Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018

I Am Proud To Be a Materialist

I am a materialist. I offer no apologies. If I was not a materialist, I would not collect. By definition, design, or a mystical, perhaps even spiritual purpose, all collectors are materialists.

The website www.dictionary.com offers this definition of a materialist person: “1. a person who is markedly more concerned with material things than with spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values; 2. an adherent of philosophical materialism.” (www.dictionary.com/browse/materialist)

The above is an example of why I hate dictionary definitions. It suggests that objects are devoid of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural importance. The individual who created this definition clearly believes that objects do not have souls, something every collector knows from personal experience is not true. Objects are living entities. They are imbued with spirituality, intelligence, culture, and many additional qualities.

In 2017, Dan Koenig posted his article “What characteristics define a materialist person?” on www.Quora.com(www.quora.com/What-characteristics-define-a-materialistic-person). Billing himself as a “Student of Life,” Koenig’s life apparently is a very narrow one. Koenig begins: “It is important to not mistake being materialistic for being sentimental or being respectful of one’s belongings. The people who are truly ‘materialistic’ come in many varieties but they tend to have two very distinct behaviors.”

He argues first that materialists “always talk about things, not relationship to people.” It is only natural that collectors talk about the objects in their collection. These objects are not innate. They are as alive as any person. Objects have recognizable characteristics and personalities. Collectors do not just “talk about” their objects. They share their characteristics and personalities so other can enjoy them as well.

Koenig argues that individuals can only gain the respect of materialists by admiring their things or best them by arguing that “my” possessions are ever greater than “your” possessions. Collectors compete with each other. There are times when the competition can become fierce and disruptive. In reality, while the competition is intense, collectors willingly share their collections with others, even with their fiercest rivals.

Collectors fully understand that the antiques and collectibles field is such that attempting to corner the market for a collecting category or even a secondary or tertiary subcategory is impossible. There is simply too much stuff.

This is not to suggest that collectors do not covet. All materialists covert. Because of availability, there always is something a collector desires that he/she does not own. Often the object is in the hands of a rival collector. While diehard collectors may contemplate the possibility of acquiring the objects upon their rival’s death, others note the existence of the object and look forward to the hunt to add one to their collection.

Koenig’s second point is that materialists love objects because they have total control over them. Objects “can’t abandon them or disagree with them or betray them.” Clearly, Koenig has no understanding of the principles of collecting. Collectors feel abandoned when the secondary antiques and collectibles marketplace shifts its interest from their beloved objects. If the shift lasts long enough, collectors feel betrayed. A few cling tenuously to the hope that their objects will enjoy a collecting renaissance, a decided unreality in the 21st century. Their heirs note they will cast their treasures aside. Others accept reality and part with their treasures in their lifetime, a less painful process as I discovered than I thought.

The issue of control raises a key question for collectors. Who is in control – the collector or the collection? My heart favors the collector. My mind counters with the collection. In the 20th century, the drive to build a “major” collection, often determined by number of objects as opposed to quality, was paramount. Collections in the high hundreds and thousands were common. Having had the opportunity to visit with hundreds of individuals who assembled such collections and drawing on my own personal experiences, I understand the power a collection exerts on an individual to build, build, and keep building.

Age and wisdom has tempered this urge among older collectors. The minimalist craze has held it in check for 21st century collectors. The large collections era is over.

When teaching advanced writing to my university students, I informed them all writers are biased including me. Objectivity is a lost art in the 21st century. Koenig’s bias is demonstrated with his concluding paragraph:

“Inside the mind of [a] materialistic person there is lying his own insecurities, jealousy with more prosperous and successful people. He is kind of [a] show off person, harping on his own victories and achievements….”

Returning to the premise that all collectors are materialists, Koenig is sadly mistaken. Collectors are some of the most secure individuals I know. They are determined, dogged, and focused. They accept life’s up and downs, understanding that victory and defeat go hand in hand in the collecting world and that defeat is far more common than victory. Yet, they persist.

Society honors its materialists. Historical preservation is materialistic. The world’s archives, historic sites, historical societies, libraries, museums, and open air museums are monuments of materialism. Most would not exist were it not for the materialist financial donors and collectors whose efforts created these institutions and continue to enable them to exist and flourish.

The individual materialist collectors exist primarily outside the framework of these public and private institutions. Although some wander in and out of collecting clubs, Facebook groups, and other internet gathering points, the vast majority carry on as anonymous individuals. The question of how many individuals collect “x” is unanswerable.

Each materialist collector is a preservationist. The materialist collector is executive director, archivist, conservator, curator, fundraiser, and librarian of his/her private museum. More often then not, the collector is a one-person show.

The materialist collector is often the first step in an object group’s preservation process. As the collection is assembled, the collector begins researching the objects acquired. This research is shared through articles, books, exhibits, and lectures. If successful, the collector convinces others to collect the same group of objects.

Life is not a fairy tale. Most private collections do not end up in public or private institutions, primarily because the story they document is about the average person and often time sensitive. Most collections are dispersed with fewer and fewer objects within a collecting category retained as time passes.

Yet, these unsung materialist collectors do leave a legacy behind. The articles and reference books they published or played a role in helping an author publish remain. Some of the high-end objects in their collections work their way into period exhibits at institutions.

As suggested earlier, the age of the materialist collector is coming to an end. Ten or 20 like objects is not a materialistic collection. I am not certain 50 objects qualify. The minimalist revolution shows no signs of diminishing. Collecting is not priority for those born after 1990.

I began this column determined not to suggest that collecting was a higher, acceptable form of materialism. Materialism, whether focused on things or a lifestyle, is materialism. I grew up with the goal of becoming a materialist and have succeeded on many fronts, one of which is collecting.

As a concluding note, I take my hat off to the materialists of the world. Besides being accumulators, they are the creators and inventors. More than any group of individuals, they move society forward. Whether the movement is good or bad is relevant, but standing still has no relevance whatsoever.  

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.


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