In answering the question, "Why do you collect?,"
many collectors would probably simply say, "Because it's fun." But there's always something behind what
we find fun.
Collecting is more than just collecting. Its origins go way back. As a species, we have a deeply ingrained need
to hoard to survive the next winter or the next siege, to safeguard the future. Some of us, like Noah for his ark,
collect one of each type. Others collect many of a smaller number of types. Still others collect many of many types,
amassing huge numbers of coins. Much about coin collecting is equally applicable in other fields of collecting.
In his 1985 book American Pewter, J. B. Kerfoot's mentioned that other animals also collect and suggested
that the hobby of collecting is a "human superstructure raised upon the foundation of an instinct. In other
words, that which, in the squirrel, is an inherited mechanism of self-entrenchment has become, in the collector,
a subtle technique of self-expression, self-emphasis, and self-extension."
In his 2003 book Ancient Coin Collecting, Vol. 1, Wayne Sayles talked about coin collecting starting not as a hobby
but instead "as a packrat mentality to accumulate anything useful.... Cave inhabitants were certainly accumulators
if not collectors."
While it doesn't have to, and in the vast majority of cases it doesn't, collecting can become self-destructive,
an anal-compulsive fastidiousness or an escapist obsession.
In an earlier article, in the February 1996 Celator titled "Is Coin Collecting a Form of Escapism?,"
Sayles wrote, "The danger arises when a collector loses complete touch with reality and allows the hobby to
dictate all other aspects of one's life. Every dealer can name collectors who would spend the rent money to buy
a coveted rarity ... who neglect their health, their families and their social responsibilities to satisfy their
compulsion.... Much like drug addiction, alcoholism or gambling, chronically compulsive collecting can be devastating....
It is probably a manifestation of some disguised emotional problem." Sayles balanced this by talking about
healthy collectors and healthy collecting.
In his 2001 documentary film Vinyl about record collecting, Alan Zweig profiled among others an extreme example
of collecting pathology, a social recluse who refused to leave his record-lined apartment, where each time he used
the bathroom it took him several minutes to relocate the records in front of the bathroom door. As with coin collectors
and coins, the record collectors profiled in the film found many ways to appreciate records and regarded each as
a small piece of history.
In 2006 a British accountant was sentenced to a one-year prison term for embezzling from his firm over a two-year
period the equivalent of more than $120,000 to buy coins. He had previously maxed out numerous credit cards that
he had obtained for the same purpose. He received the jail time despite paying back what he stole partly by selling
off his coin collection.
The difference between being a passionate collector and a fixated eccentric depends in part on whether other, more
important aspects of life are neglected. Does collecting enrich your life without impoverishing other aspects of
it or the lives of those around you? Much also depends on how much control you have. Can you pass up a buy, or
have you reached the point where you can't stop yourself?
The deeper motivation of some collectors may be to gain greater control, with their types and classifications,
of a larger world that seems out of control. In his 2003 book To
Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting,
Philipp Blom described collecting as a "philosophical project" that attempts to "make sense of the
multiplicity and chaos of the world, and perhaps even to find in it a hidden meaning."
There's unquestionably a psychological component to collecting. In his 1968 paper titled "The Psychoanalysis
of the Numismatist," Jean Mazard wrote that coin collectors can get into trouble if they let themselves sink
into egoism and isolation. He also provided balance by talking about how collectors become numismatists when "the
joy of learning overtakes the [joy] of acquiring and possessing."
In his 1993 book Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological
Perspectives, Werner Muensterberger wrote that obsessive
collecting derives from "depravation or loss or vulnerability and a subsequent longing for substitutes."
Freud believed that we go through psychosexual stages in our development and that if we don't progress healthfully
through them, later psychological repercussions will ensue. In Freudian terms, perhaps the urge to collect, to
acquire and hold, is sometimes anal-compulsive in nature and the urge to complete, to fill holes, is sometimes
phallic because of incomplete development.
Jung believed that our behavior is influenced by archetypes, universal symbols deeply embedded in our collective
unconsciousness. Collecting coins and completing sets no doubt have as their archetypal antecedents the hoarding
needed for survival by early humankind.
We no longer need to squirrel away seeds and nuts. But having beautiful old coins to pull out and admire when we
feel like it can truly be a pleasurable thing.