was a good investment even though that wasn’t the intent. Lately I am wondering about that as the younger generations don’t seem to want to do that sort of thing. But I still like collecting the best tool, trading up where possible, and being the go-to for things to be repaired.

Stacey Miller
Stacey Miller
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul Decker

I’d love for you to be my neighbor! My sis and I grew up surrounded by my dad’s tools and a workbench. He’s now close to the finish line and it’ll break my heart to tackle that area of the house. With a 7-year age difference my sister was out of the house by the time I was 11, so I became his apprentice and buddy. His career was in sales, but his hobby was refinishing furniture. Many a furniture treasure was discovered on the curb the night before garbage pickup and magically transformed into an heirloom. We never needed Ikea!

PS unfortunately his other hobby was collecting sports cards. A little backstory: he had a “swell” collection from the 50s. Since my mom was nagging him to get rid of it (& his license plate collections) he divided his card treasure into thirds, one to the son of a coworker, 1 to a widow’s son, and the last third to someone I don’t recall. Crazy patriarchal times in the 60s…my sister was the consummate tomboy & lover of all things Cubs. He should have given them to her. Undoubtedly a small fortune evaporated from my parents’ net worth. Not a day goes by my dad doesn’t regret this. So what does he do next? He restarts a card collection in the 80s. Then the flood of 1996 hit IL and ruined most of the cards.

Want to guess what happened next? Yup, another stab at it & now their basement is stacked with boxes upon boxes, but this time stored on milk crates…in case there’s water in the basement!

My advice: collect experiences, not stuff!

Last edited 3 months ago by Stacey Miller
Chazooo
Chazooo
3 months ago

Either hearing the tales of folks facing the aftermath of funerals, or experiencing it yourself, at some point in life it occurs to you, who wants your stuff, who really cares? The “girls” in our family all have china, silver, and crystal they never use; all have good furniture, better jewelry, etc. I am certain, though, money is always welcome, as in the form of insurance, real estate and stocks at a stepped up basis. So collections should be considered hobbies, entertainment for the person with the collection, unless you have 181 Renoirs.

Stacey Miller
Stacey Miller
3 months ago
Reply to  Chazooo

Amen to that! After serving as executor to 2 paternal uncles, and my husband taking care of both parents’ estates last year, WE ARE DONE WITH (excessive) POSSESSIONS!

Yes Swedish Death Cleaning has commenced (at a slow pace, but we’ve started!) FB Marketplace is a great 1st step. Your local Buy Nothing Group is a solid alternative. Of course your favorite charity accepts most goodies, too.

Last edited 3 months ago by Stacey Miller
June Elizabeth Dosik
June Elizabeth Dosik
3 months ago

I promised not to leave a “mess”. In return, if you must sell the family heirlooms, please give the money to my favorite charity. Your old Mum!

Michael Chindamo
Michael Chindamo
3 months ago

I believe collecting is a great starter for investing. Many collections tend to become really good investments. As you mentioned, much of today’s wealth is invested in publicly traded stocks and other “regulated” investments. HOWEVER, collections are a very good way to shelter assets if the country proceeds with wealth confiscation, such as what has occurred in countries such as those located in South America and Cuba. Remember the Cuba boat escape into the US? I recall many had hidden gemstones and used those assets to start businesses in the US. Many art collections have been appreciated far beyond what anyone could expect. The same goes for sports-related cards and other paraphernalia. I think from past experience that it is always a good idea to build a diversified asset base in addition to the most popular stocks and bonds.

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