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Why collect? Joseph Rykwert considers what has led people through the ages to make collections, sometimes of the most unlikely objects, and discusses the value of their activities.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT collecting nowadays, we often have collecting works of art in mind, but the truth is that people will collect almost anything. They will collect bottle-tops and cigarette-boxes or they will collect skyscrapers -- like Donald Trump of New York, who also collects trophy wives. In the past, they might have collected saints' relics like Saint Louis, who built the. Sainte Chapelle as a kind of jewel-box for them; or one-night-stand girlfriends like Don Giovanni, who had them listed in a catalogue by his man-servant, Leporello.

And people collect in all sorts of ways: they may hoard great columns of many years' worth of daily papers in squalid rooms round which they can barely navigate, or buy almost any sharp instrument that could cause a wound -- like the American-born pharmacist Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), who ended up being overcome by the variety, as well as the quantity, of his purchases, as his legatees are still said to be. Such hoarding may indeed be pathological: but other collectors may be discriminating to a fault, and will commission famous architects to build them galleries (which they will even endow and turn over to the public as museums) that will house their carefully-chosen group of masterpieces -- masterpieces that have, of course, been restored, cleaned, framed, artfully lit, and learnedly catalogued so that the catalogue itself becomes a work of reference which will, in its turn, be coveted by historians and connoisseurs as well as other collectors. Conveniently, the English language supplies a collective noun which takes in all these objects, whether bottle-tops, relics or skyscrapers: collectables, or collectibles.

Until recently, I had imagined that the word was a modern one -- since collecting has become so much a part of our world, at any rate our world as it is described by the daily papers. But a look in the OED soon put me right. The word was coined in the mid-seventeenth century, when it had a literary sense -- and meant passages to be anthologised from a number of texts. So, Sir Thomas Browne talked of `instances collectible from Scripture'; and he also applied the term to arguments that may be deduced -- collected -- from stated premises; when discussing the difference between ice and stone (solid in relation to liquid), he said that `the difference in their concretion is collectible from their dissolution'. By the late nineteenth century, however, the term was already applied by journalists to objects, more or less precious ones, which people wanted to collect -- in our sense of the word.

The word collectible hides a capsule of condensed meaning which we tend to forget. Being an Anglicised derivative from the Latin collectio, it is itself a noun from the verb collegere, con-legere, meaning to read or number together; or to choose, count, read, drawn from the same root and with similar meaning as the Greek legein -- itself related to logos -- the word which may be taken as an emblem of rationality. The Greeks already had the word kata-legein, which meant to review, to count up one by one -- suggesting the listing that goes into the making of a modern catalogue.

We are often told -- by psychologists as well as journalists -- that, for all the rational and even arithmetical implications carried by the word, collecting has a dark side, which they tend to consider its controlling impulse or motive. Psychologists make much of `the object of desire', which the infant can identify in the nourishing breast, and which is later displaced by pieces of cloth, `comfort blankets' and more elaborate soft toys which provide the emotional and sometimes the physical comfort the infant or small child needs in the course of maturation.

It is tempting to see collecting in such instinctual terms, as a function of the id-propelled personality seeking some compensation for a sense of insecurity or of early deprivation. The power of this instinctual drive when it is out of reach of any controlling conscience can help to explain the ruthless and insatiable greed of some famous collectors.

This is because customary inhibitions and reticences do not seem to operate when the individual is in pursuit of the exceptional, the rare, even the unique. As `the collection' becomes objectified, it assumes an independent status with its own imperious demands which rob the collector -- its guardian -- of moral judgement. While there may be nothing inherently good or bad about the activity of collecting itself, yet the acquisition of an object that might complete a series, or be of particular rarity, seems to justify activities which in other circumstances might be considered punishable -- if not damnable.

The tenth Commandment forbids you to covet your neighbour's house, his wife, man-servant or maid-servant; his ox, his ass `nor anything that is thy neighbour's (Exod. XX 17). That must include thy neighbour's Cubist paintings and his first editions of Thomas Hardy or Henry James. And yet coveting is part of many a collector's psychological make-up. Many -- particularly book-collectors -- will filch a book from their neighbour without any qualms of conscience, arguing that they `need' it.

One of the most notorious collectors of history was Queen Christina of Sweden (r.1632-54) who, in spite of her glamorous impersonation on screen by Greta Garbo in 1933, is known to some historians as `the predatory bluestocking of the north' (Hugh Trevor-Roper's description). The daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, Christina (1626-89) had collected famous men of letters at her court, at least one of whom, Rene Descartes, died of pneumonia following a cold brought on by the harsh Stockholm winter.

As for works of art, she urged her commander, Johann Christian von Konigsmarck, to assault the High Castle of Prague at the beginning of August 1648 so as to capture the great collection of Western works of art that the Emperor Rudolph II had put together. Its hereditary keeper, Eusebio Miseroni, was tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden treasures so that they could be packed and sent off to Stockholm shortly before the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia of October 1648 became known in Prague. Just before she abdicated in 1654 -- and still in her twenties -- Christina sent the best pictures, manuscripts, and antiquities to Rome, where they furnished her palace and were sold after her death, the antiquities ending in the Prado, the manuscripts in the Vatican and the pictures dispersed.

Christina's avidity for men of letters -- as well as for works of art -- was the consequence both of lack of parental affection -- her father was away at the wars and died when she was six, her mother seems to have been a cold fish and rather remote -- and of her kyphosis: bad, forward-leaning posture which made her almost a hunchback. The lack of paternal affection was certainly exacerbated by that posture defect, and their combination is offered in partial explanation for Christina's collecting urge -- though her peremptory wielding of power and her familiarity with state affairs show a person who was anything but insecure in the part she played as a sovereign. Her bad posture, as well as her assumption of male garb and attitudes, did not stop her being wooed by a number of desirable men -- including her cousin, Charles Gustav, who went on wooing her even after she nominated him her heir-apparent; he succeeded as Charles X on her abdication.

A more clamorous if less prominent case of the predatory collector was that of an illegitimate son kept apart from his mother who had been a servant in his father's house. The nineteenth-century antiquarian and bibliophile, Sir Thomas Phillipps, had inherited a yearly income of 8,000 [pounds sterling] on his father's death in about 1840 -- the equivalent of nearly 1,000,000 [pounds sterling] today. The money could not quench his avidity and he was constantly in debt and evading bailiffs, but for all that he managed to bankrupt both booksellers and art-dealers. He fed his family short rations and dressed them in threadbare clothes in order to amass a library containing `one copy each of every text ever printed'. He also bought a great many manuscripts and old-master drawings, but he seems to have been completely insensitive to the aesthetic merits of the latter.

Being on bad terms with his family Phillipps left his collection to one of his daughters, but with no funds to maintain it. Consequently it had to be sold and was dispersed in a series of sixty auction-sales. Phillipps' other daughter, who had married a much more distinguished scholar than he, was cut out from the will altogether. His wife was left an annuity of a mere hundred pounds.

Instinctive and apparently quite uncontrollable collecting urges can only be attributed to the individual. The notion of the individual, however, did not really `arise' -- until the seventeenth century. And even then, the term and its full implications only reached definition at the Enlightenment. Does this mean that there were no earlier collectors? Of course not. The great relic-collectors of the Middle Ages were not motivated by insecurity. Suger (1081-1151), who became abbot of the Benedictine house of St Denis to the north of Paris in 1122, was one of the most powerful figures in France. Though his family was not rich, he seems -- if anything -- to have exaggerated their lowly status. Brought up in the same school as the future king Louis VI, he became a familiar of the royal family. He was `devoted' to St Denis in his early teens, but continued to be affectionate to his relations. The abbot's pleasure in the listing, augmenting and displaying of the collection of antiquities and gems his abbey already possessed is hard to see as being motivated by personal insecurity or infantile deprivation.

Suger's passionate enterprise was not proprietary, like that of the private collector, even if he recorded the explanatory verses he had inscribed on the objects he had assembled. He presented each one of them as an aid to piety and an ornament to his abbey, to smooth its working and worship and to confirm its connection with the French monarchy, and this made his collecting almost a political process.

There was no political intention or programme about the most rapacious collector of antiquity. The Roman magistrate Gaius Verres (d.43 BC) robbed the temples and palaces of Sicily where he was propraetor (in effect, viceroy) in 73 -71 BC, of any portable work of art, and some immobile ones, such as bronze doors. The Romans had few easel pictures, mainly panels, most probably treated with encaustic; nor did they have reliable methods of removing frescoes. But robber collectors would take sculptures, reliefs, vases and manuscripts. Verres had to remove his collection to Massilia in Gaul where he finished his life in relatively comfortable exile, though if he was only guilty of half the things of which Cicero accused him, a modern court would have meted out much severer punishment.

In antiquity, fine art objects would be carried in a conqueror's triumphal procession, as the Emperor Titus carried the gold objects from the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70; Napoleon emulated this kind of triumph in his own `return from Italy' in 1796, much as Verres was emulated in the last century by Hermann Goring. But Napoleon, like the Roman emperors, was not collecting for himself; he was ambitious to put together a universal museum of science and art which would bolster the claim of Paris to be a world capital. That ambition was closer to that of the Ptolemies, who had put together the world's greatest library in Alexandria, where they also had an art gallery and a `research institute' to attract the leading scholars of the day. Theirs was no private enterprise, but a state one, part of the successful effort of making Alexandria the world's finest city. When Caesar burnt part of a book-dump on the quays of the harbour, Mark Antony compensated Cleopatra by giving her the whole library of the City of Pergamon, 200,000 scrolls -- which its last king, Attalos III, had bequeathed to the Romans in 133 BC.

The scrolls were presumably parchment (the word is a corruption of the name Pergamon), since the technique of preparing animal skins in such a way that both sides could take writing was developed by the Pergamene kings after the Alexandrian Ptolemies, jealous of their literary patronage and ambitions, embargoed the export of papyrus. The scarcity of papyrus was politically motivated, but the Pergamene kings were collecting books before the embargo -- and scarcity may be accidental or induced. Scarcity of the collectable object -- of postage stamps, for instance -- is often the motive spurring the individual collector.

Yet collecting has often been done by communities, and in circumstances where the notion of scarcity does not apply. The great Aztec skull-shrine at Tenochtitlan -- to take one instance -- was described by Bernal Diaz, who visited it with Cortes and in the company of the emperor Montezuma:
   ... another cue, full of skulls and large bones arranged in an orderly
   pattern and so numerous that you could not count them, however long you
   looked. The skulls were in one place and the bones in separate piles.

Tenochtitlan was a large city, full of markets, palaces and temples in which human sacrifice was often offered. The limbs of the victims were eaten by the priests, the torsos fed to the menageries -- the Aztecs kept many carnivorous animals. But the dried skulls and bones were kept in elaborate shrines.

Were they `collected', in our sense? Arguably, yes. Even in the oldest proto-urban agglomerations, Catal Huyuk and Jericho, skulls -- human and animal -- seem always to have been collected. The bovine ones were turned into elaborate architectural decorations at Catal, while the human ones were probably buried inside houses; at Jericho, the human ones were modelled as faces, the eye-sockets inlaid with cowrie shells -- though we cannot be sure how they were stored or displayed. This is also done in modern Polynesian and Melanesian settlements.

The skull was considered by many peoples as a special microcosm, part of the general image of the body as a miniature world. It was the seat of the soul. Preserving it, therefore, assured the living that its possessor was truly dead; it also provided its surviving foes with some share in their enemy's power. That seems to have been the motive of the Khmer Rouge skull collections, just as it had been of the Aztecs. Sometimes the skulls were elaborately ornamented. Herodotus records that the Scythian Issidones would gild ancestor skulls and keep them in shrines as objects of worship, though other Scythians gilded enemy skulls and made them into special festive cups. And when the Boi Celts, who lived in the Po Valley, defeated and killed the Roman general Postumius, they gilded his skull and kept it as a ceremonial cup in a temple. Not all skulls receive such veneration. However, in parts of south-east Asia and the upper Amazon, techniques have been developed for extracting the skull and preserving the shape of the head and face by chemical shrinking. In many cases they are taken to act as an assurance of continuity -- and perhaps of the benevolence of the dead.

The Ainu people of northern Japan give the bear semi-divine status. Cubs are caught by villagers and nurtured for a year or two and then ritually killed and eaten. The bear's head and its pelt are then set up as objects of worship, much like palaeolithic hunters seem to have set up a bear's skull and cross-bones into a shrine. The custom of collecting the stuffed heads or antlers of hunted animals has survived into our time all over the Western world.

The face is the most individual part of the head. We have no means of knowing whether the face modelled on the skull may or may not have `looked like' the deceased. The Roman word persona signified both face and mask. It was derived, in all probability, from the Etruscan phersu. However, one grammarian, Aulus Gellius, quotes an older authority who considered the word to be derived from personare, to speak loudly, because the masks were regarded as amplifiers. None of these masks survive, even though there are many sculptures and paintings of them. They were treated as redoubtable entities, and an actor would make an incense sacrifice to his mask before putting it on. Roman families kept collections of masks, in painted- or wax-covered wood, in the ceremonial rooms of the house. They represented ancestors and would be worn at funerals. Roman satirists mocked families who displayed masks of invented ancestors and bogus family-trees to claim antiquity for their clan.

The genuine patrician may have collected ancestors as a guarantee of continuity and as an acknowledgement of his historical position. As the patricians -- true or fake -- collected their ancestors, so the city collected monuments of its great men and visible accounts of the legends that dealt with the nature of the tribe, the nation, the agglomeration. The Pinacotheca or picture-gallery on the Athenian Acropolis, and the Lesche, `club-house' (or perhaps council-room), at Delphi both housed an elaborate cycle of paintings -- an account of Greek origins. The Temple of Hera at Olympia, the oldest one on that sacred site, was gradually turned into a sumptuous art gallery; it contained the sculptures, reliefs and other treasures collected from, or donated by, other Greek cities.

As the patrician in ancient Rome collected his ancestor masks, so the nomads all over the world, whenever they set up their encampments, also found room for their household gods, whom they sometimes identified with their ancestors. These were represented in various ways. They may have been images or they may have been mere tokens. Their value to their owners did not depend on the precious materials of which they might be made, or even the elaborate facture of the objects, but on their emotive and associative value.

If such objects can be called `collections' in any modern sense, they were certainly not props for any personal insecurity; perhaps nomads and hunter-gatherers did not have to deal with psychological anxieties in the way we do. Yet they did garner and value objects which had a formal value, and they seem to have treasured them for their beauty alone. Neolithic craftsmen made fine polished axes which were of doubtful use either in the household or in hunting. Earlier were the cave paintings, so sophisticated that even a century ago some prehistorians thought they had to be fakes. Hunter-gatherers also had shaped objects that were portable and maintained over a period of time. These mysterious carved wooden or bone staves, notched and fretted, were long considered to be some kind of sceptre, or baton de commandement, as French prehistorians call them. Their purpose has only recently been decoded. It seems that they were used to keep records of planetary changes, moon-phases, eclipses and star movements.

So even the earliest hunter-gatherers made and collected objects whose intrinsic value was not due to their being composed of scarce material. Their value lay partly in their execution and partly in their being aids to knowledge. These were collections without any sense of rarity, because there was no sense of scarcity -- the hunter-gatherers did not know famine in our sense. They followed prey, and when their food sources changed their habitat, the human foragers followed.

The collections of the hunter-gatherers, and those of the inhabitants of ancient cities, may be analogues of the nineteenth-century museum of art. They were not concerned with the comfort a deprived individual may derive from the object of desire; instead these collectors are concerned with knowing, arranging and ordering, more like the maintaining of the prehistoric batons de commandement than Thomas Phillipps' book collection, whose motivation was his conception of the scarcity of the objects he treasured.

If there is a sense in which the collections of our remote ancestors or of city fathers in more recent times may be said to offer any psychological comfort to those who made them, it is not in the cushioning against personal inadequacy. Rather it is to be found in the provision of a microcosm of order and knowledge -- a weapon against that sense of our passing which the great Tudor poet, William Dunbar, enshrined in the refrain Timor mortis conturbat me (`the fear of death makes me tremble').


Marcus Tullius Cicero (tr. and ed. L.H.G. Greenwood) In Cn. Verrem Actiones./ The Verrine Orations (Heinemann and Harvard UP, 1966); Francis Haskell, Past and Present in Art and Taste (Yale UP, 1987) and Patrons and Painters (Chatto and Windus, 1963); Otto Kurz, Fakes: A Handbook for Students and Collectors (Faber and Faber, 1958); Jesus-Pedro Lorente, Cathedrals of Urban Modernity: The First Museums of Contemporary Art 1800-1930 (Ashgate, 1998); Karl E. Meyer, The Plundered Past (Penguin, 1977); Werner Muensterberger, Collecting, an Unruly Passion, Psychological Perspectives. (Princeton UP 1994); Pausanias, Guide to Greece, trans Peter Levi, S.J., (Penguin, 1971); Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).

Joseph Rykwert is Emeritus Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Seduction of Place: The City in the 21st Century and Beyond (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000).
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Author:Rykwert, Joseph
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Date:Dec 1, 2001
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