Book Review: Magnificent Obsessions


How about if I start with this declaration?  If you’re a collector of anything, YOU SHOULD BUY THIS BOOK!  As one Amazon reviewer put it, “Makes you feel like you’re not so wierd [sic] …”

Ed Ruby, a collector of Britain’s Toy Soldiers, has this to say about collecting:

I differentiate between collecting and accumulating.  Those items that you collect, you want everything that they ever made, every variety.  That’s what collecting is.  Accumulating is just getting things that you like that are nice.

So, it’s not just the collections that make this fascinating; it’s the conversations the author has with the collectors.  Mitch Tuchman went in with some general questions that he tailored to each collector.  Obviously, not every person interviewed was an articulate, introspective type, but plenty were.

Tuchman is (was?) the Editor in Chief at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; no one should be surprised that he has several  museum curators in the book.  It seemed to me that the curators/collectors were more concerned than other collectors with what would happen to their collections after their deaths.  As an accumulator (well, maybe my pile of dog things qualifies as a collection) I have no such qualms.  Part of my funeral shindig will be the biggest auction/garage sale in the history of such things, with the proceeds going to charity.  That way, my things will go to people who value them, not to relatives who blanch at the thought of inheriting “my stuff”.

Back to the book; oh, the stuff these collectors collect:

Magnificent Obsessions1

There is one collector that collects “everything”, but most of the folks are more selective.  The collections featured are: figural teapots, Studebakers, construction toys, swizzle sticks, toy soldiers, Bakelite jewelry, Vernon Kilns pottery, souvenir buildings, puzzles, carnival punks, mannequins, angling equipment, carousel horses, Stars & Stripes, Civil War memorabilia, aquarium furniture, Wild West, Lionel trains, and Last Suppers.

The collectors are equally curious:  magazine columnist and novelist, nephrologist and inventor of Gatorade, wine show entrepreneur, homemaker, businessman, former Cooper-Hewitt Museum curator, two writers, motion picture and theme park designer, aerospace engineer, production designer, interior designer, landscape contractor and Avalon Tuna Club historian, carousel horse restorer, graphic designer, art museum director, antiques and collectibles dealer, proprietor of Ruby Montana’s Pinto Pony (guess what she collects), computer analyst, and finally, museum curator.

Tuchman says in the introduction that:

We were not as interested in collections as in collectors, and though we avoided the temptation to hypothesize universals, one common trait made itself overwhelmingly apparent: the collecting bug is a tenacious, irresistible critter.  “It’s one of those things” collectors told us bemusedly, “you don’t know when to quit.”  Even when they spoke of it as a “disease” or compared it with a “drug habit,” they seemed decidedly unperturbed.

So, you can see that it isn’t a sad book; it’s not the printed version of A&E’s Hoarders.  The collectors are enthusiastic, but emphatically not crazy.  No one has put themself in the poor house with their collecting ways.  Many, in fact, say that they collect only what they can afford.

I’m including just a few of my favorite collections.  Of course the Bakelite bangle collection was exceptionally drool-worthy:

Magnificent Obsession4

One of the questions asked was, “Is it too late for beginners?”  Unless you’re sitting on a big pile of cash, Bakelite bangles might be one of the “too late” categories of collecting.  We occasionally find them on our rounds, but they are few and far between; certainly nothing to satisfy a collector.

I couldn’t resist the souvenir buildings, and it’s a pretty accessible collection.  We still run into these things at the thrift stores:

Magnificent Obsession5

I would never collect these souvenirs because they would crowd out my other accumulations.  I could see where you might want a building from everywhere you’ve ever visited, but charm bracelets would be a better option for those of us with limited space.

Perhaps the collector I most identified with was Dorothy Twining Globus who collected “everything”:

Magnificent Obsession3

Although, by my favorite definition, she would be an accumulator.  However, she has a tremendous sense of fun about her collections, and displays them in a highly imaginative way (probably because she was a museum curator).  Some of her collections include: globes, little buildings, watering cans, coat hangers, wood-burning art, boxes (handy for storing collections!), furniture, trompe l’oeil, fences, columns, cactus, stationery items (thumb tacks, staplers, string dispensers, rubber stamps, pen holders, pencils and pencil sharpeners, gummed labels), paperweights, bug jewelry, …  I just ran out of steam.  There are lots more things that she collects–it’s astounding!  I would love to see her home.

This next collection is more for Kathy than me, although I think swizzle sticks are cool:

Magnificent Obsession2

This is another pretty affordable hobby, as long as you’re not a completist.  That might get to be expensive.  I love that the collector organized her sticks into state drinking glasses.  Can you imagine trying to dig through boxes to find a particular stick?  Norma wisely doesn’t count her sticks, although she’s quick to say that she is in the top five of swizzle stick collectors nationally.

This last collector bears the blame for us noticing Last Supper items while we shop:

Magnificent Obessions6She is also a museum curator and labels her collection in the same way that she labels museum collections.  Most of her items have been “donated” by friends.  She is so lucky that we don’t know her; her collection could be in the thousands by the time we were done with her.

My only complaints about the book are that there aren’t enough pictures or labels for those pictures.  The pictures that are in the book are amazing (don’t be mislead by the bad photos I took of those pictures), but I wanted more.  Most of the information about the photos are in the text, and not always on the same page as the photos, which was frustrating.

If you’re interested in a peek behind the curtain of the collector’s life, do yourself a favor and buy this book.

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