May 2, 2006

Understanding Collecting

From ancient shrunken heads from warring tribes to modern game used caps of division rivals, man has always had the urge to collect. From the beginning of time to the modern era, many of the reasons have remained the same: displaying of status, personal connection to an item, or habit forming impulses. By understanding the history and psychological reasons of collecting, we can understand why the hobby thrives today.

What is that hunger, that passion, that never-ending quest to collect that is inside us collectors? If you are reading this article, you will have some degree of that hunger. To satisfy that hunger, some gather many similar objects with amassing as many like examples as the goal, some search for that one phenomenal specimen which will separate their collection from the rest, yet others continue to upgrade and improve, never satisfied with what they have in its present state. Collecting is an unquenchable thirst that is driven by deep emotion to continue.

To each collector, his things are unique to him, as is the manner they are acquired. Time, enjoyment, and finances are all unique to the pursuer of objects, and this is what makes the collector and his collection unique. Just as in life, hard work, dedication, resources, intelligence can all influence the accomplishments of a collector. But, also as in life, collecting can be an obsession with the negative effects manifested.

Collecting has been associated with mankind since the dawn of ages. The dictionary defines it as “To bring together in a group or mass; gather.” Collecting can surpass the physical item and advance to a spiritual symbolism. A primitive reason for collecting is to capture the spirit of something. Examples include a totem pole to a Pacific Native American or in tribal culture, capturing the head of a fallen enemy. The current auction environment provides us the ability to capture the spirit of the items we collect and in some instance, capture the spirit of the enemy by taking the prize away from him when we out bid him in the auction setting, thus satisfying subconsciously our primal urges to conquer.

Why do we collect? To a non-collector, it is very hard to convey the reasons. The desire to arrive at flea markets with flashlight in hand at 3:30 A.M., the placement of classified ads WANTED TO BUY, and the hours spent researching, organizing, and re organizing our collections cannot be understood to a “non believer” or in this case a non-collector.


1. Greed. Some collectors collect just for the idea of making money. Collecting history has chronicled many examples of collectors turned speculator. During the 1980s, fathers and sons bought the hottest rookie cards in bricks of 100, 500, or 1,000. Unopened wax cases were stored in middle-American’s garages and attics. The plan was that Junior would have his college fund paid for by guys named Strawberry, Jeffries, and Canseco. Today Junior has thrown away the 1988 Donruss wax cases and is now living in the attic space that housed these can’t miss investments. Another example of collector’s Greed was the Beanie Babies phenomena. This explains the store’s full of mothers and grandmothers fighting over floppy the fish and Elvis the Eel, or whatever the newly released Beanie Baby was named. People hoarded these bean filled toys with the anticipation of putting their grand kids through college. The visions of profits created a new breed of collector. When the market crashed and Floppy and his friends weren’t worth a hill of beans, these collectors went back to coupon clipping. It has been my experience that when money is the only factor driving your collecting desires, the results are usually very similar to the crash of the Beanie Baby and modern baseball card market.

2. Action. Many collectors like to be a part of the action. They thrive off the excitement of an increase in the market and the fear of a depressed market. These collectors accumulate and sell whenever a profit is present. It is not the monetary gain that interests them, but the ability to purchase more items for which then can wheel and deal. Their collections never grow, but are ever changing. This type of collector has little interest in the historic or personal relationship of their items, and tend gravitate towards the current fad.

3. Desire to Complete. Goal oriented people that collect are most often focused on the completeness of a collection. Presidential autograph collectors aspire to have one of each president that served in the white house. Baseball card collectors strive to complete their 1952 Topps sets. These collectors will only start collections with a finite number of collecting options. Most of these collectors work from checklists and are uneasy and stay away from collections with ambiguous boundaries.

4. Desire to Compete. “Mine is better than yours” is one of the driving motives behind the graded coin and card market. There may be only 2 examples of a 1902 nickel in the world, but the collector with the higher grade may be quick to flaunt the fact that his is a PCGS 8 versus your PCGS 7. These collector types are more concerned about the competition that much of the satisfaction from completing a collection and the personal connection gets lost.

5. Control. The world is a very uncertain place. Economies, politics, your health, your job, and much about the world we live are not in our control. The grind of everyday life is never out of reach. Collecting can be a way to put control into a world that is out of control. As a collector, you can decide what to collect, how to display it, how much to spend, when to buy, when to sell, and dedicate as much or as little of yourself to your collection. This is a direct contrast to the responsibilities dictated by your job, family, and additional obligations. By being in control of your collection, it offers a real escape from what you cannot control.

6. Approval. Many collections are built only after each collecting decision has been approved by the collectors trusted confidant. This confidant could be a reliable dealer or another collector usually in the same field. The need for approval is very strong in these individuals. Each purchase is discussed with the confidant and only if approval is given, will the collector pull the trigger to make the purchase. Collectors with the strong need for approval may miss the deal of the century if left to their own abilities as their lack of confidence can cause a missed opportunity. These collectors focus not as much on their collections, but on the approval obtained from the person they admire. They are using objects to collect approval, which serves a personal and emotional need.

7. Friendships. Many clubs and organizations have been formed to support groups of people interested in the same area of collecting. Automobile clubs, stamp clubs, vintage train clubs, military reenactment camps, and a club for almost every hobby can be found. Clubs allow for collectors to share information, organize, promote trade shows, and create an environment where friendships can grow and flourish. Collectors that seek social bonding as their primary reason for collecting are usually not advanced or as passionate about the objects themselves as their main needs are met via the socialization offered by the friendships developed while collecting.

8. Intellectual Pursuit. Not all collections can be displayed on a shelf or in a lighted cabinet. From before the days of ancient Greece, scholars have collected mathematical equations, famous quotes, and lines of poetry. The same thought processes of collecting apply to this non-object-assembling hobby. Categories are chosen such as derivatives to mathematical problems. Learn as much as you can about your collection. Enjoy the search for knowledge. Money is not goal to this collector.

The environment of the collector influences the obtaining of the item by a collector. These factors that are present when a collector decides to obtain an item or pass on an item include:
How that piece affects the collection? Does it finish a collection? Does it improve his objects; does it grow the collection? Does the item provide a personal or historic bond of the collection to the collector? These are very serious questions to a collector and the answers are part of the enjoyment derived from collecting.

The emotional connection coupled with the collectors’ financial status will determine his ability to add a piece to his collection. For a collector on a budget, the financial confines may dictate the size of the collection. But to a collector of unlimited means, that pursues the same item, the strategy of the above outlined conditions and how each collector prioritizes it will determine ownership of the item.

The Why part of collecting addresses the topical and surface reasons we strive to obtain objects. For whatever reasons are mentioned above cause us to collect, there is a still a connection that occurs between the collector and the object. The connections are grouped into two areas, connection to personal past and connection to historic past.

Personal Past

According to Terry Shoptaugh, instructor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, in the article, “Why Do We Like Old Things? Some Ruminations on History and Memory”, the professor states that collectors collect to remember and relive the past. This has very strong influence in the sports memorabilia business as most collectors I know played Pee Wee football, Little League Baseball, and/or intramural Basketball. We were all the Bo Jackson’s of our time. Just Do It. We did. Collecting allowed us to remember and relive.

The physical object collected served as a reminder that can tangibly link us to our fabled past. By collecting, we can touch the object that links us back in time. Just as Al Bundy did as he donned his Polk High jersey as he countlessly retold the 3 TD high school game story while playing for Polk High on countless episodes of Married with Children. We all have a little Al Bundy in us and our collections prove it.

Since most collectors become serious about collecting in the 40’s and 50’s, it also helps them forget their aging bodies, stress of life, and allows them to remember the romantic days of their youth.

Types of collections that are direct links to a person’s past would include Beer Cans, bumper stickers, and collector’s spoons from vacation destinations. All of these items were obtained in a very personal manner with the experience being very unique to the collector.

Historic Past

Items, which are collected because of the strong connection to the items historic past, are very similar to the reasons collectors seek sports memorabilia and Americana.

Some people have long since moved on from the pain of adolescence and have no need to savor every memory of high school. Collecting for them is not for the purpose of savoring personal memories. But rather, this type of collector thrives to collect objects, which connect the collector to the historic past. Examples include:

Political pins: This field of collecting connects collectors to the thoughts, policies, and politics of the individuals that guided our nation or attempted to. Winner and losers. The ability of those leaders greatly impacted the outcome of our sociological and economic well being. A political button might commemorate the “New Deal” of Roosevelt or remind of us Nixon’s Watergate.

Autographs: Allow collectors to capture the moment of the individuals life. When an autograph collector holds a free frank envelope addressed by the hand of Thomas Jefferson, he is touching an object that for a brief moment in history was handled by a former president. A physical connection occurs which connects the collector to the celebrated person.

Military collectibles. They represent a very strong link to our past. Memories attached to these items range from the Horrors of War, Bravery, and Camaraderie. These artifacts when properly displayed become a reminder and memorial to the soldiers that served. Many bats issued by Louisville Slugger with U.S. Army stamped have crossed my desk. These bats were provided by H&B to the soldiers for use during combat tours oversees. It was Louisville Sluggers way of allowing soldiers to bring a little and important slice of American life with them while abroad. In my recent visit to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. one of my most memorable artifacts was the sword George Washington passed to Congress while relinquishing his control of the Continental army. By the very nature of being free to collect, these items remind us that the conflict is behind us but we should not forget the lessons of war.

Sports Memorabilia. Game worn caps, jerseys, and bats were physically connected to the heroes of our youth. Caps and jerseys were worn and bats swung by the men that some of us consider gods. Pete Rose actually held this bat. Now we can hold the bat that Pete Rose held. Our collections become a direct link to our heroes.

Negative effects of collecting

In this authors opinion, much more positive is derived from collecting that harm. But, in reality, when done irresponsibly, collecting can become an addiction with all of the negative consequences associated. Beware of neglecting your family and friends and letting your collection consume you. Stick to a reasonable budget and do not stretch yourself for the sake of an addition to your collection. Overspending will lead to real financial stress. Be leery of spending too much time surfing the web instead of socializing with your friend and family.

By understanding the reasons why we collect, our hobbies can positively impact our lives and add fulfillment in a way that will be healthy and possible profitable. Collect to enjoy and enjoy your collection.

Troy R. Kinunen


Collectors” Their Habits, Their Psychology”. UGAzine

Collecting: An Unruly Passion by Werner Mueusterberger, copyright 1994 by Princeton University Press

Why Do People Collect Coins by Tom Becker,

Why do People Collect Roman Coin,

Uncovering the History Behind Collecting by Diane Frickle,