Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2024 Issue

Why Do Collectors Collect?

Sir Thomas Phillipps, extreme collector.

Why do collectors collect, or more specifically, why do book collectors collect books? If you ask them, they will probably have an explanation such as a love of books, a life-long love of reading, a great interest in a subject or author. Perhaps there are physical aspects that motivate them, such as is the case with fine press books. And then there is the real reason. If Freud were here, he'd probably tell you it has something to do with your relationship with your mother, or perhaps poor toilet training. There are surface and deeper explanations, and Freud was very deep.


A specialist in this field is Professor Pieter ter Keurs. As Professor of Museums, Collections, and Society at the University of Leiden, he had the opportunity to study collections and collectors first-hand. He recently retired, and the University used the moment to post some of his comments on the subject. He explained, “For a long time, I didn’t see myself as a collector, but now I know that I like to surround myself with books on topics that fascinate me at that moment. I want to have everything about it immediately, turning my book collection into a sort of intellectual biography of my life.”


In an interview last year, prior to the publication of his book, Prof. ter Keurs explained, “The psychology of collecting. We all do it to some extent, but why? We know that there are economic aspects to collecting – people want to benefit financially – but it also has cultural aspects. You see it all around you. The desire to possess is human. With fanatical collectors there is often an underlying sense of lack or loss. That can be from the past: a bad relationship with your father, for example. You compensate for this lack by collecting objects.”


In the introduction to The Urge To Collect, which he co-edited with Holly O'Farrell, ter Keurs opines that the attraction between collectors and their collection is what Shopenhauer described as “an irrational force.” He continues, “Indeed, many collectors cannot verbalize why they collect, often very fanatically. People can't reason why they want certain objects...” Quoting German psychoanalyst Peter Subkowsi, he says, “There is always a mostly unconscious relationship between the concrete object and an individual's life history.”


French philosopher Jean Baudrillard explained it more bluntly, free of any sugar-coating. It is, he said, the “ultimate defence against the reality of the fear-inspiring passage of time, ending in one's inevitable death.” That should add a little more joy to the art of book collecting, something to think about each time you purchase another book.


Ter Keurs explains, “Collectors can use collecting as a means of compensating for a loss, trauma, or unconscious desire. There may also be a perverse desire. The examples of collectors with psychological problems are a fascinating read.” Collections can be a means of creating an ideal world out of chaos. He then reassures us by saying, “Not all collectors have a psychological problem. There are, of course, also a large number of collectors with stable, less eccentric personalities, but even among those collectors the urge to own objects, to surround themselves with them and to create a pleasant, confidential world is strong and often uncontrollable.”


Ter Kraus describes Sir Thomas Phillipps, one of the greatest book collectors ever. When he moved in 1863, it took nine months, requiring 103 wagon loads, 230 horses, and 160 men to move it all. Phillipps was, according to psychoanalyst Werner Munsterberger, a “disagreeable, socially maladjusted mentally ill man.” He attributed it to a difficult upbringing by his father, and that despite acquiring wealth, he was still outside the bounds of the nobility and therefore not socially accepted at the highest level. He compensated by collecting books.


Munsterberger was fascinated by the phenomenon of collecting, and was a collector himself. He studied the passion, and those for whom collecting transcended everything else, work, family, responsibilities. Munsterberger's main explanation for collecting, ter Kraus tells us, is “collectors often want to shield and compensate for major doubts and uncertainties. A difficult relationship with the past plays an important role in this.”


There you have it. Thank you, Freud, for opening up this can of worms. You may think you collect because you enjoy it, but the psychological reasons run much deeper and darker. You may not understand this but your spouse does, though being kind enough not to mention it. Collecting baseball cards, dolls, and books may have just been fun when you were young, but you're an adult now. Nothing is just fun anymore.

Posted On: 2024-06-01 10:37
User Name: davereis

I suppose you could apply all these above reasons to why we choose certain hobbies, love interests, where you live, style of your home decor, music preferences, s certain sports to watch or play; you name it. There's an underlying, rarely spoke of "real" reason why we choose to do anything. But always ascribing a negative psychological reason why we do just one (in this case book collecting) of these things is lazy thinking. I personally see collections as a mishmash of a person's life experiences, aspirations, frustrations, dreams. It all comes out as something that attracts you to something. A sort of resonance. Most of the time we don't quite understand why, we just go with it. Nothing wrong with that.

Posted On: 2024-06-10 21:25
User Name: bjarnetokerud

This article and the opinions of ter Keurs suggest that booksellers have to be crazy to sell to crazy collectors. Gentle madness has been used before. But what is so "mad" about surrounding yourself with beautiful or important treasures tall and small, wide and thin, most discovered one at a time, when it is actually the "outside" world that is mad! Books are an antidote to the sicknesses of civilization. As for Freud, who can sometimes be as reliable as tin dollar, his CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS starts out by saying:
The impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power, success, riches for himself and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things in life.

Books, many of us would contend, are the "truly precious things of life."

Rare Book Monthly

  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, first hardback edition, 1997. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, July 18: Binding.- Lucian of Samosata Opuscula Erasmo Roterodamo interprete, first Aldine edition, Venice, Heirs of Aldus Manutius and A, 1516. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bacon (Sir Francis). De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum Libri IX, Pierre Gassendi's copy gifted him by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Paris, Typis Petri Mettayer, 1624. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: Shakespeare (William). The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry, Sirnamed Hot-Spurre…, Printed by Isaac Jaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Darwin (Charles). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, third edition, presentation inscription 'From the Author' in a secretary's hand, John Murray, 1861. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Teague (Violet). Geraldine Rede. Night Fall in the Ti-Tree, first edition, Melbourne, Sign of the Rabbit, 1905; and another. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: India.- Primrose (Gen. James Maurice). Collection of 24 original drawings from his time in India with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, circa 1855 to 1864. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum, July 18: Manet (Édouard). Trente Eaux-fortes originales, the complete portfolio, Paris, A. Stroelin, 1905. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bible, English. [The Holy Bible], first edition of the King James Bible, the Great 'He' Bible, [Robert Barker], [1611]. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: America.- Mathews (Alfred E.) Pencil Sketches of Montana, first edition, New York, Published by the Author, 1868. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bawden (Edward). Original dust-jacket artwork for 'The Outsider' by Albert Camus, [c.1946]. £4,000 to £6,000.
    Forum, July 18: World.- Fries (Laurent). Tabula Nova Totius Orbis, woodcut map, [c.1541]. £3,000 to £5,000.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.

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