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Why Do We Want This Stuff? Eight Views on the Psychology of Collecting

By David Schwager for CoinWeek …..
I love coins. Why?

Collecting is a complex topic, and psychologists do not agree on why many people strongly desire to acquire and own objects. At least eight possible explanations exist and more than one applies to every collector. These are not authoritative pronouncements, but they are useful models for understanding ourselves as collectors. You will like some of the reasons given below, dislike others, and see yourself in at least one.

Before starting, let’s take a moment to discuss what’s not in the list: addiction. Hobbyists of all types sometimes says they are addicted to their passions, whether those are fishing, sewing, collecting or what have you. But what is addiction? To oversimplify, the pleasure center of the brain is activated by accomplishments. These could be anything, from finishing a task skillfully to winning the respect of someone important to you. Some activities or substances can activate this sense of pleasure without the effort of real accomplishment. The addict becomes used to the sensation and returns to the pleasurable activity again and again. Acquiring a desired collectible does give that feeling of satisfaction, and it could be argued whether this sensation is stimulated by a real accomplishment or an artificial one. Obsessive collectors exist, but no-one writing about the psychology of collecting uses an addiction model.

Some of the models that we do see in writings on collecting include:

1. Hunting and Gathering

Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung traced collecting to the way that pre-agricultural cultures survived by gathering food and storing it against lean times. The people who most successfully piled up food and other necessities were more likely to survive winters, droughts, and other difficulties, letting them pass on their genes to future generations. Accumulating is an evolutionary advantage and the feeling of security from surrounding oneself with valuable possessions encourages people to continue this behavior. The collector takes this instinct to a more intellectual level, seeking certain carefully selected objects instead of simply gathering everyday items in greater numbers.

2. Consumerism

As explored in Collecting in a Consumer Society (2001) by Russell Belk, we live in a consumer culture in which we are defined by our possessions. You do not need to be a vain materialist to feel this way. A faded shirt with a frayed collar serves its purposes of warmth and decency but most of us would put that garment in the rag bag instead of letting the world see us in tattered clothes.

The collector both rejects consumerism and embraces it. He rejects consumerism by refusing the disposable products that most people buy, choosing to channel resources towards the collection. Furniture, for example, becomes nearly worthless after its first use and vacations exist only as memories. The collector sacrifices these examples of conspicuous consumption for the private enjoyment of items of lasting value.

At the same time, the collector embraces consumerism by devoting treasure and mind space to possessions. Coins may become one of the most important parts of the numismatist’s life, as the collector defines himself by the quality and value of his collection.

3. Prevent and Accept Death

Historian Philipp Blom, in To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (2002), sees collecting as protection against death. Collectors deal with their inevitable demise by creating something that will live on after they are gone. We often hear that we are not the owners of our collections but only temporary custodians, with the duty to protect these treasures until we pass them on to the next generation. Collectors try to keep their collections intact after their deaths, or memorialize them with customized auction listings and pedigrees. Even if the collection is disbursed, the parts continue to exist after the collector is gone.

A few elite collectors endow museums to keep their collections intact permanently. Henry Huntington, the early 20th-century real estate developer, railroad operator and book collector, epitomized this with his Huntington Library in the Los Angeles area. Not only did Huntington found a library with enough resources that his collection remained together, he had himself buried at the library so he would never have to leave his beloved books.

4. Connection with Something Larger

People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. This could be belonging to a group, a religion, or a tradition. Collectors often have an interest in history, and owning artifacts such as coins gives relations that span time and space. The collector connects through objects with the great events and great people that the objects represent. In One Coin is Never Enough (2011), psychologist Michael Shutty relates how his battered 1793 Chain cent takes him to the first days of the Mint and to the early republic. This humble object makes its owner part of the grand sweep of American history, providing that connection with something larger than the individual who owns it.

5. Mastery

The world is large and uncaring, with events happening beyond our control. A collector, however, owns and directs a small part of that world. The collector, for example, decides on the rules of a set, and then acquires, arranges and protects the items in that set. He is like the homeowner with the perfect lawn. While the larger world may disappoint with its dirt and disarray, those few square yards of carefully maintained turf give their owner a sense of mastery and satisfaction.

Collecting also allows a numismatist to achieve mastery through specialized knowledge and expertise. I wrote the book on the collecting niche of sample slabs. Within this tiny specialty, about which almost no-one cares, I know more than anyone else in the world. That modest achievement is intensely satisfying. Nearly any collector, by studying a field, can gain superior knowledge in a specialty.

6. Reducing Anxiety

Art collector Werner Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1994), is the most-quoted book on the psychology of collecting, but I wish it wasn’t. Rooted in classical psychology, the author sees the collecting impulse as beginning when an infant realizes that he is separate from his mother and is sometimes alone. The baby reaches for a security object, such as a blanket or toy, which provides temporary comfort. As an adult, acquiring new objects also provides temporary relief from anxiety, loneliness and uncertainty. The feeling of comfort fades and the collector must continue to add to the collection to stave off unwelcome feelings. Muensterberger supports his views with his stories of obsessive collectors who sacrificed their families and fortunes for the sake of their collecting desires.

Anyone who likes coins enough to read this far into the article understands this desire. It is also true that collectors need to continually add to their holdings, even if they have to let some objects go to finance new purchases. This model, however, sees collecting as pathological and as a compulsion or defect instead of a hobby, making this view unappealing to collectors.

7. Joy of Buying

We all love shopping. People who say they don’t like shopping mean, truthfully, that they prefer not to shop for clothes and shoes, but everyone loves to spend time looking for the things that we find interesting. Whether browsing a hardware store, perusing an antique mall, or searching the Web for a coveted coin, searching and buying is fun. Sometimes the motivation to collect is the joy of buying. If you add time with friends, sharing purchases, talking over our interests and trading stories, a day at the coin show can be one of the best days of the year.

8. Return to Childhood

At a seminar at a recent ANA World’s Fair of Money, author Steve Roach asked how many people started collecting between the ages of about six and nine. Almost every hand went up. Collecting behavior peaks at around age 10, with nearly all children having some type of collection: stones, bottle caps, seashells, books, or whatever other objects fascinate the young collector. Toy makers sometimes design their products to appeal to this collecting impulse, with many similar inexpensive toys and a numbered checklist.

A pair of children examine their new coins.
A pair of children examine their new coins.

If collectors are born as children, they are reborn in middle age or retirement when they gain the time and disposable income to pursue a hobby. Most people look back on their childhoods fondly, and it is natural that we want to return to the things that enthralled us in our youth. Coins and currency are an adult interest pursued by children, but think about how many of the most popular collectibles are children’s interests pursued by adults. Comic books, dolls, toys, and sports cards all allow their owners to relive the happy days of childhood. Adult collectors often say they buy the things they wish they had as children. A 1909-S VDB cent is not a rare coin. Every coin shop has one. When I bought an example at age 40, however, I fulfilled a dream I had since I was eight years old.

When attempting to describe why we collect, writers on the subject have no single explanation for why certain objects hold such appeal to certain people. Although the eight models each has merit, feel free to add a ninth, a tenth and further ideas in the comments.

Why do we want this stuff? I know for certain that I do.

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  1. David,

    I reviewed all of the source publications you cite when researching and writing “The Evolution of Medal Collecting” for the MCA Advisory last year. A section of the third part of that series of articles deals with this psychology-of-collecting issue.

    I believe you got this mostly right, but missed perhaps the most obvious motivation, certainly for coin collectors interested in slabs and grading — social connection and status. This it, the collector seeks to enhance his self-esteem and sense of uniqueness by acquiring social acceptance and expert approval. He is looking to improve his social rank by out-competing other collectors, by acquiring pieces that others could not find or afford. Some collectors then rub it in by bragging about (e.g., exhibiting, writing about) their unique pieces. In effect, they are saying for all to hear, “I’m more special than you are because I have this special piece that you don’t have and can’t get.” Some do it immediately and some hide in the weeds until their collection is finally auctioned (delayed gratification). Hence the focus on coin grading — the fixation with the MS numbers and perhaps the primary reason for slabs in the first place. We all now have an independent judge to “certify” that my coin is better than yours!

    I am not saying that medal collectors are immune to this collecting motivation (or any of the others you mentioned). We just have somewhat different ways of seeking out social status within our collecting specialty.

    The set of three articles on “The Evolution of Medal Collecting” is available online via the Newman Numismatic Portal if you’re interested in considering this topic further.


  2. John,
    I did read your excellent “The Evolution of Medal Collecting” when it came out. I’m not an Medal Collectors of America member, but the series was recommended to me.
    Social connection and status matter. It is more satisfying to add a piece to my collection when fellow collectors can see me do it. Post-show dinners and coin club show-and-tells are forums for enhancing status among a peer group. That group has, however, to be fellow collectors who appreciate or even envy the acquisitions. Show your latest medal to most people and the best case is a polite, “that’s pretty.” Most of my friends are numismatists, and the people are the best part of the hobby.
    You also make a good point about competition, illustrated well by registry sets which explicitly rank members on the quality of their collections.
    Thank you again for commenting,

  3. Hi David,

    Excellent piece and follow-up comments. I’m a professional magician and Harry Houdini buff in San Diego and have collected books about magic and Houdini since the age of around seven. While there are other magicians and Houdiniphiles with infinitely larger and broader collections than mine, I see truth in every model you list.

    I’d like to add something that closely relates to the Mastery model: Some people amass their collections for practical reasons. For example, many book collectors want to acquire as much knowledge as possible about their fields of interest, whether it’s to write about a topic or to derive inspiration from those sources to create and innovate. Whether or not they gain pleasure in the collecting process itself, an important goal is to acquire a complete reference library.

    I collect very few coins, and for purposes always related to the performance of magic. But I want to emphasize just how much these models apply to other fields of interest, including the two that are closest to my heart: conjuring and Houdini. I strongly suspect other collectors, regardless of their passions, can relate.

    Thanks for your thoughtful article.

    All the Best,

    Tom Interval

  4. Your article and the comments provide enough material for a wonderful series on why we collect.

    I can attest that my interest in coin collecting came about in my midlife, after selling a good deal of a family collection. But what accelerated and intensified my interest was the Covid-19 pandemic which restricted live communication and had me seek online reputable sources of info and a coin club (one of the few in my area that has been holding virtual coin club meeting that have shown some surprising benefits, all get to see better the coins as presenters are favored if they photograph their finds as best as possible, and some irritating drawbacks, how to trade and how to have some nice camaraderie tete a tete with members. Although coin shops have opened during the pandemic, I still have not had the chance to attend a coin show. Nevertheless, I have discovered how rich is the field of numismatics and how well it suits my analytical nature and love to research things. It also tapped into a desire to do a better job than my family did with their collecting strategies. I avoid most modern commemoratives and keep my purchases of mint and proof sets to just one of each annually (with the proof sets preferably silver proofs). I try to get new issues and those of the recent past with modest or low mintages and if I do get something with an ample mintage it is usually constitutional silver or foreign coins bought at a very reasonable or low price. I try to save my money to buy quality but as one new to this I have gotten distracted and bought mroe than I should.

    But what I have found profoundly complex is this need to improve upon my family’s efforts and leave something with more numismatic value and reflection of my family’s history. In particular, as my father was born and migrated from the Palestine British Mandate, I committed myself to one of my major goals to get all the denominations and from a few semi-key dates that I could afford of Palestine Mandate coins. My grandfather was born in Bethlehem when it was under the Ottomans and built a business and raised a family of 6 which he took to the US in late 1949. I never heard from him when he was alive or from family that he ever took with him any Palestinian coins to America. He died 18 years ago and I regret never asking (but then at the time coins were quite far from my mind).

    This desire through coin collecting to improve upon my family’s effort and recapture what was neglected may be a desire to “improve” my own childhood which was not ideal by far but also not the worst. Simply, it was a childhood which was unfortunately plagued by a complex family history that offers some splendid highs and some miserable lows. For some, coin collecting may satisfy a deep urge to rectify the past and take control of it now as an adult when, as a child, one was unable to.


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