COOL AND COLLECTED: The Reason We Collect

“To posses a complete collection is, in some intimate fashion, a way of controlling and commanding the world” -- Peter Gay

We are often asked what we collect, but rarely are we asked why we collect. To begin, let us define what it is to collect. It is organized obsession, or put differently, consumption with an emphasis on order.

Does it perhaps have roots in our hunter and gatherer past? Scientists have discovered arranged pebbles in Cro-Magnon caves in France dating back to 78,000 years B.C. that seem to suggest that collecting began around the same time in human history as art. (Neal)

Many non-collectors think we do it only for presumed financial gain. This is not the case. Much of the reward is emotional and sentimental. It may take us back to a more innocent time in our lives and evoke memories that we hold precious. A baseball card collection might transport the owner back to a pleasant experience of watching games with his father.

Similarly, early coin collectors surely did not have ‘dollar signs’ in their eyes as they assembled those magnificent early 19th century coin cabinets. It has been retold many times of how a young Joseph Mickley sought to find a cent from the year of his birth. Unfortunately, the neophyte numismatist Mickley was born in the year 1799 -- a date which has eluded most Large Cent collectors for the past 215 years! Within a short time, however, Joseph Mickley’s collection could boast not one but four 1827 proof Quarters in addition to finally adding that 1799 Large Cent. Profit was not Mr. Mickley’s objective as there was no market beyond a few sparse collectors in his day.

As with our Mickley example above, most eventual collectors do not set out intending to assemble an entire collection at the onset. It is typically a gradual move. I work in a coin shop and tell (bullion) customers all the time that it starts by purchasing a few Silver Eagles of various dates, with the intent solely on the acquisition of silver. Before long, the buyer makes note of the few dates he is missing. The next logical step is to try and find those missing years and before you know it, you are a collector. Every coin collection began with a solitary coin.

Rarely does a man arise upon a certain morning and announce abruptly, over his breakfast coffee, “Today I shall begin a collection!” It is far more common to waken to the sudden realization that one has, without intent, already become a collector. Rigby & Rigby, 1944

There was a time, albeit brief, when I attempted to enjoy the hobby without owning any coins. Idealistically, I believed I could enjoy all that numismatics had to offer by merely researching and writing on the topics that interested me. I quickly found that something inside me required that I make the occasional purchase towards a grander entity, a collection! Those of us who count ourselves among the brethren of collectors will understand this need. It has been said that in order to have a concept of “me,” there must first be the concept of “mine.” (Freud) Ownership is mandatory for the collector.

On the larger scale an intact collection can give the collector a sense of purpose. We have seen impressive coin collections sold by prominent auction houses to ensure that names such as Eliasberg, Norweb and Garrett live forever through pedigreed examples. Provenance can provide an individual with immortality in a unique way. The collector has such a close association with his collection that his personal and indelible mark is always there. Astute collectors realize that at some point the collection will outlive him. It is humbling to consider, but we are merely caretakers of these items for a short period of time.

And what does this assemblage of coins do for the collector? It gives him a reason to continually look for new additions. All collectors will agree on this point: the thrill of the hunt makes it all worthwhile. And at the same time you are afforded the privilege to fellowship with other like-minded collectors. This fraternization can neither be understated nor can it have a price put on it. The objects may belong to the collector in question, but through those inanimate items that same collector belongs to a larger community.

So, why do we choose this noble pursuit to collect? It makes every trip to the local hobby shop, coin convention, or even the mailbox a potential treat. In a complicated world it is a slice of quaint innocence and a lighthearted diversion. Sometimes irrational, but always FUN!!

-- Greg Capps

Sources:

Rigby, Douglas and Elizabeth Rigby, Lock, Stock and Barrel: The Story of Collecting, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1944.

Freud, Sigmund, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Belk, Russell; Wallendorf, Melanie; Sherry, John; Holbrook, Morris, Collecting in a Consumer Culture, Association For Consumer Research, 1991.

Neal, Arminta, Collecting for History Museums: Reassembling Our Splintered Existence, Museum News, 58 (May/June), 1980.