Wonderful Obsessions

By Sara Evans

Johan Besler, Columbine from the 1720 Florilegium

Spending time at home is no hardship for collectors—first, because we are surrounded by our wonderful obsessions and second, because we are engaged in a vibrant and intriguing dialogue with history. Ever since the first biped found a shell with a hole in it and strung it around her neck, we have had a profound relationship to our material possessions, a desire to accumulate things that appeal to our sense of beauty.  

I have been collecting since I was a child. My homes in New York and Long Island are filled with things that give me great and abiding pleasure, things that are very old.  Sometimes, instead of counting sheep as I fall asleep, I rank my favorites items by age, beginning with a 15th century manuscript page I purchased as a college student in Wisconsin.

Next oldest is a Tudor six-board chest from 1540-1560, inherited from my English mother.  Her passion was “cottage oak,” (never to be confused with “Mission oak”), a piece of solid country furniture that had stood the test of time. Of simple construction, cottage oak literally glows with age.  There is something magical about it, a sturdy wood that says “I have been here a long time; and for a long time, I will remain.”

The first piece of antique furniture I bought as a young woman just starting out in the underpaid field of publishing,  was a 1786 painted Norwegian dower chest.   I had spied it in an auction-house window and my family was having a reunion on Cape Cod the weekend of the sale.   On a whim,  I walked into the shop and placed a $100 bid.  I was sure I wouldn’t get it. But the auctioneer liked me and it was magically mine. The chest still bears a shipping label from Kristiana (what Oslo was called until 1906) and has its original iron key.

Hand-painted Norwegian dower chest that contained a bride's household linens.

Then came my Norwegian mangle board, lovingly chip-carved by some groom for his bride and dated with the year of their marriage—1737. Bought many years later in Maine, it reinforces my passion for all things Scandinavian. Its deep green patina and stylized horse handle feel ancient, primal.  Mangleboards were early irons. Some were used daily, others were decorative. From the wear on my horse handle, it is clear to me that mine was used—and cherished.  When I was young, I lived in Denmark and have always loved this country’s preference for simple, utilitarian design. I first discovered the mangel boards while visiting Maihaugen, a magical open-air museum near Lillehammer, and later, at Skansen in Stockholm, the oldest open-air museum in the world. These museums function as time machines, carrying us back to the households of another era.

Another of my passions is for English “barley twist,”  furniture with carved wood resembling a corkscrew.  I have a lamp, a bench, and an 1840’s backgammon table with candle holders. And I long for a pair of barley twist side chairs like the one below. I like to picture elegant gentlemen, playing for money at my backgammon table in the flickering light of a Victorian drawing room.  (Furniture like this makes novelists of us all.)


Then there is glass. My parents gave me two green dump-glass doorstops and the third I snared at an upscale church rummage sale in Manhattan. It was only $20 but I passed it up, having recently sworn not to buy any more antiques. I was halfway home before I said to myself, “Idiot! You are probably the only person at that sale who even knows what that is!” And so I went back and bought it.   These heavy objects were made in 19th century window factories from molten glass that could not be re-melted and used the next morning.  Some were made into interior doorstops, others into paperweights, like the egg-shaped glass below.

Why We Collect

What makes a person amass so many unusual objects and how does a real collection begin? It may start as a whim or a passion that, over time, begins to build. Orhan Pamuk, author of The Museum of Innocence, says, “Getting attached to objects is a common thing. We get attached to a movie ticket, or a picture of a beloved, or a little doll..because we project symbolic value to them, while they trigger some of our memories. In our attachments we almost behave like dogs who keep their bones in a corner. A horde of objects is raised to a level of collection if there is a logic behind it.”  A collector, he adds is one who “cares about exhausting the possibilities.”

For some, collecting is rational — you see something that appeals to you and you want more of it. The 19th century English British book collector Richard Heber always bought three copies – one for reading, one for lending and one to keep in pristine condition on his library shelf.

Beatrice van Gelder, a neuroscience researcher in Maastricht who also has an art gallery, prefers to view it as a passion.”Human beings,” she says, “want to see themselves as rational in their behavior, which is tempting because it gives you comfort and assurance in a world that is otherwise very chaotic. If accumulating things follows a set logic, though it becomes hoarding and not collecting.”

San Francisco psychiatrist Ravi Chandra believes we find ourselves in our collections. “We have many personalities,” he explains, “Humans are just collections of different ambitions and emotions.” Over time, we are drawn to objects that affirm a certain portion of ourselves.   

Daniel Krawczyk Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and expert on the brain and behavioral science, notes that there are many species that collect. Pack rats pick up little objects and take them back to their nests and magpies have an affinity for shiny objects. Humans also  have a foraging brain, he says.  “We’re good at combining signals about value and memory.”

There are people who collect old cars and comic books, movie memorabilia and pinball machines, all because they remind them of their youth.  

While antiques connect us to the past, they can also become tools of self-invention, allowing us to create a more compelling origin story —  if we aren’t averse to living portraits of someone else’s ancestors. Mario Buatta, of Staten Island Italian origins, filled his homes with English country house antiques and his Anglophile self-image grew in tandem with his collection. “Of course, I know a lot of this is affectation,” Mr. Buatta once told The New York Times. “I know I’m not an English country gentleman. I’m basically a tradesman who goes in the front door instead of the back.”

Collecting doesn’t have to be the purview of those with money. Some things I have practically stolen: the silver toddy ladle for five pounds in Buckinghamshire a zillion years ago, when my husband had a sabbatical, the large brass fire tongs for 50 pence at some “car boot” sale in Wales. Of course, other times, I’ve spent too much—as I did for the art glass vase with butterflies; the Georgian brass skimmer.  While my Welsh husband made sure we returned to his homeland every other summer,  I made sure to find some treasures we could bring back home.  

What all collectors have in common is a quest for knowledge — we spend time researching our prizes, learning everything there is to know about an object and its origins.  No one in his right mind would want to watch the Antiques Roadshow with me. It’s like “Jeopardy” for antiques lovers and I’ve been known to  shout out the names of objects and their prices before the experts. 

These days, the internet is the collector’s best friend; it is like having an instant appraiser at your desk. I recently learned that my Danish painting of strawberries is by Emma Thomsen, a 19th century artist whose work is in that country’s Royal Collection.  And a quick search revealed that my Besler botanical print of columbines is from the 1640 edition of his Hortus Eystetennsis.  It’s a genuine joy to be able unearth the secrets of things bought long ago out of sheer desire.

Detail from Emma Thomsen's Strawberries.

Other pieces keep their counsel and hold their secrets tight. When my young grandsons ask me about the beautiful little Edwardian boy with his ruffled collar, a miniature portrait I bought for fifty pounds on a visit to London’s famous Bermondsey market, I tell them his name was Timothy,  but fail to mention that he was likely killed in World War I.  I will tell them the full story once they’re older.

Edwardian hand-colored portrait.

Collectors  are a funny breed and sometimes pay a high price for their passion.  In the novel Utz, Bruce Chatwin describes a man obsessed with Meissen porcelain who won’t leave his house in Prague because he’s worried that his collection might be damaged or stolen.

Some collectors delve deep, specializing in one area:  snuff boxes, paperweights, butter molds, over time, amass more than they can care for.  Though Mario Buatta set design trends for decades starting in the 1960’s, he never let anyone into his townhouse–including the cleaners. Before his trove of antiques was auctioned at Sotheby’s, decades worth of dust and grime had to be removed from them.  Buatta was the ultimate maximalist — he could never have enough.    

Those  a strong sense of stewardship collect for institutions, like the Lauder brothers of cosmetics fame. Leonard donated his Cubist paintings to the Met, and Ronald, who once served as ambassador to Austria, opened his own museum, The Neue Galerie, featuring painting by Klimt and Schiele and the German expressionists. The late Jayne Wrightsman known for her collection of porcelain and decorative arts, also gave to the Met.  And an intrepid band of women, Edith Halpert, Electra Havemeyer Webb and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, defined  American folk art and then established their own museums.

I myself have gone overboard collecting and can see how one suddenly needs more space.  Does one really need three copper kettles? The answer is, Of course!  One is oval, a flat-bottomed kettle for use on a canal boat; one is a family piece, a huge, ancient Scandinavian kettle that is a royal pain to clean, and the third a standard issue Victorian. Our lust for kettles has been captured in an old folk song: 

Get you a copper kettle
Get you a copper coil
Cover with new made corn mash
And never more you’ll toil

You just lay there by the juniper
While the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-fillin’
In the pale moonlight. 

Why buy antiques today?  And what to do with the ones you’ve already assembled? The endless refrain is “But the kids don’t want it.” No, they don’t. Not many of them, not yet. But recently, I was talking to a dealer at the prestigious New York Winter Show who said, “Young people come to me all the time, wanting to sell silver and jewelry they have inherited.   I tell them to wait; their tastes may change. And often they do.”

Maybe, just maybe, there is an untagged gene for loving and caring for old things. After all, my daughter bargained for a silver ring in England when she was only eight. She knows the good stuff, knows what will someday be hers. The things she and my minimalist son choose to keep from my collection will be tangible ties to family and to the homes they grew up in. They will conjure memories of the joys of the hunt that we all have shared. And that, in the end, is what it’s all about. As the poet Richard Wilbur says, “Love calls us to the things of the world.”  

Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home.  She has written about travel, child development, gardening, antiques and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living

Recommended Reading

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

A Gentle Madness: Bibiliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas Basbanes

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