This weekend saw the last of Michael Jackson’s possessions put up for auction. The items garnering the most attention were the signed wardrobe and kitchen chalk board that still had a message from his children inscribed upon it. As part of our weekend exploring the collection habit we’ve taken a look at the culture and psychology surrounding the hobby. Yesterday we gave you our top 10 weirdest pieces of music memorabilia and today we’re going to lift the lift a little on why people collect.
The more I looked into collecting the more I found there’s a subculture surrounding it. A set of defined groups with different purposes at their core:
First up is the hobbyists, people who are intent on collecting everything they can related to their favourite band. In practice it won’t always be band, it could be a period, or a type of instrument, essentially any niche that they adore. A completist at heart, they want everything they can get that fits into their category, their main limit to this craving is budget. Of course this all varies in degree, some people will pick up what they can when they see it in a charity shop, Pink Floyd t-shirts, badges, that sort of thing. Others stop into music shops and markets specifically and others, well some people are more committed; going online, attending auctions, joining a community of like-minded fans, meeting up, socialising, marrying within the group and crowd funding an off-shore community were their economy is based on the barter and trade of prog-rock collectors items.
Next up you have the investors. These are the type who often don’t have a niche affiliation, instead opting to buy the items that are most likely to appreciate in value. Their stock cupboards can have everything from one of Jimmy Page’s picks to a box of Madonna branded condoms (still debating whether I should get a pack). Investors can be on a small or grand scale, they can also be hobbyists in their own right. For instance Barry Thomas, who I wrote about yesterday, picked up a roll of loo paper spurned by The Beatles for £85. As a fan it seemed like a fun purchase, 30 years on and he decided to sell it. Sell it for £1,000 a sheet.
Finally there is the curator. These are often establishments rather than individuals, music museums, themed restaurants, art galleries and the like. They do the job of the hobbyist but on an industrial scale, so they pick a niche and wholesale purchase to create a collection as a means to draw in customers.
When investigating the different groups it seemed bizarrely reminiscent of the Frost Report’s Class Sketch. Because of the curator’s bulk buys memorabilia has become much more expensive over the past 20 years, this has made it increasingly difficult for the hobbyist to afford a collection. The investor is very much in the middle ground because they don’t have the budgets of the curators, but they they aren’t limited in scope like the hobbyist. If a hobbyist collects mouth organs from the 30s they can’t do anything if the price goes beyond their limit, the investor on the other hand can just start buying items from another period. The groups are constantly looking up and down the levels to see what their cousins are up to.
What ties these three overlapping groups is their knowledge. You can’t be a dab hand at collecting without knowing your stuff. At no level in the chain can you create an enviable collection without the knowledge to back it up. The curators are most at risk for the public embarrassment should their collection not be up to scratch, but hobbyists suffer a private shame if their set of Spanish guitars includes a Portuguese mandolin. It doesn’t matter who your audience, or how large, you want your collection to be an immaculate grouping. Everything is there for a reason.
The primary motivation for collecting is passion, not the fiscal concerns. That’s not to belittle the monetary reward but you’re hardly going to land a job curating if you can’t demonstrate a deep seated love of the hunt, the search for that elusive item. But, what’s the root of this desire come from? Psychologist Werner Muensterberger puts it down to a a sort of existential anxiety, that creating a collection is a way to state your existence. As with so much psychology, this is supposed to be rooted in childhood, a lack of affirmation from the child’s parents. You weren’t acknowledged when you were young, which led to a doubt for your importance, a doubt that develops into a fear that should you die no one would miss you. So in response to this pent-up fear you collect.
Now, I like psychology, a lot of it makes sense and gives a good theory as to why we are the way we are, and I know my response to this theory is more one of bias than it is logic but I don’t want this to be the reason we collect. See, I have a collection. It’s not a musical one. I collect [mumble], I’ve done it for years. It’s not weird, I mean you could say a 21 year old who still buys [mumble] is quite an endearing sight. See, I don’t want you making any judgements on my childhood but I don’t collect [mumble] as a kind of wish fulfilment, or because I was neglected by my parents, or at least I hope I don’t. It’s because I bloody love Winnie the Pooh. Ah, bugger. Fine I collect Winnie the Pooh mugs, get over it. I started with one that was a gift, one that was clearly part of a set. When I found another of the same series in a charity shop I thought I may as well get it, I mean I had the Tigger mug, I may as well get the Eeyore one as well. But, see, obviously there’s going to be more mugs in this set, I mean you can’t have Eeyore and Tigger with no Winnie. It spiralled out of control a little and now I have 15 or so.
The point is that I like the mugs, I use them, I want more of them. And I don’t see the comfort I gain from them as a means to plug a hole in my psyche. Kim Herzinger gets it best in her essay Collector “collecting is a passion. And collecting, like most passions, has the capacity to let you live in another world for a while.” When I go looking for mugs I forget what else is going on for a few hours while I trawl websites and try to find out more about them. There must be a number of different reasons people collect, but that, I think, is mine. These items give me pleasure as much as the chase for them does. The feeling that I’m a connoisseur, that there are few people out there with as great a love for that particular line of Winnie the Pooh mugs.