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Understanding the compulsion to collect.


They called her a magpie. It was once believed that magpies were attracted to shine and sheen and picked up anything that reflected a bit of light to place in their nests. Mary of Teck, Queen of the United Kingdom, as consort of King George V, was known for her vast collections. It wasn’t enough that as queen, she had control over the contents of various palaces across the nation. She was known to write notes to people who had objects that were once part of the Royal Collection, asking for their return.

While she inherited a large part of the jewels bequeathed by her grandmother-in-law, Queen Victoria, she was also given use of jewels from her mother-in-law, Alexandra of Denmark. As part of her privileges as queen, she had many bejewelled gifts: pieces from her collection are worn today by her various descendants, including her granddaughter, Elizabeth II. And still, this was not enough. During the Russian Revolution, members of the Russian Imperial Family fled abroad to escape the fate of their many executed relations. Jewelry provided a link to the world they left behind, as well as became a bridge to the new lives they would be forced to live. Queen Mary gleefully bought jewels from these Russian cousins, partly from a desire to help, and partly from a desire to add to her collection. One of the most magnificent pieces from these transactions was the Vladimir Tiara, once owned by Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, and worn today by Elizabeth II. 

It is understandable that Queen Mary should drape herself in jewels and finery as queen and image-builder for the then-British Empire. But as for people without these tasks, what would cause a person to collect? Collecting as we see here would be the repeated acquisition of objects of the same kind, whether they be fur, jewelry, art, or cars. Some collectors go beyond merely having and seek the rarest, the finest, the best.


The gavel wielded by Salcedo Auctions director Richie Lerma usually decides where rare pieces find a home. Mr. Lerma’s auction house may be famous for selling art, but Salcedo has also sold baubles that can only mean something to a collector: say a Sèvres vase, or else an hourglass made of diamonds. Through Mr. Lerma’s hands pass some of the country’s most covetable—and collectible—objects. 

“People collect because they derive joy from it: both the act of acquiring and possessing,” said Mr. Lerma in an interview. “The joy of hunting for a piece comes with the pleasure of learning, of being able to apply one’s knowledge and gaining new knowledge along the way, whether it’s through reading the auction catalogue, or speaking with a specialist, not to mention doing one’s independent research to verify or even enhance whatever information is gleaned.”

“Possession brings with it the joy of constancy and immediacy—knowing that the object of one’s desires is readily at hand to be savored, to derive aesthetic and intellectual pleasure from,” he said.

There are, of course, different kinds of collectors. There are those who are in it for the game, who flip their acquisitions for profit. And there are also those who attach emotional value to the objects they possess.

“Not all people collect because of monetary value—that is its perceived current worth or its potential for growth,” said Mr. Lerma. “Emotion and yes, sentimentality, are also involved in collecting—all of these of course connected to passions and the importance of memory, of being able to hold on to something both physically and in one’s mind that brings joy.”

Mr. Lerma believes that collecting is an investment in the self—more so than buying up things and using them as actual financial investments. “By collecting similar objects over time, one shows a serious interest in a subject. Acquiring iterations of an object can display a deepening connoisseurship, learning about and acquiring the full breadth of knowledge.”

Dr. Ernest Francis Nora, a practitioner of general psychiatry who specializes in addiction and its related disorders, said: “People collect for different reasons. Some do it for money, they collect and sell it later once the price of the collected item goes up. Some do it for science, to look back and study the past. While some will do it for psychological reasons meaning they don’t really know why they do it. Those who collect for emotional or psychological gain cannot totally explain the need or the high they get when collecting things.”

He continued that some experts in the field still cite Freud and trace these compulsions back to a person’s nurturing and toilet training days; collecting is seen as a means of taking back control that they didn’t have when they were young. “The ‘high’ of a conquest or acquisition though will be stimulating the reward system in our brain the same way drugs stimulate them,” Dr. Nora said.

A question posed in The Rise and Fall of Imelda Marcos by its author, Carmen Navarro Pedrosa, touches on the shoe obsession of the former First Lady: “Why this fetish? What pinched, what hurt, what would not fit in her life of luxury and compelled her to ransack the shoe boutiques of Fifth Avenue, Rue Faubourg St. Honore, and Via Condotti?”

Mrs. Marcos, recently convicted by the Sandiganbayan for seven counts of graft, is known throughout the world for the thousands upon thousands of shoes found in the presidential palace after her exile, bought with money allegedly from the government’s coffers. So outlandish was her reputation that her name entered the lexicon via the adjective “Imeldific,” which is defined as “ostentatiously extravagant, sometimes to the point of vulgarity.” The same biography written by Ms. Pedrosa, points out that Mrs. Marcos, before marrying Ferdinand Marcos and hitching her wagon to his star, lived a hard, scrabbling life as a poorer relation of the political Romualdez family.

According to Dr. Nora, the “highs” of collecting can be addictive and hard to get rid of. Once the habit spirals out of control, it can be pathological or harmful. “The reason for collecting is usually set: a boy who felt deprived because he grew up without having a family car while all of his friends did, can end up collecting vintage cars,” said Dr. Nora. “But once the high kicks in, they cannot stop collecting things even if they are no longer needed. … Once it causes dysfunction in your personal, social, or financial life it is already considered harmful.”

Salcedo Auctions’ Mr. Lerma, too,  is aware of the dark side of collecting: “Collecting can be unhealthy both physically and emotionally.” He cites hoarding, the collection of things at volumes far from normal, usually of objects with little to no value; and the point at which compulsive, obsessive behavior leads to anti-social, unethical behavior: “Collecting is sinister when it becomes greed.”