In My Own Write: The urge to amass

What intrigues me about collectors isn’t what they collect, but why.

I suppose I could be called something of a collector because I have this thing about clocks. I‘m drawn to them and own quite a few, all in excellent working order.
I’m particularly fond (don’t ask me why) of clocks emblazoned with the name of some commercial enterprise, and generally pick them up for next to nothing at yard sales and bazaars: El Al, Bank of Jerusalem, Radisson Moriah Hotel. They’re full of character, and often beautiful.
My latest acquisition is a huge deep blue and silver-colored wall clock advertising a construction company in Haifa that I came upon one evening during a walk in my Jerusalem neighborhood. It was leaning comfortably but with dignity against the wall of a house in an upscale street together with some other items clearly put out for anyone to take. It now hangs in my kitchen, delighting me every time I look up at its colorful face and hear its authoritative tick.
What is it about clocks that speaks to me? I’ve worked out that it’s probably something to do with their faces, which suggest human ones. That’s why my clocks must have hands and numbers designating the hours; digital timepieces leave me cold.
Like people who take in stray cats, I feel I can always find room for another clock.
MY colleague Liat Collins happened to be passing by as I was thinking about this column. She told me that as a student she had attended a seminar on collecting given by sociologist Prof. Brenda Danet. A collection, she said – echoing my feeling about clocks – can be characterized as something ongoing that is never completed.
Organization and display are other important defining elements. Monetary value isn’t crucial.
She herself collects little sugar packets from cafes and restaurants – “hundreds, over the years, starting from a holiday in France at age six,” right into her career as a journalist.
“In Oman, I nicked sugars freely from one of the most expensive hotels in the sultanate,” she confessed.
“You can’t give it up,” she said, saying she was “addicted to the sugar rush.”
What intrigued me about collectors, I told her, was not so much what they collected, as why.
What are collectors revealing about themselves? I was led to ponder this question by the recent experience of a North American friend that was the opposite of collecting: His aliya preparations included many painful months spent separating from all kinds of stuff, some of it inherited, much of it owned for decades.
During this process, he developed such an antipathy to even the concept of acquiring that he e-mailed me (only partly) jokingly: “Maybe someone will do me a favor and just put a match to it all.”
I CAN never hear about collecting without picturing one of Jerusalem’s most dedicated collectors, Toby Shuster, in whose apartment I stayed for several weeks in 2000 while my own was being renovated.
Her numerous collections, for the most part, hang from walls or sit on shelves, creating riotous color rather than clutter, and include: an impressive number of Argentinean paintings on wood of doorways and windows; 1950s and ‘60s women’s hats; different kinds of kippot; miniature shoes; a quantity of blue-and-white Bukharan china; tribal, ceramic, porcelain and papier maché dolls, colored photographs – and the collection for which she is best known: some 400 miniature Volkswagen Beetles, running up and down and around her doorways.
“Some of them are in double lines,” she told me when I called to refresh my memory.
I recalled that when my daughter and I stayed in her apartment, we first had to clear the dolls off her sofa before we could sit down.
“It’s just great,” she replied when I asked what her collections did for her. “When I walk into the apartment, I’m always smiling. It’s soothing.”
Is collecting compulsive? It is, she said. “Collectors keep on collecting,” she stated, and advised, “Never ask a collector, ‘Where are you going to put it?’ They’ll always find a place.”
But she’s getting much more selective, she said.
And a lot of her stuff, I have to admit, is interesting and beautiful, if visually overwhelming in the mass.
ANOTHER colleague told me about his brother, an expert mechanic and clarinetist, who one could say collects with a vengeance.
“He moved from Canada to the Cayman Islands to teach mechanics to the natives in a community college,” my colleague recounted. “He had been living in a house in a small village in Ontario whose three floors he had packed from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with electronic equipment beyond any sane requirements for his own use. He had to give it all away.
“Once settled in the Caymans, he rented an airplane hangar and started the process all over again. Now, 10 years on, he’s in Toronto, where he has acquired 200-300 computers and computer monitors, stereo equipment, and 30 or 40 clarinets.
“He goes around the neighborhood by car,” my colleague continued, “picking up anything he sees that he thinks he can use – computers, TVs that aren’t working, even lawnmowers.
“‘I can sell them and make money,’ he offers by way of explanation, though most of it is junk.”
But, my colleague hastened to add, his brother has nonetheless made some amazing investments.
“For example, he can buy a clarinet for $50 or $75, and sell it for $3,000 or $4,000.”
Is his brother a collector or a hoarder? I asked. A good question, my colleague mused.
“Collecting gives him a feeling of security,” he said. “It makes him feel more immune to the vagaries of life.”
One psychological view identifies the quintessential collector as the small child who collects just one thing – a security blanket.
THE difference between collecting and hoarding, it emerges, is the ability to differentiate between what is important and needs to be held onto, and what can be parted with; tied, psychologists say, into a baby’s initial total identification with its mother (“me and mother are one and the same person”) followed by the eventual ability to sense “what is me” and the separate “what is not-me.”
The Collyer brothers, who lived in 1940s America, have gone down in history as obsessive collectors of all kinds of items who set boobytraps in their corridors and doorways to protect against intruders. Both were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded, according to Wikipedia, by over 130 tons of waste amassed over several decades.
For them, healthy separation was a tragic impossibility.
“A sense of ownership is part of normal human development,” a psychologist friend explained to me. “Filling photo albums, keeping heirlooms, these are healthy things. A collector collects with a fine hand and exercises subtle judgment, often with a defined goal – beautifying the home, or eventually bequeathing the collection to a museum. His or her collecting makes sense to others and can be a shared pleasure.
“The hoarder, on the other hand, collects out of compulsion, attempting thereby to deal with some inner problem that would dismay rather than delight others. Compulsive hoarding, a pathology, is the extreme expression of collecting.
“In the end, it depends on the personality and motivation of the person.”
WHAT about my impulse to collect clocks? I asked my psychologist friend.
“Clocks are a reaffirmation of life,” she replied.
“Their ticking is like the heartbeat. Someone who collects clocks is connecting to a special memory that gives security.
“There’s something happy about a clock face,” she smiled, “recalling the earliest face of the mother.”
ONE of the most fascinating and colorful collections of all time can be found right here in Israel. The collection is ongoing, and on perpetual display. It is organized (most of the time) and, many believe, has a definite goal – though exactly what that goal might be is a matter for debate.
The name of this unique collection? It’s the Ingathering of the Exiles.