An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting

By Philipp Blom

Overlook. 274 pp. $27.95

(Forthcoming in mid-March)The impulse to collect is one of the odder disorders with which humans can be afflicted. Philipp Blom correctly argues, in this interesting and provocative book, that traditionally collecting has been a luxury enjoyed by the rich and privileged, yet my own father was unable to resist the impulse despite possessing only the most modest of means. As a preacher's son during and after World War I, he cobbled together a stamp collection, and about a decade after World War II, he accumulated a substantial library devoted to the work of Anthony Trollope, on little more wherewithal than the salary of the preacher and schoolmaster he himself had become. An Anglophile to the core, he also had a small collection of coins honoring two-and-a-half-dozen British sovereigns, which he carefully framed against a velvet background.

That frame now hangs above my desk, but it is the only vestige I retain of my parent's obsession. In our family at least, collecting does not seem to be genetically preordained. I tried stamp collecting as a boy but hadn't the patience for it. I loved my model trains, but not enough to make a permanent shrine out of them. For a while in the late 1960s and early '70s, I chased around after Faulkneriana, but as prices rose my enthusiasm ebbed, leaving me with a few incomplete shelves and perhaps a half-dozen items of minor value -- worth enough, perhaps, to meet a couple of lease payments on an entry-level luxo automobile.

This is nickel-and-dime collecting. On the grand scale -- as practiced by the likes of King Rudolf II of Bohemia and, subsequently, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; Tsar Peter the Great of Russia; or J.P. Morgan of New York City -- collecting can be an enterprise so sumptuous as to defy the comprehension of ordinary mortals. Rudolf, who was crowned emperor in 1575, came to his throne with a well-developed appetite for collection and proceeded to indulge it to the maximum. He assembled "a collection of such splendor, quality and sheer size that it became the envy of crowned heads throughout the continent." Doubtless to a large extent his motives were self-aggrandizing, but they also arose from the 16th century's ravenous curiosity about the wonders of the universe and its longing to fathom them.

Thus the great collections of the Renaissance and for a long time thereafter were not intended to conserve what was already known to be rare and valuable but to explore a world that was unknown and mysterious. It was an age when alchemy, superstition and magic still exerted a powerful hold on the most educated and progressive parts of society, and collections were regarded as a way of plumbing the "dividing line between the natural and the occult," of bringing everything together in the hope that the assembled items might shed light on one another. Consider this most incomplete catalogue of Rudolf's Kunstkammer, where his treasures were gathered: "a large gallery of paintings, drawings and prints; several Seychelles nuts; ivories and works in gold and silver; carved rhinoceros horns; numerous cups and beakers in precious stone and rock crystal as well as in glass; landscapes inlaid in agate and jasper; glass engraved with great personages and allegorical scenes; medals; exotic arms and armor, among them Japanese and Arabic pieces; works in wax; Islamic art and Mughal miniatures; Chinese porcelain; games and puzzles; bezoars and other items thought to possess magical qualities; globes, sextants, telescopes, compasses, planetaria, astronomical compendia and sundials, clocks, automata and other mechanical devices; books on architecture, astronomy and astrology; printed music and musical instruments."

As exploration in various forms gradually increased human understanding of the world, collectors looked in other directions, some of which now seem bizarre. Perhaps the most notable such collector was Dr. Frederik Ruysch, who in the 17th century began to work as an anatomist and embalmer in Holland. The 17th century was "a time when people were constantly confronted with mortality and were only just discovering the wondrous workings of the human body." Thanks to "a secret method of embalming, developed over many years, he could transform any corpse into a state of timeless peacefulness," and these relics were collected and displayed to the delight of those permitted to view them.

One such was Peter the Great, who was inspired by what he saw in Ruysch's collection and himself went on to become "the first great collector in Russian history." One paragraph from Blom's account of him must be quoted in full:

"Peter had a strong fascination for anatomy, illness and death, and believed himself to be an excellent surgeon. Part of his collection was made up of teeth that he himself had drawn, not always because they needed to come out. Many unsuspecting passers-by had to relinquish molars before their ruler's lust for surgery was satisfied. The teeth in the collection are recorded in the contemporary catalogue as: 'teeth extracted by Emperor Peter from various persons,' among them a singer, a person who made tablecloths, a bishop of Rostov, and a fast-walking messenger ('not fast enough,' as Stephen Jay Gould remarks)."

By the 18th century further change was under way. The somewhat indiscriminate accumulation of discrete treasures began to be replaced by conservation of objects valuable for artistic or other reasons and by the classification of plants "according to the form and function of the reproductive parts of individual specimens," as devised by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. It wasn't long before the private collections of kings and potentates gave way to museums open to the public, led by the Louvre in Paris and its great director Dominique Vivant Denon. "In their new public function," Blom writes, "museums assumed the roles of public educator and arbiter of taste and knowledge, with the whole-hearted ferocity of a Victorian missionary bringing to childlike natives the gospel and the rules of cricket."

But the individual collector scarcely vanished. Rudolf and Peter the Great were swept aside by "a breed of American collectors that came to dominate the beginning of the twentieth century, men who underwrote the purchases of their agents in Europe with blank cheques and who were positively distrustful if they paid less than a six-figure sum for any major work of art they wanted." The greatest of these was Morgan; the most vulgar was William Randolph Hearst. They plundered the world, indiscriminately and rapaciously, and many American museums that now pride themselves on the purity of their artistic and cultural souls are forever in their debt.

Today, though the rich and self-indulgent still find ways to enhance their reputations and egos by collecting, the old obsession has become democratized, at least after a fashion. Mass production has "allowed a broad range of people to indulge their fancy by filling the world with a multitude of cheap things," commonly known as "collectibles," many of them scarcely better than kitsch. The Franklin Mint has made a thriving business out of "limited" editions that seem limited only by the number of people who will buy them; the same can be said of the "handsome new collector's edition" of a famous American novel about to be released by the Library of America, which doubtless is prepared to print as many copies of this "collector's edition" as the market will bear.

Recent history suggests that the decline of rarity and exclusivity in collecting will faze only old-fashioned snobs and wealthy parvenus who like to keep things to themselves. Everyone else will go merrily on in the great game of "conquest and possession," which, as Blom quite correctly says, are words "endowed with great erotic charge." Boiled down to the Freudian nitty-gritty, then, Rudolf's Kunstkammer was just a very large, and very expensive, harem. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.cpm.