Almost all of us collect objects of some sort. Psychoanalysts think they are part of our identity. But when does a pastime become an obsession?

Why do we collect Harmless pastime or dangerous obsession 1

The author’s “dupondius” of Augustus and Agrippa celebrating their military victory against the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. 

Barbie dolls. Porcelain chickens. Medieval armor. Stamps. Toothpaste tubes. Fossils. Butterflies.

What is behind our widespread need to collect? Does quantity matter? What do the psychoanalysts say – harmless pastime or dangerous obsession?

I was a semi-nerdy kid growing up in northern New Jersey in the United States. Like many youngsters, I suppose, I collected stuff—baseball cards, rocks and North American arrowheads. (As an adult I run across many men of my Baby Boom generation who collected these artefacts. Were there really so many arrowheads floating around in 1950’s suburbia?)

My primary interest, though, was in Roman coins.

My favorite is a dupondius, or brass coin, of Augustus and Agrippa celebrating the military victory against the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This coin set the stage for Gaius Octavius to become the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. The reverse shows a crocodile chained to a palm tree with the legend “col nem,” indicating that it was minted in Nemausus (now Nimes, in southern France).

I like to hold such coins and wonder what stories they could tell from 2,000 years ago.

Just why do we collect?

I now collect statues, amulets and images of Ganesha, the Hindu, sweet-loving, elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and supports writers.

I don’t worship Ganesha. I’m fascinated by him, how he was created by Hindu marketing experts and retro-fitted into the pantheon, and why he has become one of the world’s favorite deities.

But behind my modest collection of some 150 Ganesha-related pieces lies the nagging question: Why? After all, I have just one mountain bike. One toaster. One garden house.

Surely one Ganesha should be enough?

In my new book, Searching for Ganesha, I include an illustration showing the evolution of stuff. Everyone has stuff. Some of it is basic and essential to provide shelter, food, transport and clothing.

But stuff has a tendency to expand. Essential stuff can too easily branch off into too much stuff, which becomes clutter. The stuff might then grow a metaphorical tree limb and become an obsession, leading to hoarding. Or, in turn, the stuff might acquire emotional value and become a collection.

Freud suggested chronic gatherers are unwilling to let go.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, was what I call a “magpie” collector. His consultation room in London is filled with some 3,000 varied antiquities, including a fifth-century BC sphinx, a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, African tribal sculptures and plenty of phalluses. Pride of place went to a bronze of the goddess Athena, the female deity of wisdom, which he said protected him during his self-exile from Vienna.

Freud suggested that a chronic gatherer and organizer is locked in an anal-retentive mode, unwilling to let go, unable to touch his emotions. Writers Benjamin Poore and Harriet Agerholm described Freud’s theory:

collect,pastime,obsession“Our sense of ourselves—the ‘I’ that we each imagine ourselves to be—is made up of all the people and things we have once cherished and then lost or abandoned. Your identify is the accumulated heap of lost love objects. Which is to say, if you were to wander around your psyche, it might look rather like a room stuffed to the gunnels with dusty old artefacts, some tarnished, and now unloved, some recently rearranged, or polished; rather, in fact, like Sigmund Freud’s study.”

Werner Muensterberger, who has been described as an ethno-psychiatrist, amassed an important collection of African masks. He wrote:

“Observing collectors, one soon discovers an unrelenting need, even hunger, for acquisitions. This ongoing search is a core element of their personality. It is linked to far deeper roots … which derives from a … sense memory of deprivation and a subsequent longing for substitution, closely allied with moodiness and depressive leanings.”

Carl Jung felt that accumulations represent a collective, unconscious need to hoard “nuts and berries” once needed for survival by our early ancestors.

Is my collecting a pastime or an obsession?

This psycho-babble can be tiring. Perhaps the answer is simple: might a collection be a litmus test to determine how people react? What do you think of my collection of porcelain chickens, 78 rpm records, hot sauce (the world record is 6,000 different bottles) or Indian head pennies? Answer positively, and you can be my friend.

Maybe a collection is a way of self-individuation, a way to say: Hey, I’m different. I’m interesting. Attention must be paid.

Can we judge the quality of a collection by size (Guinness Record!)? Does a collection need to be catalogued and put into taxonomic categories? Do we acquire a new piece based on whether it is rare (or expensive), fashionable or beautiful? Does each object strike an emotional chord?

Each of my Ganesha statues tells me stories. And I, in turn, can tell stories about each one. How I acquired it. The aesthetic buzz I get by a statue’s sinuous form, the intellectual zing I get when trying to unravel a panel’s iconographic subtleties. With each piece I recall the people who influenced me during my quest: Just one more Ganesha, but it’s got to be special.

The collection hasn’t taken over my life (or my house, to the relief of my wife). But it has made life more interesting and, as Ganesha should, opened a few important doors to adventures and friends.

But sometimes I wonder if collecting is a diversion and that I should pay more attention to the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, who wrote: “People assume that happiness stems from collecting things outside of yourself, whereas true happiness stems from removing things from inside of yourself.”

Some day I will give away my Ganesha collection. But for now, my accumulation of fat, skinny, multi-armed, one-tusked, sitting, standing, reclining and dancing Ganeshas simply gives me pleasure.

That’s something Freud never mentioned.

Questions to consider:

  1. Do you collect? If so, what? Why?
  2. Do you agree with the Evolution of Stuff concept?
  3. Does a collection’s value depend on rarity/cost/quantity/emotional connection?
Paul Sochaczewski

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski graduated from George Washington University and served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. He lived in Southeast Asia for 15 years, then moved to Switzerland where he was head of Creative Services at World Wildlife Foundation International. He has written 20 books and more than 600 by-lined articles in publications including News Decoder, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Travel and Leisure. He gives presentations about Wallace, and other subjects, worldwide. He is French-American and lives in Geneva, Switzerland.

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CultureArtWhy do we collect? Harmless pastime or dangerous obsession?