Brian Sewell treads the fine line between enthusiasm and aberration while marveling that no scientific treatise on the psychology of collecting exists

Are collectors deranged?



The distinguished analyst, Dr Werner Muensterberger, suggested to me many years ago that the need to form a collection of matchboxes, moths, motorcar mascots or Old Master drawings is an aspect of anal retention, and infantile. I dare say that he was treading a path well trodden by those concerned with the vagaries of human and animal behaviour, but the notion shocked me at the time (and does so still) for it can have little application to such great collectors of the past and present as Vasari, Rubens, Rembrandt, Crozat, Mariette, Mahon and Brinsley Ford, and to see Lugt and Seilern in this light is plainly absurd.

My own explanation for the mania that sometimes consumes collectors is that it has an almost scientific base; the Elder Pliny proves the point, for his Historia Naturalis is one of the largest collections ever formed by one man but it was a collection of facts, not objects, and became the first encyclopaedia and not the first museum (in the pursuit of knowledge, the purposes of museum and encyclopaedia run close); Ludwig von Koechel too proves the point, for he was a botanist and mineralogist before he applied the principles of scientific classification to Mozart’s music; and Frits Lugt as a small boy collected seashells and recorded them in a minute hand in minute notebooks long before he turned to prints and drawings and the Plinian activity of collecting the dry facts that make his Repertoires des Ventes and Marques de Collections. However amusing may be the idea of anal retention in the context of the Saatchi Collection, we cannot ignore what seems to me to be a fact that the developed mind needs to record and categorise in order to assist understanding and sympathy, and that knowledge and connoisseurship can flourish only when rooted in well-ordered material.

In the winter of 1982 I was rebuked by Dr Muensterberger for attributing to him the idea of anal retention (I should not have been surprised, for he is, after all, a not undistinguished collector of ethnographical material, and his wife an erstwhile New York dealer in Old Master drawings); it seems that instead his colleagues are to blame for seeing “connections between hoarding, amassing, collecting and obsessive preoccupation with anatomical experience. It is true that collecting has been described as a residual habit (or sublimation) of unresolved infantile conflicts with bowel training and bowel regulation ... After years of careful clinical work and numerous interviews with many dozens of collectors of all sorts, I arrived at the conclusion that the earlier psychoanalytic propositions are in need of revision ... There is no simple formula. What collectors have in common is the singular exuberance vital to their pursuit, not infrequently to a degree of monomania. It is a complex emotional experience, often even at the expense of true intimacy, close friendships and love ... Doubtless many collectors’ yearnings have links to early frustrations and possibly pathogenic experiences which are then absorbed by relying on objects and anxious possessiveness. Other collectors are organisers, putting together series of prints or coins or postage stamps ... but these are not necessarily anal replays ... I should stress that my conclusions, so far unpublished, point in a distinctly different direction than anal memories”.

It seems that Muensterberger and I are in broad agreement, but his findings are, alas, still unpublished; at least, no one in the Tavistock Clinic knows of them, indeed no work on the psychology of the collector by any author is readily available. I was encouraged to consult general works on mania and obsession – advice that caused me to raise an eyebrow until, following it, I found that the term obsessional personality is to be applied to a man who is conscientious, reliable and scrupulous far beyond the average, and without whom much scientific work could not be done: if for scientific work we substitute collecting, then this serves perfectly as a description of Frits Lugt and Antoine Seilern, the most diligent, wide-ranging, well-informed and sane collectors for whom I once ran errands. These gentle and gentlemenly men, their logical minds concerned with classification and completion, with art as documentation, but their aesthetic minds responding to beauty, asserting the primacy of connoisseurship and developing the “controlled intuition” for which Pope-Hennessy pleads in his Study and Criticism of Italian Sculpture (the response of heart and stomach infinitely preferable to reliance on certificate or document), were as much Renaissance men as any Medici. Intellectuals illustrating philosophical ideas with works of art, they differed only in that they were denied the opportunity of direct patronage and had to be content with collecting the treasures of the past. Muensterberger, however, appears to see in both men evidence of emotional damage, but failed to tell me whether this was the cause or the effect of the collecting. There are indeed men who buy works of art in quantity and whose associated behaviour is so irrational as to suggest emotional damage; I know one who goes into a muck sweat as he resolves his choice of Old Master drawings; another who dare not go to auctions, so orgasmic is the frenzy that they induce; a third who violently ravishes his just-wrapped parcels in the back of the limousine that wafts him away from Bond Street; and a fourth whose post-coital tristesse is so acute that he drives straight to the bank with his parcels and never again sees their contents. These lend some substance to the proposed tie between the private collector and his private parts not only anal, for we should not forget the assertion of some analysts that spending money is a form of emission (the verb to spend was used in this sense by Shakespeare in an amusing reference to the cod-piece, and by Rochester, and was once common parlance)but we should perhaps not count them as collectors in any true sense, but recognise them as men for whom acquisition is an obsessive activity that could as well be in the fields of business, banking and real estate.

There is also the possibility that collecting is a deep-rooted instinct that survives from our prehistoric evolutionary past, linking us with squirrel, chipmunk, and all other animals that hoard; here again, in respect for Dr Muensterberger and his colleagues, we must not forget where the monkey puts his nuts. We should observe the thieving magpie and the behaviour of the cock bower bird, building its aedicula and stocking it with little treasures to attract the hen (a surprisingly human pattern of endeavour). The peacock display of flamboyant acquisition at evening sales at Sotheby’s has nothing to do with collecting, but is a ludicrous performance enjoyed only by peacocks and peahens (remarkably silly birds with raucous voices), associated with such other aspects of behaviour as mating and the demarcation of territory.

My Plinian collector tops the scale of one to ten, with the ejaculating peacock registering zero. I suspect that Matthew Corvinus deserves full marks and Suleyman the Magnificent, who stole his library, very few, but pillage and loot must, like bidding at Sotheby’s, be less methods of collecting than the aberrant expression of power. If not, then Napoleon and Goering too deserve full marks. I am less sure of Rudolf II, whose political indecision and interest in the occult suggest more than a small measure of mental instability. Was the distinction of King Charles I as a collector an aesthetic response to painting tempered by Plinian considerations, or was it in some sense a sign of emotional inadequacy, perhaps even of incipient homosexuality (it is odd how many collectors have been homosexual, and how many homosexuals have collected kitsch)? King George III was quite certainly mad, and the Prince Regent emotionally unpredictable, yet without their contributions the Royal Collection now would be much impoverished. Most great American collections were not formed by the names they bear but by such agents as Berenson and Duveen, and should perhaps be counted less as collections and more as marvels of splendid (and often uncomprehending) acquisition like the proxy marriage, the spending spree de luxe. The Phillips Collection in Washington is, for all its grandeur, intellectually insecure when compared with Samuel Courtauld’s purchases made at more or less the same time, or with Carl Jacobsen’s donations to the Carlsberg Glypotek, or Wilhelm Hansen’s gift of Ordrupsgård. The Gelman accumulation of pictures, shown at the Royal Academy a year ago, is a monument to vain and disorderly greed, though it must be worth a great deal of money (a factor to which the true collector is indifferent, caring nothing for the possibility of profit); and another of the Academy’s glittering exhibitions, the Sackler collection of ancient jewellery (some of it leading us to wonder if the term ancient had been re-defined), was a tawdry and contemptible display suggesting that its owner had learned nothing from her ownership. Heinz Berggruen’s attitude to Paul Klee is certainly Plinian, but the rest of his collection, lacking defined limits, seems infinitely less certain and assured. The Thyssen purchase of Sotheby’s Constable for £10 million throws doubt on the high seriousness of that collection, for it suggests the extravagant acquisition of a famous name and never mind the quality. Emil Bührle, who suffered an unrequited passion for French Impressionists from the moment he first saw them in 1913, was not until 1938 able to buy one. Then, with mounting fortune multiplying from the sale of lethal weapons (all his competitors diverted or impoverished, or Jewish and expropriated), was able to sweep the field; but as he did so, he descended from the heights of connoisseurship, and it was greed that brought him down. I have said nothing of women as collectors; there are too few of them to allow the amateur to draw conclusions, and the associations of sex and power (as well as the vocabulary) must differ from those of men, though in these areas Christina of Sweden, Catherine the Great and Isabella Stewart Gardner are not without monstrous interest; that there are so few may, in itself, indicate something in the nature of women and let me hasten to mollify all feminists by suggesting that few women suffer unresolved problems with bowel training, and that any who have obsessive preoccupations with hoarding are easily satisfied with the wardrobe and the kitchen cupboard.

Collecting is mania and obsession, scientific order and enquiry, sexual sublimation, an essential adjunct to the advance of knowledge, a form of rape and a form of masochism, an emotional response to beauty, the shrewd commercial response to potential profit, an aspect of love, the exercise of power, the display of vanities, and only perhaps the retention of stools.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Are collectors deranged?'