THE RECENT auction sales of an early 19th- century American portrait for $4 million and a bottle of wine for $157,500 may have great significance for serious collectors of art and curios, but the more widespread effects will probably be felt in closets, garages, attics and landfills throughout the country. There is, in nearly every household, a constant tension between the forces of We've Got to Get Rid of Some of This Stuff and those of No, It Could Be Valuable Someday. The two recent sales clearly will give the upper hand to the latter side for some time to come.
This isn't to question the judgment of the National Gallery of Art in purchasing the Rembrandt Peale portrait, or even of Forbes magazine in laying out so much for a bottle of wine that supposedly had been purchased by Thomas Jefferson but never delivered to him. But surely back around 1805, when the wine and the portrait were both of more recent vintage, no one thought they would someday have a combined value of nearly $4.2 million.
The recent auction sales are the sort of thing that inflames the imaginations and reinforces the determination of people who refuse to consider throwing away or selling -- Not until the price is right! -- anything at all. It could be a fine American portrait they are saving, but it is more likely to be a collection of cut-glass peanut butter jars, a string of bubbling Christmas-tree lights, 200 plastic milk containers, 2,500 baseball cards or a limited-edition bourbon bottle in the shape of the Taj Mahal.
In times of inflation, they will be glad to remind you, some very strange things come to be seen as good investments. When a painting goes for several million dollars, they start talking in terms of endowing a university or establishing a great medical center with the proceeds from a comic-book collection. It does little good to tell them that Rembrandt Peale didn't draw "Spiderman." A threat to have the fire inspector take a look at the attic is sometimes persuasive, however.