Why are humans such avid collectors?

From the time we were cave dwellers exploring our surroundings, there has always been something intrinsic about human nature that makes us love to collect things.

Centuries later, as we ventured forth to discover news lands, as did Captain Cook to these parts, collecting became the norm — as a matter of record — but also to reflect individual passions and a sense of place.

Status and nostalgia
In some circles, collecting has come to represent wealth and prestige, or in cases of largesse, philanthropy. In 2016, for example, French billionaire Francois Pinault announced he would donate his large private art collection worth more than $1.4 billion to a new museum in Paris.

For us more budget-conscious folk, whether it’s stamps, porcelain dolls, rare records, coins, fine china, or vintage t-shirts, many of us are drawn to collecting items that say something distinctive about who we are or a time in our lives where our identities were forged. It's not hard to imagine a punk rocker who collects Doc Martens boots to pay homage to the 1980s.

Indeed, collectibles are often steeped in nostalgia. They can be a link to our past, people we love, a bygone era we admire, or they may represent a hoped-for rags-to-riches find.

There is something gorgeous about seeing a casual collector discover that something they bought for next to nothing could now fetch them a handsome sum. Who hasn’t heard the story of someone buying a work of art in a quaint old shop in the middle of nowhere, only to later have it valued and find it is worth a bomb?

Gathering and observing
The great thing about collectibles is that we can act as both gatherer and observer. Some of us love to do the gathering and some of us prefer to look at what other people are fascinated by.

Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of TV programs which scratch that itch, from The Collectors to Antique Roadshow to the late Peter Wherrett’s Torque, which was ostensibly about motor cars but one could argue it was about a collection of snazzy and not-so snazzy vehicles Wherrett wanted to show off.

The psychology of collecting
Such is our fascination with collectibles that some psychologists have asked why we have this urge. Those in the field of psychology seem keen to find the answer, and depending who you talk to, they will either assert that they have a pretty clear idea or that it’s still a subject for hot debate.

Even Sigmund Freud had a theory about why we love collecting things — he thought it had to do with our need to feel like we have control over our environment, and that starts when a child begins potty training.

Others psychologists agree collecting can start early in life. Psychologist Dr Rebecca Spelman says our fascination with collecting objects begins when we’re young. A fluffy blanket or favourite teddy bear teaches us that it is possible to have an emotional bond with an object. We then develop a positive relationship with the idea of holding on to and amassing material things.

A more worrying theory about collecting is that there is a fine line between it and hoarding. Some people collect to deal with grief or a sense of loss in their life, which can turn into hoarding as this acts as a comfort and a way to keep the world out.

A collecting community
In Australia today, collecting takes many forms and there are many communities to support it — some strait-laced, some more outrageous — which mirror and support these passions.

However, it can also sometimes be difficult to find out important details or a valuation about a prized object.

WYZA’s General Manager Scott-Bradley Pearce says a “fantastic old teapot” which belonged to his partner’s grandmother was rather a mystery for quite some time.
“We had very little information about the teapot and it took quite some research for us to find out where it came from and about the maker,” he says. “The problem was that it was made in the UK and there were no local specialists in Australia I could find to value it.”

If you could access an online collecting community, which included valuations, would you use it? And what other things would you need? Let us know in the comments below?

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