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.

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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