By Prof. Andrew Dillon 

Source :

  • Collecting as investment
  • Driven by need – collecting as addiction
  • Identity and esteem, collecting in relation to others
  • Cultural curator – excuse or justification
  • Collecting as a window on human psychology
  • Collecting as social knowledge
  • Re-framing collecting as a very human process

The gathering of resources for survival, health, comfort, or economy is a defining characteristic of life, nevertheless, collecting is a rather curious behavior that seems to defy easy explanation or analysis. In the popular mind, collectors are often viewed as individuals with more money than sense, dropping huge sums on rare artefacts while displacing them from their supposed rightful locations, or as mildly disturbed cranks who have an inexplicable need to gather large numbers of items few others deem interesting, invariably cluttering their lives or minds in ways that are unhealthy. This is hardly new, the writings of first century Roman orator and educator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus questioned the motives of early collectors, suggesting they were driven only by desires to appear cultured. On the other hand, John Getty famously noted, collecting adds ‘breadth and depth to one’s whole existence’, an act that he felt served a purpose in elevating civilization by raising awareness of our own history and accomplishments while serving as a medium for education and cultural understanding. This is the paradox of collecting, it serves multiple purposes, from the deceptive to the inspirational, and is viewed in many different and often competing ways depending on the position of the viewer.

Certainly, collecting objects, from spoils of war to crown jewels, has often involved displays of power to legitimize authority, but recent archeological evidence that individuals in the Middle Paleolithic age had personal collections of valued objects suggests there is more to collecting than dominion. The scholarly study of collecting has emphasized three broad themes: institutional collecting and the associated appropriation of culture; the particularities of the wealthy collector market; and the individual collector as psychological oddity. Some issues cross all themes (appropriation is considered a facet of institutional and individual collector behavior, for example) but these three foci tell at best a partial story. As a psychologist, I have interests in how and why people behave as they do, and when considering the nature of collecting, I am now convinced it can best be understood as a routine rather than exceptional act, one that is sufficiently common to warrant a fresh examination.

In evolutionary terms, it is not difficult to understand that once humans gathered more resources than they immediately needed, they were able to break out of the continual hunting mode, and given diversity of interest and need, start to trade. Combined with the human abilities to plan and count, collecting would seem to offer benefits, and perhaps encourage stability in group location and identity. In their 2013 paper, ‘Coevolution of Farming and Private Property during the Early Holocene’, Bowles and Choi argue that the shift from nomadic to pastoral social groups was in fact contingent on the recognition of private property rights among and between group members.

A collection can offer life-support over time, a means of trading, a basis for community and communication, a stockpile of wealth, and a mechanism of self-identity.

Collections also serve as a basis for informing and learning, as well as providing emotional comfort and security, and marking our lives in personally meaningful ways. Further, the underlying human process of collecting can be viewed as consistent regardless of collection type, with lovers of fine arts manifesting the same actions as pursuers of pop star memorabilia. Seen this way, collecting is a fundamental aspect of human existence that has served to enable and enhance our evolution, offering both material and emotional value to us as individuals and as communities.

In practical terms, this approach articulates a more contemporary view of collecting as a natural human disposition which is subject to the influencing forces of economics, social structures, education, fashion, and personal history. The motivations across layers, the differences in mission between a national museum and a private collector, are thus not considered exclusionary, varying more in formality and underlying drive or purpose (witness for example, the frequent appeal to cultural preservation in both the mission statements of museums and the explanations or justifications of individual behavior).

Thus, in treating collecting as routine, we can view the range of collecting behaviors as expressions which might vary across layers but reflect the shared basis of human motivations underlying our emotions, identity, value, and desire for connection.

While collecting might be an innate tendency, the manifestation of this is culturally and environmentally shaped. Nomadic peoples were limited to items that were transferable or storable, but a surplus of food and materials of importance suggest that even from earliest times, people collected. Changes in the means of production altered patterns of consumption, and the spoils of conflict and resource control exercised through power created a distinct type of collecting for desirable goods, giving us era-specific records of what was deemed important or valuable to different cultures even before the emergence of museums and galleries.

In more recent times, the cabinet of curiosities emerge at a time of discovery of the Americas and the expansion of people’s understanding of place and space, tying collecting to self-presentation of worldliness and forward thinking. The industrial revolution led to the emergence of a consumer class that sought goods previously unavailable to them and created a wealthy class that bought items to reflect their emerging status, sending their offspring on ‘grand tours’ to polish their education and obtain historical artifacts to embellish the family’s legacy. The rising middle class, spawned by changes in work and government, in turn engaged in this most human behavior of acquiring and keeping objects of desire, fueling the growth of the consumer class to the point where it is sometimes said of our times that ‘everyone is a collector’.

The popular image of art collecting often invokes secretive auction bidding, art gallery exhibitions, and sufficient wealth to engage actively with professionals in leading cultural centers such as New York, London, Hong Kong, or Paris. This image is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. While almost 40% of leading commercial art galleries are concentrated in 10 global cities, museums are more widely dispersed globally. Further, the type of art and collectibles controlled by art galleries, auction houses, and museums of the world is but a fraction of those people deem worthy of collecting. Flea markets, small art fairs, and local antique shops flesh out the range of options, but the expansion of internet connectivity has opened up the world of private sales in a manner that was simply impossible decades ago.

So, as collecting is increasingly recognized as widespread, how well do we really understand people’s motivations, their reasons, and self-explanations for their collecting behavior?

Curiously, there is little data in the scholarly literature that helps us answer such questions. Individual case studies or small sample surveys provide some insights but most of the research is suggestive and leans to inference from market activity. In the present survey, motivation was intentionally included in the question set to this much larger sample of 2,828 respondents. In her 1991 paper, ‘Why they Collect: Collectors reveal their Motivations’, Formanek developed a set of themes. Building on that study, respondents were prompted to describe their reasons for collecting at this time covering financial, psycho-social, and cultural motivators. The following outlines these motivators and the general pattern of responses from this year’s sample.

Collecting as investment

It is sometimes assumed that the primary motivation for investing in artworks or antiques is financial, the belief that such works, by nature of their rarity, represent a distinctive form of investment. Undoubtedly, there is a monetary consideration in major purchasing decisions, but financial returns might be a primary motivation for only a minority or niche group of collectors. In Formanek’s study, less than 10% of respondents even mentioned investment value or possible profit as a motivator, which might have been a function of her sample, but more recent surveys such as Cook’s ‘Coins, Toys and Trading Cards: 83% of Collectors Think Their Collection Will Pay Off’, (2022), which questioned 1,500 American collectors also suggest an ambivalent attitude with less than half of this sample stating that collecting was a good investment, although 83% still believed their own collections might prove valuable in the future.

The present sample confirms the emerging view that while investment is a genuine motivator, it is not the primary one for most serious collectors. Of the 2,828 respondents, 28% stated that they collected for financial investment, with consistent shares across generations of collectors. Of course, one must be sensitive to the effect of social desirability on survey responses, with money and profit motives likely to be viewed less positively than cultural or personal interest considerations, but this data lends support to an emerging view of collecting as an act of personal choice that involves more than economic drivers.

Driven by need – collecting as addiction

The view of collectors as somewhat unusual or obsessive in their behavior rests on the commonsense idea that people’s needs for objects should meet some practical bar, invariably tied to utility. Once anyone has accumulated more objects than they can practically use, then any further pursuit raises the suspicion that they are acquiring because of some personality flaw or deficit in their personal lives. In his 1994 book, Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Werner Muensterberger argues that collectors are a distinctive group of people all suffering from ‘an unquenchable thirst’.

This view has both motivated and lent credence to a strong psychoanalytic approach to the study of collecting wherein those who engage seriously in this behavior are thought to have experienced unmet needs, typically in their formative years, which have become sublimated into the acquisition of objects and a tendency to hoard items for reassurance. Consequently, we have innumerable accounts and case studies of individual collectors that explain these people’s actions by appealing to their emotional experiences, insatiable appetites for security, and even erotic ties to material objects, typically rooted in their apparently unsettling earliest life experiences.

Attractive as this might be, the evidence supporting this psychoanalytic framing is slight (for example, only 5% of Formanek’s respondents expressed a compulsion or addiction to collecting), again suggesting the gap that exists between theoretical or stereotypical views of collectors and the reality of their experiences. Interestingly, while only 14% of the current survey’s respondents acknowledged a sense of compulsion or addiction, this is larger than is found in other data sets, though we should note the inclusion of ‘passion’ in this category description may have lessened some of the negative connotations of unconscious or addictive drivers. The key takeaway is that many collectors acknowledge at least some irrational motives for collecting.

Identity and esteem, collecting in relation to others

A more contemporary view of people’s relationships to material objects comes from social and cultural studies of consumption by the general public. Looking beyond the business analysis of what we buy, some researchers have asked why we buy and how do we treat or use the objects we accumulate over time? In studying these phenomena, people are often conceived as continual consumers on a scale, with collectors at one end and disposers at the other.

In this paradigm, an individual’s choice of goods is conceived as a reflection of their identity or their desire to be seen by others as part of a group, with their consumption and retention patterns representing a form of expression that signals particular lifestyle values and choices. Commensurate with this is the constant marketing and advertising of consumer goods as enhancers of image, self-worth, and success. As citizens in a consumer culture, we all tend to acquire more than we immediately need, and examining why people make the choices they do offers potential insights into the triggers of acquisition that underlie collecting behavior.

The present survey prompted people to consider the extent to which they collected for reasons related to self-identity or self-esteem and the results clearly suggest these are significant motivators. With 37% of respondents acknowledging these motivators (and up to 42% agreement by those who might be termed Gen X collectors), this broad category speaks to the reflective nature of our collections, presenting both an image of ourselves to the world and giving us meaning and a sense of connection with others. This connection was also tapped by the 14% of respondents who agreed that collecting enabled them to form better and richer connections with a community of fellow collectors and those interested in the items involved.

Clearly, there is a strong relationship between human psychology and the desire to collect, one that mediates personal identity, sense of place in the world, and a desire to form networks and build community. This suggests a key area for future study of collecting, one that may shed light on the complex interplay of personality, meaning, and values.

Cultural curator – excuse or justification?

The charge of cultural theft is never far below the surface in discussions and considerations of historical artefacts. The rich, powerful, and usually Western collecting institutions or individuals are often treated by those whose history is consumed as pariahs, removing important items from their original context to display or control them in foreign climes. There are numerous complexities here that are beyond scope of this survey but provenance issues aside, the collecting community often justifies itself as ensuring the preservation of significant items that might otherwise be lost.

Individual collectors too invoke curation and preservation as an explanation for their collecting. While the evidence for significant cultural curation or preservation at an individual level is mixed, without collectors, many records that inform our own understandings of the world and its history would surely have been lost.

And collecting can involve more than the accumulation of significant cultural resources, there can be personal, familial, and regional connections that motivate a collector to gather and curate certain works or objects. While plausible, this seems to be another motive that is not actually well supported by data. Formanek’s earlier study identified this in only a handful of her respondents and here, with our much larger sample, it is articulated by less than 5% of respondents.

Coupled with preservation is the ideal of supporting the arts or individual artists. Again, this speaks to the positive contributions serious collectors may make to our culture and has been invoked frequently as a justification for collecting, though it surely is also reflective of a collector’s identity and self-esteem. Direct support for the arts seemed to be a relatively minor motivation among the respondents in this survey, with only 3% reporting this as a major motivator.

Collecting as a window on human psychology

The literature on collecting is rife with stereotypes, opinions, case studies, and anecdotes. Whether or not we self-describe as collectors, most of us are acquirers and users of objects that serve purpose for us over time, which we select based on personal need, funds, and taste, and often retain even as we acquire further items. Over a lifetime, an individual gains multiple possessions, many of which outlive their original use and are replaced by newer ones, forming our wardrobes, filling our kitchen cabinets, lining our bookshelves, and so on. The decision to acquire may seem more casual than purposeful for many but a firm distinction between collectors and non-collectors is not easily drawn when the underlying psychology is considered.

Collecting then is neither binary nor a simple axis on which we place individuals according to some category of collecting type, rather, it is a distribution, a spectrum of behavior that includes most people, and within which we may identify relationships between interests, means, domains, and identities. As a routine act, we can differentiate individuals based on commitments, knowledge, and purposes, and recognize that the context of collecting necessarily involves creators, providers, and sellers and their associated means and motivations.

Collecting as social knowledge?

Serious collecting involves an ability to identify and evaluate targets of interest, and over time, most collectors develop a level of discernment that reflects an advanced form of knowledge about the items they desire. Developing this expertise and having the ability to share it with others who are interested seems to enhance a collector’s passion for the process.

The rise of the internet has increased the range of resources available to those seeking information on pricing or provenance, while enabling isolated collectors to form communities of interest regardless of location. The primary reddit watch forum, now 15 years old, has 1.9 million members, more than one million of whom are usually online at any one time. While trading is part of these forums, most of the traffic involves discussions of brands and models, history of watchmaking, maintenance and repair, personal accounts of collecting, and developments in the watch industry. Similar forums abound for all manner of collectibles, from coins to cars. Such community spaces would not have been available 30 years ago and represent a form of crowdsourced knowledge that is at best partially curated. While gaining knowledge requires patience and skill, collectors who are passionate about objects seem keen to engage and share, often finding value in the increased understanding they have as much as in the items they collect. In this sense, collecting is a basis for the basic human desire to learn and understand the world. The focus for many might be specialized and apparently mundane to others, but through connoisseurship, collectors are exercising the native human drive to gain control and mastery of their environments.

Re-framing collecting as a very human process

With any common human behavior, extremists can inevitably be observed, be they hoarders whose acquisitiveness seems unrestricted or the insecure who seek possessions that can rewrite their personal histories and self-image. While fascinating in their own ways, such people should never be used to explain the majority. In the more reflective and typical sense, collecting seems to represent a very human process, indicative of our interests, our values, and the world we wish to create and inhabit.

As this survey suggests, the motivation to collect transcends finance or preservation concerns and reflects far more about our sense of belonging, our communities, and our fundamental identities as human beings. There is much more to learn.

Andrew Dillon is V.M. Daniel Regents Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, School of Information. This article was first published in The Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting in 2023