Why Do We Collect? It's an Art, but the Experts Say It's Also Part of Our DNA
Ask any collector, and they can likely tell you the story—the time, the place, the thrill—of the piece that began it all: a Wedgwood, or perhaps cloisonné, vase tucked behind peeling books, forgotten on an antique shop shelf, or a primitive cutting board, overcome with patina, which felt its last slice a century ago. Perhaps they were dragged to a flea market as a child, arriving begrudgingly, but leaving changed—and a curator for life. So many of us heed the call to collect, amassing beloved objects over the course of our lifetimes, but why? Oftentimes, our motivations are as diverse (and abundant) as our collections, and while we can usually pinpoint the object that activated this hobby, it's more difficult to iterate what drives it.
Martha has felt this force for decades; her passion for collecting jadeite, a green-hued form of Depression glass, is one of the reasons for its resurgence. She also maintains a gleaming collection of copper pots, a colorful array of McCoy pottery, many epically large brass trays, and tons of drabware. Martha was far from the original collector, though. In their book The Cultures of Collecting (Reaktion Books, 1994), John Elsner and Roger Cardinal argue that Noah was actually the first; princely families like the Medicis followed suit, accumulating the treasures that now fill the world's museums. Today, people curate just about anything, and while their findings might not be treasured enough to display for the whole world to see, there's no denying their personal meaning.
Yes, collecting is a hobby for the ages, but why has it endured? What informs our desire to amass relics of the past or emblems of the present? According to Clay Routledge, a psychological scientist and professor of management at North Dakota State University in Fargo, the answer is multidimensional—we all have a reason, and oftentimes, more than one. The excitement that comes with searching for something Old-World and elusive, the desire to display status and wealth, and the chance to interact with others who share the very same passions are just a few of these forces, Routledge says. But everyone attaches meaning to objects, and that's true whether we have collections or not: Though you may not intentionally amass a vast number of cookie jars, you might display one that reminds you of the baking adventures you and your mother took on in your childhood home. For those who do collect, the objects they choose to surround themselves with often "reflect meaningful experiences, beliefs, hopes, and identities," he explains.
Answers about why we collect may reside deeper within our psychology. In a 2007 paper in The National Psychologist, three other major motivations for this habit were discussed: knowledge, satisfaction, and control. For some, building a collection boils down to "an interest in acquiring knowledge and history;" for others, there's a satisfaction that comes along with "completing or expanding a collection." For others still, a collection is all about an unyielding desire to "control or organize" the world around us. Sometimes, it's all three.
Bruce Hood, who studies the relationship we have with our possessions as a Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society at the University of Bristol in England, agrees that there's almost always a mixture of motives involved in collecting, but he thinks it generally has "more to do with the pursuit rather than the acquisition. For example, plane and train spotters collect sightings." As a collector of horror movie posters, Hood understands being driven by the thrill of "the chase" associated with collecting. "If items were readily accessible then they would not be so satisfying to collect."
Some would say that we're born collectors; the itch to seek out prized possessions is hardwired into us. Fritz Karch, the former editorial director for collecting at Martha Stewart Living who went on to co-author the book Collected: Living With the Things You Love (Abrams, 2014) and sell antiques at the Tomato Factory in Hopewell, New Jersey, is fascinated by the psychology of this hobby and says it's quite literally part of our DNA. "Primitive, early man was out there hunting and gathering, and I definitely love to hunt," he explains. "I love to gather." (Whether or not we act on our "collecting" gene is another story entirely.) For someone like Martha, building a collection of beautiful, useful items fits right in with who she is. "Martha always dreamed big, and her personality reflects the way she collects," says Karch. "She collects by size, by color, by material. She loves every beautiful thing made of copper, for example."
Then, there are the collectors who differ from Martha in every way, the ones who seek out items that seemingly contradict their personalities. Karch encounters them frequently, citing the "sturdy looking Marine types" who come into his store only to "wax poetic about some old cup that was beside Grandma's well." For these seekers, collections are almost always borne out of nostalgia or "reflect nostalgic phases of their life." Consider vintage toys, another common collectible genre of items: According to Karch, this fascination reflects a desire to reconnect with the items that remind us of earlier—or better, or happier—times.
While collecting is almost certainly a science, it's also undeniably an art—and like any aesthetic skill, it's one that needs to be honed. Karch says the greats, the lionized collectors of our age, apply a unique personality to a certain subject or peer at the objects of their desire through a singular lens. He points to Henry Davis Sleeper, an American antiquarian and decorator working in the early 1900s. "The sheer invention of his house, Beauport, is incredible. He's responsible for the concept of architectural salvage, and he would take entire staircases from 17th century houses that were falling into ruin and incorporate them into his own house. He also collected by color, and the combinations in some of his rooms—lacquered aubergine, tiger maple, and brilliant red toile—are incredible. He was quirky and endlessly inventive."
Others collect according to themes (a horse lover might snap up jockey helmets, trophies, or riding boots) or by category (antique tools, perhaps maritime iterations specifically). Then, there are those with a taxonomic lust to find every piece ever created by a specific maker. These collectors tend to be voracious in their acquisition of knowledge about their chosen subject and scientific in their methods, with spreadsheets full of information: date acquired, price, condition and, of course, a catalog of those coveted missing pieces—which are out there, waiting, somewhere.
Sean Scherer is not one of those collectors. The artist and owner of the wonderfully curated vintage shop Kabinett & Kammer in Franklin, New York, and author of Kabinett & Kammer: Creating Authentic Interiors (Vendome, 2020), does not seek pedigree or provenance. "I've never been the kind of collector who thinks the maker is more important than shape or form," he says. "If it's ugly, I don't want it, no matter who made it. And I don't see the things I collect as dead objects, I see them as full of life, with an aura and an authenticity around them. When I buy a piece, it's about adding to my family. I think, Oh, you're going to have friends."
Like Scherer, other lauded collectors describe a kinship with objects as a reason behind their collecting. Alexis Givens, a former home editor at Living who now specializes in sourcing vintage items for the clients of her interior design firm Sasco Hill Studio, in Fairfield, Connecticut, says deciding to acquire something is—at first—an impulse. "It's literally like falling in love at first sight," she says. "Sometimes my heart just sings. I don't know why."
For Givens, though, there's no one way to sum up why she collects. In fact, her approach is varied and multifaceted: Old receipts from hotels and other ephemera capture a moment in time (she finds this history irresistible, despite having a horrible allergy to old paper). Childhood nostalgia for setting the table around the holidays explains her obsession with all things tabletop, which she calls "a never-ending collection."
But it's when the science and the art of collecting combine that this hobby becomes most fascinating—and there is simply nothing like watching a master of both work. Givens describes trips to the Brimfield Antiques Flea Market with Karch as one of the most impactful experiences of her career. "Fritz had an encyclopedic knowledge of the most random things, and he bought items that no one else would have. He saw an entire universe of information in a small tool that looked unremarkable, but it became incredible once he explained the history." In addition, says Givens, he had an incredible eye and the ability to artfully group things together and photograph them beautifully.
And what of the people who claim they abhor clutter, and refuse to collect anything at all? Don't be fooled, says Routledge. "People may not collect physical objects, but they engage in similar psychological activities that involve collecting experiences and memories." Think of those dedicated fans who follow their favorite musicians across the country, attending every concert, or travelers who dutifully check each new state or country off their bucket list. "At some level, all of us are collectors."