The urge to collect runs deep and the modern marketplace facilitates ever more niche – and lucrative – habits

If you can think of something, chances are there’s someone out there collecting it. Don’t believe me? You’ve obviously not taken time to peruse American harpist Deborah Henson-Conant’s extensive collection of burnt food. Or visited the Icelandic phallological centre, home to the largest collection of male sexual organs in the world. If you’re strong of stomach, go to there you’ll see a satisfied-looking man called Graham Barker standing next to three jars marked “navel fluff 1984-1993”, “navel fluff 1994-2000” and “navel fluff 2001-present”.

From banana stickers to cars to locks of celebrity hair, it’s not just the things people collect that vary, but the way they collect them. For every hat collector who wears a different one each day, there’s a comic book enthusiast who keeps his figurines locked in their plastic packaging safe from the air’s decaying microbes. Some collect as an investment, others out of curiosity, but for the most committed collectors it usually starts with one thing: love. And the line between love and obsession can be dangerously thin. Take antiquarian and book collector Sir Thomas Phillips, whose desire to own a copy of every book in the world led him to destitution in the second half of the 19th century.

The desire for completion doesn’t motivate all collectors – no seashell enthusiast could hope for a full set – but it is often a motivating factor. “Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs,” writes collector and academic Kim Herzinger. “It functions as a form of wish fulfilment which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.” In her essay Passionate Possession, anthropologist Marjorie Akin describes people crying out in sweet relief as they complete a long-nurtured collection.

Other psychologists say the urge to collect is about establishing a connection to the past; lost worlds made visible again through objects. Freud viewed it as a manifestation of our deep-seated desire for control and security, linking it to the objects we used to comfort ourselves – toys, blankets, pacifiers – when the mother’s milk was first denied to us. Perhaps there is no single theory capacious enough to accommodate the burnt food museum and the desire to own every book that ever was. Whatever the explanation, the urge to collect runs deep; the majority of children go through a stage of collecting something and one in three adults continues to collect into their adult lives.

The darkest corners of the internet abound with personal collections ranging from the niche to the perverted, but what of the objects of genuine prestige historically coveted by the world’s wealthiest? When it comes to the great painters, a heavily globalised art market continues to out-do itself. Eight of the world’s top 10 most expensive paintings were sold in the last 10 years. The most expensive, The Card Players by Paul Cézanne, was sold to the Qatari Royal Family by shipping magnate George Embericos for $259m. The Qataris are rumoured to have outbid American collectors Larry Gagosian and William Acquavella, who reportedly offered a frankly insulting $220m. Arab oil money outbidding American collectors to buy a French masterpiece from a Greek industrialist – everything you need to know about the current state of the top-end art market is contained within the deal.

Daniella Wells, show director of the Collect crafts fair that takes place every year at the Saatchi Gallery, says the profile of the collector has become far more global over the years. “In the beginning it was a few wealthy London residents and a handful of collection groups from America. Now it’s completely international.”

Part of the reason paintings exchange hands for so much is that so few masterpieces are still available on the private market. Most have found a permanent home in museums or the private collections of the megawealthy, who have little interest in selling. That’s why it’s such big news when works by great painters do exchange hands, like last year when casino magnate Steve Wynn sold Pablo Picasso’s Le Rêve to 56-year-old billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen for $155m. A previous agreement between the two was cancelled after Wynn (who has diminished peripheral vision thanks to retinitis pigmentosa) accidentally tore the canvas by putting his elbow through it.


For those who can’t quite stretch to a Picasso, there’s the Affordable Art Fair (AAF). The fair was founded in 1999 by a man called Will Ramsay who found established private galleries unaffordable and unwelcoming. Ramsay guessed there would be many people like him, and he was right. The first fair was in Battersea Park; everything was under £2,000 and staff were told to be friendly and approachable. It worked: 10,000 people flooded through the gates.

“The majority are people who own their home and are looking for something that expresses their personality to put on their walls,” says Jessica Hall, marketing manager of the fair. “They want something unusual or unique that says something about them. Also there are parents whose children have left – they finally have their houses back, have a little bit of disposable income and know what they like.”

In the 15 years since the first AAF, over a million people have visited, and there are now events everywhere from New York to Amsterdam to Hong Kong.

The success of the fair attests not only to the universality of the collector’s impulse but also to our human need to adorn space with meaningful objects. In that sense, perhaps the first word in the phrase “personal collection” is most illuminating. Collecting a particular category of objects is identity-forming – it anchors us in a world overflowing with stuff.

Or perhaps it’s just the allure of wonderful things. “If someone comes to me and says ‘I was told photography was a good investment’, I say to them ‘go and speak to a bank. I’m not an investment manager’,” says gallery owner and photography collector Michael Hoppen. “I can show you incredible things and we all know incredible things are always in demand, whether you’re talking about pens or stamps. The best of breed always has an audience... go online and look at the auction results and you’ll see there’s tremendous demand for photography.”

Mind-bendingly high prices in art have given a boost to the world of fine photography, where collectors can get a masterwork by an all time great like William Klein for £10-15,000. “We’ve got a show coming up by Harold Edgerton who was one of the heads of MIT and his photographs have become iconic,” says Hoppen. “The equivalent in fine art would long have gone into museums... They are amazing objects to hold because they are unique one-offs. These are vintage pieces and they will be largely available for the single thousands, so they are very good value.”

When it comes to finding out about the past, often things of very little value tell us more than the most prized objects. As a child Robert Opie developed an interest in disposable consumer goods packaging. Now he runs west London’s Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, an indispensable resource for researchers looking to find out about everyday life in the recent past. When American experimental film-maker Harry Smith compiled his personal collection of 78 RPM interwar folk records into three volumes in 1952, he inadvertently created the definitive Anthology of American Folk Music, valued by critics and music historians as one of the most important musical anthologies of the 20th century.

Grand old auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams may have illustrious histories but in terms of quantity, they’ve been left for dust by online auction site eBay. Through its “collectibles” section, eBay facilitates the niche collecting habits of eccentrics the world over, but it’s also made inroads into the top-end of the market. In 2000 collector Brian Seigel paid $1.1m for the legendary 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card. In 2004, one of the world’s 399 Ferrari Enzos went for $1m. EBay’s revenue exceeded $16bn in 2013, almost 20 times that of Sotheby’s.

Collecting – a hobby as old as humanity itself – has exploded in the digital age; if you can think of something, chances are someone’s selling it on eBay. Whether through the auctioneer’s hammer or click of a mouse, as long as there are things to collect there will be collectors.

COLLECT: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects is at the Saatchi gallery 9 - 12 March