I Collect, Therefore I am
“Of course, I started as a collector, a true collector. I can remember as if it were only yesterday the heart- pounding excitement as I spread out upon the floor of my bedroom The Edward G. Robinson Collection of Rare Cigar Bands. I didn’t play at collecting. No cigar anywhere was safe from me. My father and uncles and all their friends turned their lungs black trying to satisfy my collector’s zeal. And then came cigarette cards, big-league baseball players. I was an insatiable fiend, and would cheerfully trade you three Indian Joes for one of that upstart newcomer, Ty Cobb.” Edward G Robinson
I have started and stopped more collections than Imelda Marcos has shoes. My attention deficit disorder is reflected in the half completed ensembles of stamps, coins, first edition books, lead soldiers and baseball cards that could only temporarily hold my interest. This was in sharp contrast to my older brother whose collections were meticulous and whose stamps, record albums and coins were lovingly organized and catalogued in a manner that would bring tears to the eyes of any anal retentive.
One fateful winter, my jealousy turned to larceny. I surreptitiously began to steal his coin collection and insert them into my incomplete catalogues. It was benign at first. A Morgan dollar here, a mercury head dime there, he’d never know the difference. Yet, impatience got the better of me and I started to purloin an increasingly large part of his coins.
As quickly as my rare coin collection swelled, my interest waned. Spring had arrived along with baseball. It was time to spend afternoons hanging out at the local Little League diamond, practicing, playing catch and learning the finer points of life from 13 year old boys who like merchant marines, seemed to have figured out all of life’s mysteries. These long days would invariably bleed into dinner time. To satisfy this adolescent need was Al and his snack truck – – a mobile Petri dish of gastrointestinal diseases and food inspection violations.
Al sold candy, ice cream and suspicious tube steaks wrapped in wax paper. He would curse the mob of children that would gather by his truck. He peered through smoke as his three inch cigarette ash dangled from his mouth, “what do you want kid? “
It was on a spring day in 1973 that Al struck gold, or should I say, silver. On that afternoon, I decided it was time to begin to divest myself of my new coin collection. Given that most of the coins were stolen, I was stymied as to how I might begin to diversify my holdings. Al became my fence. “Get out of the way” he would yell at the other kids as I rode up on my bike and sheepishly gave him my rare coins in exchange for food and candy. He kept a face as straight as Johnny Chan and sifted through my offering – – “let’s see that’s $ 1.53. What do you want to buy?” The “dollar“ just happened to be a rare silver certificate dollar. The fifty cent piece was a silver JFK half dollar. The nickel?, a Buffalo head and the three cents all dated back to the early 1900’s. Painful, isn’t it? Occasionally an older kid might notice the coins and ask, “Say, is that a mercury dime? “ Al would chase them away from his truck and quickly distract me with offers of cotton candy and ice cream.
It all came to head when my Mom noticed I had put on weight and found empty coin display cases in my sock drawer. As she interrogated me, my brother overheard the line of questioning and ran upstairs to his room. The blood curdling scream confirmed her suspicions and she suddenly had to protect me from an apoplectic sixteen year old. “I’ll kill him “was all he kept screaming. My near death experience was followed by endless days of punitive weeding and death threats. At my parents 50th wedding anniversary, I “unearthed” a time capsule for the family celebration. The contents were items from the 60s and 70s, including were several rare coins which I presented to my brother. “You see, Miles, they weren’t stolen after all”. After 35 years, he was still not laughing.
EBay has rekindled the world of collecting. The massive internet based flea market is a collector’s Mecca. Whether you favor stamps, coins, quilts, Flintstone memorabilia or underwear of famous rock stars, there is a market for anyone. My friend Mark collects antique penny banks. David, collects ticket stubs from every movie he has ever seen – -including a diary of the film’s date and time and his overall impressions. Red Auerbach, celebrated one time coach of the Celtics, collected letter openers. Quentin Tarantino collects vintage board games. Tom Hanks is never far from a vintage typewriter. Harry Connick Jr. is rumored to collect cuff links. Perhaps the most obscure is the Johnny Depp who collects bat and insect skeletons.
Rare item collecting must be reserved for the world’s rich and famous. The British Guiana One Cent Magenta Stamp is the world’s rarest stamp and was auctioned for $ 935,000 in 1980. 1969-S Lincoln Cent with a doubled die obverse is exceedingly rare and some are still found in circulation. A rare double eagle gold coin sold for $7.9m. There are only six known signatures of William Shakespeare all selling for a paltry $ 3m.
Most collectors play it safe, sticking to fine wines, plein air art, antiques, flags, posters or in the case of New Canaan Cleaners, bobble head dolls. I search for lead soldiers, scouring the electronic stalls of EBay auctions and antique stores – -the more dingy and out of the way the lead soldiers store, the better. I am always looking for that bargain find – -a complete set of early 19th century Britains made from solid molds, or perhaps a lead rendition of El Cid as he is ridding the Iberian Peninsula of the Ottomans and Saladin. Like many things in life, it is the journey, not the destination that defines the joy in collecting. It is the pursuit, not the kill. Collections require patience, passion, emotional intelligence and resourcefulness. The pathological resolve to scrape and save, to go to unnatural lengths to find, at all costs, that Mickey Mantle rookie card is an art form. Finding that rare Lincoln Wheat VDB 1909 penny minted in Philadelphia is not just a purchase, it is a historical event to be recounted ad nauseum when someone is unlucky enough to innocently trigger the trip wire of a budding numismatist.
How people collect tells you a lot about their emotional intelligence. Some allow their obsession to get the better of them and end up with a house full of WWII Gurkha army knives. Some build their collections with restraint and finesse. Each acquisition is a slow dance, or a fine meal – – an event to be savored and appreciated. The beauty of collecting is that anything has the potential to become a collectible. The most prosaic trash can be another man’s treasure. While I still collect my lead soldiers, my golden age of collecting has passed. I realize that I do not have the patience, financial resources or stamina to be a true collector.
However, owning a snack truck ? Now that is a collectible.