Why Do People Collect Things?

atkins-bookshelf-triviaAlthough television shows about hoarding are fascinating and horrifying at the same time, they do open the door to the intriguing world of collecting. Of course, hoarders give collectors a bad name. Whereas the hoarder literally creates a rubbish pile, the collector carefully acquires, organizes, classifies, catalogs, maintains, and shows off his or her orderly prized acquisitions. All of this collecting activity begs the question: why do we collect things?

Psychologist Randy Frost and Veselina Hristova, in a study on the dark side of collecting, i.e., compulsive hoarding, noted that for mentally healthy individuals (hoarders have cognitive deficits, many times due to brain trauma), collecting things allow people to ease their insecurity or anxiety about life or perhaps more specifically, losing their identity (or part of their identity). This is achieved by collecting things that allow them to either relive their childhood or make a connection to a happier period in their life (nostalgia). At bottom, collecting allows the collector to keep the past forever in the present.

Psychologist Mark McKinley divides collectors into several camps: those that collect for pure enjoyment; those who collect for investment; those who collect to preserve the past, those who collect to expand their social circles; those who enjoy the quest (knowing that their collection will never be complete in their lifetime); those who collect for prestige or fame; those who are fulfilling a void in their self identity; and those who enjoy experimenting with arranging and re-arranging a microcosm of objects obtained from the larger world. For many collectors, it is a combination of several of these reasons. It is very likely that without these powerful motivations many of the world’s great museums and libraries would not exist today.

Just as fascinating about why people collect is what they collect. There are even terms that have evolved to explain what people collect; for example, a numismatist collects coins, a horologist collects clocks, an archtophilist collects teddy bears, a vecturist collects subway tokens, a philatelist collects stamps, a bibliophile collects books, and a deltiologist collects postcards.

Given their extremely large disposable incomes, celebrities get to indulge their “inner child” with some rather conventional and rather bizarre collectibles:

Nicolas Cage: comic books
George Clooney: motorcycles
Johnny Depp: rare books
Tom Hanks: manual typewriters
Michael Jackson: egyptian harps, Elephant Man artifacts
Angelina Jolie: knives
Nicole Kidman: ancient Judean coins
Jay Leno: cars and motorcycles
Rosie O’Donnell: McDonald toys
Elvis Presley: police badges
Debbie Reynolds: movie memorabilia
Jerry Seinfeld: Superman memorabilia
Frank Sinatra: model trains
Britney Spears: antique dolls
Rod Stewart: model trains
Kiefer Sutherland: Gibson guitars
Quentin Tarantino: board games
John Travolta: aviation memorabilia
Robin Williams: toy soldiers
Neil Young: model trains

For further reading: What Celebrities Collect by Michele Karl and Robin Leach, Pelican Publishing (2006)

Time magazine, August 21, 2017 issue

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