Monday, June 9, 2014

Muddy Monday: No Wrong Answers on the Collector Achievement Test

A collector friend stopped by for a chat, and the subject of styles of collecting really struck me. When getting into collecting anything, it is easy to get the impression that there is only one way to "win" at collecting. The weird thing about this is, there is no scorekeeper. You can't go by ribbons from judged shows, either, because one may have an amazing collection at home, and never show but one or two horses, ever! It isn't a contest, and there is no one way to "do it right". You have your own reasons for collecting what you do; there are just as many ways of collecting as there are ambitions or needs to do it. I touched on this subject in this post, but the recent conversation brought to light a perspective I had not considered.

That perspective is that of displaying one's collection as a showcase of acquisitions, for an unspecified but anticipated viewership (i.e., house guests, office clients). 

In this style, the displays are arranged by collectibility or ease of recognition by other knowledgeable collectors. The message is, "Look how hard I have worked to assemble this group", and it is meant to impress. Like a museum display, it focuses on the anticipated audience, and evoking awe from them.

There's nothing wrong with this. It is one of several collecting philosophies or drives in the pantheon. 

Until my friend verbalized it, it did not occur to me that she sees everyone's cabinets as speaking to her this way. I'm on the other end of the spectrum. This is no gallery show. My cabinets are not kept spotless. I dust once every couple years, as shelves need maintenance. I arrange things by art reference for my own visual learning, and by what-fits-where. It is an uncreative, practical approach. It probably makes little sense to collectibility-minded visitors. I've got mixed sizes and all manufacturers sharing the same shelves, realistic in with fantasy, glazed right next to bisques. Broken or dismembered pieces are right in with mint ones. Family sets are divided. The only obvious strategy is pieces arranged by mold or breed subject, even if the manufacturers are random. Almost all of them stand side-by-side, like books in a library's stacks. It makes sense to me, but I run my cabinets like an intern in the back of a museum, not like the exhibits in the front. Everything gets an ID number, cataloged, and set on its shelf, whether it has legs to stand on, or not. I used to even have information typed out and tagged with some items, in the cabinet. Each sherd is important for study, and I do have some sherds. When I learn new things about a piece, that data gets added to the catalog. I blogged about keeping inventory, here.

An utter mishmash of factories, finishes, sizes, and ceramic media.
The only order is by mold!

My cabinet is also like a barn. It is housing for sculptures to keep them safe and reasonably clean, yet readily accessible as reference. The Kentucky Horse Park, it is not. No photos for public posting. No pastoral shelves of foals at their dams' sides. Perhaps, I am missing something with my pragmatic approach: static display showmanship. From my perspective, I look at other folks' cabinets as if they are barns, too. When I see family groupings and full-body lateral displays, these strike me as unusual. At the same time, I never questioned why they do this, nor why I do not. 

I have been lax in not considering potential viewers when I arranged these cabinets. It is becoming a concern because, more and more, we do have visitors. I am hosting a show late this Fall, and there will be visitors with this specialized interest, curious to see the collection. Maybe it is time to let my collection have a dual purpose, and present it as exhibits, as well as my research archives. I realize this sounds odd to those collectors who already showcase their collectibles with flair. It was never something I considered for myself, before. My goal with this blog has been to make the trivia of ceramic animal collecting and production more accessible. I surely can think of ways to make my cabinet reflect the same.

Then, I started thinking about the other styles of collecting. Can the approaches to the universal facets of collecting be charted? 








Defined by being complete; challenged by new discoveries or lost rarities

Thoroughly tagged, cataloged, and pieces seldom leave

In constant flux, as new pieces are added and others are pulled out for fresh groupings

As available, no order to acquisition

In constant flux, as new pieces are added and old pieces are retired from the show string

& Goal

A finite, achievable set number serves as checklist

Infinite variations, factory tests, goofs

A finite and highly selective checklist comprising the most important pieces

Interconnected web of others’ collections make up the known whole
(being a fellow collector is the only aim)

Selective checklist comprising the most competitive or newest pieces


Cabinet displays, as well as stored items, due to sheer quantity

Cabinets are practical use of space

Displays designed to impress others; items “off exhibit” are stored

Minimal organization, cabinet displays are to please self only

Large percentage of collection is in boxes for show transport, or campaigning
with proxies

The Completist Collector

I have a problem with the Google definition of "completist":

n. an obsessive, typically indiscriminate fan or collector

The completists I knew and know were very discriminating; they were the first to teach me about "upgrading". This is just as it sounds, purchasing a duplicate and comparing it with the current collection, with the intent of improving by replacement. The lesser item, whether new or old to the collection, is then culled.

I much prefer the Merriam-Webster:

 one who wants to make something (as a collection) complete

Who is a completist? You might have been one, at the start. Or, maybe you are in a position to become one, with a change in space, employment, or finances? Completists typically have at least two out of three things that make this possible:

1. display space and storage
2. funds to devote to the collection
3. time to devote to finding the items 

Time and funds are similar enough in their yields that they are almost the same plus for a collector.

The fourth plus would be a network of fellow collectors to help you with your goal, but this takes time to build. Thus, you must have #3 time to invest, just to acquire #4.

A person may experience a whole range of these collecting directions, housing, and processes over their lifetime... some may have elements of several styles going, at one time. Many collectors change their interests from decade to decade, or year to year. There is now so much more available to ceramic animal collectors than ever before, such that changes in fancy come with the territory. Some collectors swap out ceramics for the latest offering on a monthly basis.

I know several friends with a sampling of traits across the board, not fitting into one column. 

I have visited several private film memorabilia collections, over the years. In some collections, whether vast or modest, nothing was organized, just space being the limiting and arranging factor. I have had to step or hop over props to just reach a vantage point to see others. This might be one small spare bedroom, or an enormous house. It can't be termed "warehousing", because that implies inventory lists, shelves, and maybe crates or boxes. Ultimately, such a lack of organization is antithetical to the goal of the Completist. How can one possibly know where one is on the road to completion, if you can't access an inventory of what you already have?

The Advanced Collector

The use of this word feels inappropriate regarding a collector of anything, because it is so hard to quantify. A brand-new beginner is pretty easy to identify, but the lines beyond that are a haze. A written test of the molds and colors would separate the beginners from the vets, but there is no standardized Collector Achievement Test. If you go by quantity in a collection, it does not give one a reliable assessment. I had one of the smallest collections when I was already a year into this blog. I was doing research and active in the model hobby, even a show hostess. As few pieces as I had, the percentage of unusual or hard-to-find was high. If the measurement was by a number alone, I would have been classified a "beginner" or intermediate.

If time is the measurement, well, I know of collectors who have amassed significant collections (in size and rarity) in less than a year. Time is certainly an advantage to meeting one's goals, but it is not the only factor. For this reason, the synonym "seasoned" doesn't work.

Monetary investment is not a true indicator. There are collectors who are original owners, having purchased their rare, mid-century models at retailers when they were new... for around three to five dollars, each. Even today, some collectors make it a personal goal to only bargain-hunt for their ceramics, electing to restore them, and thus collect models for pennies on the dollar. The dawn of eBay brought its share of such bargains, as well as overpayment for common models by virtue of bidders competing.

Still, there are some solid achievement markers that can indicate the advanced status of a collector:

1. retailed a Special Run
2. wrote a book on the subject
3. collaborated in some productive way with the factory 
4. collaborated in a productive way with author(s) on the subject

There are more, I just haven't thought of them by print time. Collaborating may include submitting models for photography in the related books, interviews, illustrations, editing and proofreading, or any number of collecting-knowledge-required tasks.

Dialing Back

This is a very interesting phase to the observer of human nature, and it may occur more than once in a collector's life. It's not the same as having your collection lost in a situation outside your control; this is a careful, measured, grand-scale change. A handful of friends are going through this, as I type, for their own varied reasons. One similarity between all of them is that they have their finger on the pulse of the factors that trigger their personal happiness or discomfort. They know themselves well, and they are making collecting decisions acknowledging that. This is a pretty big thing, self-awareness. 

Downsizing may be done in advance of a complete shift to collecting something else. It looks to me more like a streamlining of collection focus. Some collectors do completely "get out", it's true. It seems more frequently, two or three items are held back because of those first heartstrings they pulled: the ones that started the whole symphony.

Getting Serious

Returning to the opening of this post, I'm thinking seriously about how to improve the showmanship of my collection before Clinky Classic, this Fall. I'm window-shopping professional cabinets online, and clicking through the many different cabinet hardware options. This link is a great starting point for anyone looking for an upgrade in hardware. Uniform display is one of those things that really adds the "wow factor". It's not lost on me, I dig it. Lighting is another part of the static display that I don't think of until the cabinet is loaded, and then I notice how suddenly dark it has become! 

Of course, now that I've thought on this, the memories of visitors having trouble seeing certain things, all leap to mind. It further spurs me on to do a better job in displaying, because the point is to learn from these past artworks. It's hard to grasp (literally!) if you can't see it clearly. I want to keep my collecting goal to share and emphasize the handmade nature of the ceramics. Since I am not a completist, there is a lot less pressure for me. Staying on track with what I love about collecting and sharing is completely achievable, it is just evolving. 

Where are you in the chart? Have you been "serious" and now casual? When did your "beginner" status pupate into an advanced state? 

Thank you to Maggie Barkovitz for twisting my arm into a Lippitt conga; Jenn Dodd for the initial conversation; Kim Bjorgo for the hardware link!


  1. I am a Casual Beginner! I collect what I like No drive to complete a set or have the rarest of the rare, just get the ones that talk to me.

  2. Wow...all of these 'collecting strategies' are totally alien to me, and, I daresay, practically every other Brit hobbyist. We just don't "do" collecting, in the way US hobbyists do. We just acquire horses we like. That's probably because of our different origins - it was never possible to acquire 'one of everything' because our hobby was based around craft pieces, which by their nature were all individuals, not mass-produced items. Also they were never as cheap as Breyers, or indeed even HRS in the Hallmark shop days. Truley two continents divided by the same language, LOL!

  3. Hardcore casual here. If my horses (mine are mostly plastic) are organized at all, it's so that I don't get blocks of horses of the same color next to each other on shelves (so they don't blend in visually; gotta have contrast. I find I particularly like dark bays next to grays and buckskins or duns), and by who fits where since shelf space is really tight these days. In case you're wondering: Yes, I often can't find models that I know that I own. And I just decided to clean and rearrange them all after I got back from a show since half the models were off the shelves, anyway; now I'll never be able to find them again. I think conga lines are as much for simplifying the locating process as they are display. How many Stone ISH's do I have? No idea, and excuse me while I take 20 minutes to find them all.

    Obviously, there are models I really want, but what I want is not really dictated by value. My most recent Holy Grail model was Dr. Peaches, who is rare-ish and kind of historically significant but not actually very valuable. I can't afford to speculate: If I buy it, I'd better want to live with it forever.

  4. I think the way I arrange my models has more to do with my obsessive need to sort items and create patterns than anything else :) I do think I am more of an Archival collector, though.