The psychology of collecting

Roaming the isles of the San Francisco Fall Show, there is one prevailing emotion that almost all shoppers have in common – the thrill of the hunt. Fellow collectors are quite familiar with that feeling of excitement and anticipation that, any minute now, you will stumble upon the treasure that has been waiting just for you, that unique gem with perfect patina and a fascinating backstory. And yet, art and antique collectors are anything but materialistic adrenaline junkies. So let’s delve a bit into the psychology of collecting – what motivates us to seek out ancient objects, one-of-a-kind pieces, precious art, heirloom jewelry…

From DKF Estate Jewelry: Schlumberger “ribbon” ear clips with eighteen karat gold, platinum, diamonds, and mismatched pearls, circa 1960s

While there are quite a few theories among psychologists as to why one would desire to acquire and accumulate certain objects or pieces, it seems that most collectors’ motivations are not monetary but emotional. Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung hypothesized that collecting stems from the memory of our old “caveman” hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Since we no longer have to collect food to stay alive, we turn that primal impulse to other, perhaps more trivial subjects.

From Antonio’s Bella Casa: Large, 18th century, hand-carved, 22k gold, and silver gilded, Continental, radiant cloudburst.

Equally serious are the notions that we collect in order to gain control over our lives – or our imminent death. The former leads us to put together collections for which we ourselves determine the rules. Since much of what happens in the world is beyond our control, a personal collection gives the owner a sense of mastery and satisfaction that may be lacking elsewhere. The latter scenario proposes that we deal with the inevitability of our death by creating something that will outlast us and stand the test of time, a collection that we are able to pass on to the next generation.

From The Zentner Collection:
Japanese Takagari (falcon) painted & gold gilt Byobyu (screen)

Personally, I like the idea that we we collect because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. I distinctly remember looking at my reflection in an early 18th century mirror, installed by the Tucker & Marks team in a San Francisco apartment. This spectacular piece was handcrafted by La Granja, the royal mirror manufacturer to Philippe V of Spain. Beyond the fact that it was an astounding thing of beauty, I couldn’t help thinking of the many faces over the course of history that had pondered their reflection in this very same mirror. I found this eerie, intriguing and immensely exciting.

Interior design by Suzanne Tucker/Tucker & Marks, photo by Pieter Estersohn

To collect precious art and antiques is in many ways a humbling experience: we don’t really own anything, we’re just the caretakers of these treasures that make us feel a part of the larger “human experience”. When British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the intact tomb of Tutankhamun 1922, the whole world was thrilled and could talk about little else (in fact, it gave new life to Egyptomania: the enthusiasm for everything related to ancient Egypt, an interest that is not merely scientific, but adopted throughout visual culture including architecture, on clothing and jewelery). Why? Because it made the past come to life, and it revealed the life of that ancient time in a new light: maybe we’re not so different after all…

I will leave you with this quote by American poet Aberjhani:

Art, rightly applied, provided humanity with the symbols, insight, and vicarious experience necessary to help one person place him- or herself in the shoes of another, and by doing so come to appreciate the commonality of human experience.

By Vera Vandenbosch