What Makes A Collector?

What is it within an individual that triggers the desire to acquire? This is a serious question. The admire/acquire syndrome is at the root of the collector. One among our midst collects now only to study. Another of our aficionados collects early iron tsuba's. There is certainly no loss of subject types to collect. What's the matter with us? What gene is either absent or corrupted in us, such that we feel the desire and need to possess and own? This is not a case of first impression. There is no such thing as an original thought anymore. I read somewhere that defined collecting as a "strange and beautiful obsession." The author argued that collecting is an attempt to "overcome the limits of time and upbringing....to make sense of the multiplicity and chaos of the world, and perhaps even to find in it a hidden meaning." That may be an exaggeration but the point is made.

Not all collectors are alike. We differ in approach and impetus. In trying to make sense of the variations, I have made some hopefully meaningful divisions and, somewhat modestly, have made at least three different collector profiles. I have named them the "Investor," the "Acquirer," and the "Cathector." Of course, these catagories overlap in a given individual, but follow the logic course for a while and see if any of these is identifiable.

The Investor (collecting for profit)

Some of us buy primarily to be able to resell at a profit at some point in the future. We scour dealer inventory and auction catalogs with an eye to the bargain, the overlooked masterpiece, the one that falls between the cracks. In its purest sense, it matters little whether the piece is iron or soft metal, Muromachi period or Edo period, signed or unsigned. What matters is price and price alone. That is all. This seems a bit sordid for the collecting of an esoteric form of art such as tsuba. "Not me," you harshly intone. "I buy what I love." But hold on a minute. Aren't we all concerned with how much we pay? No one wants to overpay; everyone loves a bargain.

Have I created a negative connotation for the Investor, as though collecting for money is somehow dirty or impure? Maybe. But the Investor laughs all the way to the bank. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, Investors. The passion here is in the never-ending hunt for the elusive bargain, wherever and however it is to be found. Presumably, the pure Investor also has no vested interest in his collection but will sell at any time if the margin is sufficient. Price drives the Investor on the way in and on the way out. Money is the motive.

The Acquirer (strong desire to gain and possess)

Acquirers acquire. That's not very profound. But Acquirers acquire for the sake of the acquisition. They accumulate. Whether the Acquirer collects Kaneiye or Nobuiye tsuba, or Shakudo with soft metal inlays or the carvings of Mushi (insects), the premise is the same. The Acquirer collects by extrinsic criteria. He or she imposes upon the collection a preconceived set of ideas as to how that collection is supposed to look. This is an orderly and methodical way to collect, one that works as well for the beginner as for the sophisticate. Those with limited means, creating a framework within which to collect makes perfect sense. Otherwise, the world is too tempting. One cannot simply collect what one likes. There will be too many without a way to impose some structure.

To the experienced collector, at some point collections seem to fall into a sort of plan. One may not have intended it, but somehow an interest in Nara school comes to the surface - a lifelong love affair with Joi or Yasuchika perhaps, or a profound tactile yearning for soft metal. Thus, the Acquirer is calculating, but in a different way from that of the Investor. The interest informs the collector's desires. Where and how does this piece fit into my collection? Do I need it? Does it fill a spot? Acquirers are often exhibitors; they love to show their collections. Within this mind is a sense of order, a sense of permanence that may outlive the collector.

These areas are all about completeness and the hunger is based on the quest. It is my considered view that the pure Acquirer often tires of his acquisitions after the collection is complete. The passion is in the hunt. Thereafter, the Acquirer often puts away the collection, where it collects dust until..... Or, the Acquirer becomes the Seller.

The Cathector (To focus one's emotional energies on something)

The Cathector is the student and yes, the aesthete. For it is here for the first time in this article that one views that which we have always associated with art, the aesthetic collector. This is the division that looks at the piece itself, meritorious or not. Strange that only one-third of that which motivates us to collect is about the art itself, but there it is. The student is the intellectual, the composed tsuba collector. He/she collects pieces for critical analyses with the eye of a hawk, examining under magnification every ridge and every surface, looking for that telltale similarity or difference that informs of authenticity or artist trends or whatever the student is studying.

The Cathector is representative of what each of us thinks or wishes our collecting is all about: the absolute magnetism that draws us to a piece and will not let it go until we have purchased it. The Cathector pores over and fondles every inch, trying to feel what the carver felt when he was carving it. The Cathector has a place in his or her heart for each special piece as though it were animate - a family member - rather than an artist's creation. The Cathector will have a diverse collection, one that suffers neither from the Acquirer's "must haves" nor from concern about the relative amount of money that is the 'sine qua non' of the Investor. Theoretically anyway, the Cathector will never sell a piece. Each piece is a collection unto itself. There is, however, a dreamy, other-worldly aspect of escapism and solitude. There is the Cathector in each of us. Some less than others.


None of us is a "pure" anything; we are each collector hybrids, a combination of types. Nonetheless, by looking at these categories and at the personality type each engenders, perhaps the next time you are intrigued by a tsuba, you will ask yourself, "Why do I want to buy this piece? Is it me as Investor, Acquirer, or Cathector?" If you are even slightly more analytical about your collecting rationale, you will make sounder decisions that will cause you to spend your money in ways that will make collecting more satisfactory.

Elliott D. Long
Shibui Swords and Tsuba

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