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Below you will find a recent editorial from The Magazine Antiques. As a musing on the impulse to collect it is beautifully written - and much more magnanimous than I am capable of! I am particularly amused at the ingenious device the author employed; the editorial is a collection in itself; one of citations and references. No doubt, as the writer surely intended, you will see a bit of yourself in his words - as did I.

My own impulse to collect has been with me forever - from shards of beach glass and seashells when I was as young as five, through innumerable collections of many kinds up until today. Though I may sometimes call it "my inventory" the truth of the matter is that the glass I offer for sale on this site is curated to the same standards of my own collection; for me it is my parallel collection and I increasingly have pangs of regret when I send a piece off to join your collection. But I imagine the departing pieces as emissaries, seeds for a new collection - and that makes it easier because I believe that collecting is a rewarding and honorable pursuit.

Collecting encompasses the hunt and the debate, preserving and displaying, organizing and evaluating, learning and sharing, with thrilling highs and gut wrenching lows. Collecting is a passion beyond the mere assembly of objects; objects define people and cultures long after the minds that created them have turned to dust. What we choose to preserve, protect and thereby promote is physical evidence of who we are, what we believe and aspire to - and it is a joy to engage in the process of collecting, which engages us with history.

View of the Octagon Room at Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House
in Gloucester, Massachusetts, by William B. E. Rankin (1863-1953).
Signed and dated "W. B. E. Rankin 1928" at lower right.
Watercolor on paper, 25 by 33 1/2 inches.
Photograph courtesy of Historic New England.
 

The Magazine Antiques
December 2009
Editorial

Even the humblest material artifact, which
is the product and the symbol of a particular
civilization, is an emissary of the culture
out of which it comes.

T. S. Eliot,
Christianity and Culture , 1940

The urge to collect has revealed itself throughout history as a fundamental human phenomenon. Kings and emperors, presidents, and millionaires with vast fortunes collect; but so do children and vagabonds who have no money. Abstract entities such as governments, corporations, and companies collect too. It is at once and art and a response to impulses of great depth, but it remains a curious activity that is difficult to define - though a great deal of ink has been spilled attempting to do so.

The American journalist Joseph Alsop offers a refreshingly simple approach in the A. W. Mellon Lecture he delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1978: "to collect is to gather objects belonging to a particular category the collector happens to fancy." The stress here is on the mentality of the collector, for essentially a collection is what he believes it is - provided, of course, that there are at least some physical objects gathered together. This expresses the essentially subjective element of collecting very well.

The German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin touched on the element of passion, writing: "Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory." Bringing in the collector's sometimes obsessive nature, Joseph Epstein, editor of the American Scholar , wrote ion 1988 that a "collection. [is] 'an obsession organized.' One of the distinctions between possessing and collecting is that the latter implies order, system and perhaps completion. The pure collector's interest is not bounded by the intrinsic worth of the objects of his desire; whatever they cost, he must have them." And Lawrence C. Wroth, a former librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is said to have observed of book collecting's irrepressible nature: "The instinct to collect, like the process of fermentation, cannot be put out of existence by a legislation nor can it be deprived of its vitality by the frowns of those who are insensitive to its urge."

Stimulated by motives of many kinds - some good, some bad - the collector takes on many forms. Some are quite rational and organized; others, totally illogical and frenetic. In Susan Stewart's words in her seminal book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984), collecting is "a strategy of desire whose task is the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience." It takes place where "Falls the Shadow"- "Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act," as Eliot put it in "The Hollow Men" of 1925.

Damon Crain

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