Monday, March 31, 2014

The Two Styles of Collecting -- and the “Tweeners”

On this the fifth anniversary of this blog,  Bottles, Booze and Back Stories, it occurred to me to devote it to some musing on the mysterious passion known as “collecting.”  Of the 138 previous posts nine of them have been devoted entirely to that subject but others have been written to be of interest to collectors of bottles, glass and similar items.  This article was occasioned by my reading a quote from Sir Kenneth Clark, shown here, the famous British expert on art  who died in 1983.

Clark, shown here, asked himself a simple question:  “Why do people collect?”  He decided there was no real answer, that is was like asking why people fall in love.  There could be hundreds of answers.  But then Clark made a distinction.  He reduced collectors to two essential types: those bewitched by bright objects and those who want to put them in a series.  Clark himself was in the first category and his collecting was eclectic.  A rich man, his collection included Japanese prints,  neo-romantic British artists,  French impressionists paintings and drawings, Medieval works of art,  illuminated pages, Renaissance medals (one shown here) and majolica pottery. 

There are lots of collectors out there like Clark, even if they lack his erudition and financial resources.  When I am standing in line to enter an antiques or bottle show,  I invariably ask people in line ahead of me and behind:  “What do you collect?”  Many times the response is:  “Oh, I just pick up a little bit of everything.”  Or: “Nothing in particular, I just look for things that interest me.”   Those are folks who clearly fit into Clark’s first category.  If they see something, have a yen for it, and the money to buy, it goes home with them.

Then there are the collectors in the second category, those who want to put things in a series.  Perhaps the most diligent of those I ever met was the late Jim Bready, a highly respected Baltimore journalist.  He is shown here at the Baltimore Sun.  Jim collected Maryland rye whiskey jugs and bottles and thereby had become the recognized “guru” of the thriving liquor industry in that Baltimore city and the state before National Prohibition.   Jim’s passion was to put things in a series.  If he knew that a distiller put his product in quart, half gallon, gallon, two gallon, and five gallon crocks and he had three of the five, he could not rest until he had completed the set.  In many cases he succeeded.

Another collector friend, for privacy purposes let us call him Tim, shown here,  developed a passion for the fancy whiskey jugs issued by the Knowles, Taylor & Knowles pottery of East Liverpool, Ohio, a sample shown here.  I first met Tim when he drove to my house more than 25 years ago, looked at a small collection of KT&K that I had assembled, and said to his wife, “We have a lot of work to do.” Together eventually he and I created a list of all such known whiskey jugs and today through assiduous hunting and cajoling (including me), he has been able to collect virtually all of the styles and colors of whiskeys KT&K produced. His series is all but complete.

Tim can be contrasted with his longtime comrade, whom we will call Roger, shown here, who like Kenneth Clark is an “eclectic,”  accustomed to collecting what catches his eye.  For a while his passion was for ornate swords but just recently he has been interested in collecting stoneware bottles from a former Cleveland wine seller, grocer and druggist  company named Benton, Myers.  There may be another passion awaiting down the line.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for those who are in that  class of collector:  They genuinely are, as Clark puts it, “bewitched” by the objects of their desire.  After purchasing it they will talk about it,  perhaps research it, show it to their friends,  and put it on display at home where they and visitors can see it easily.  On the other hand, the serial collector may be obliged to buy an item about which he or she is less than enthusiastic but requires it to fill out a set or a series.

The downside of the omnivore collector is the disposal of an array of largely unrelated objects, either by reason of having to downsize or by death.   Recently a well known and well respected collector  of Virginia stoneware passed away.  Not long before he died I was privileged to visit his home and see the marvelous collection but startled to find that he had collected hundreds, if not thousands, of other objects that presumably now must be disposed of.

By contrast,  Jim Bready was able to give his collection of whiskey jugs, bottles and other material to the Maryland State Archives who have curated and catalogued them under the title “The James H. Bready Collection of Maryland Rye Whiskey Bottles and Related Ephemera.”  The collection is described as including “approximately 650-700 bottles from distilleries of rye whiskey in Maryland. Most date from the late 19th century (1870s) to the early 20th century (1940s). The bottles range in size from tiny 1/10 pints to full pint flasks to quart bottles and gallon jugs. Some pieces of pottery and ceramic as well as an array of decanters are part of this collection.

As a result of Jim’s collecting in series and his gift of this large number of objects to the State of Maryland, future generations will have access to a marvelous resource.   On  a much less grand scale my collection of hillbilly ceramics from the 1930s to the 1960s was donated to the Appalachian Life Museum in Boonesboro,  North Carolina.  When that institution closed and its collection disbursed, the hillbilly artifacts were given to a local North Carolina museum where they now reside.   Often a serial collection can find a “good home” where it will be of historical interest and value to current and future generations.

My conclusion is that Kenneth Clark’s dichotomy of collectors is largely correct but he fails to take into account the “tweener,” that is the collector who has interests in three or four areas.  This is someone who collects objects in series but has multiple series going at any given time or moves from series to series.  For example one “tweener” friend of mine seems always able to amass a impressive array of related artifacts in a relatively short period.  One year it might be “goofus” (carnival) glass,” the next hyacinth vases, both shown here.  Then he mounts awesome displays at bottle shows that have onlookers asking:  “How did he do that?”

In sum, the collecting bug bites us in many and various ways.  The reasons for it are, as Clark expressed, very mysterious, like falling in love.  And some fall in love every day.

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