I REMEMBER ONE of the first times I saw my mother cry. It was over a set of 200-year-old Chinese jewellery boxes that had been knocked off their ledge and smashed.
This all happened almost two decades ago, but when I ask my mother about the incident she can recall it as clearly as I do. It wasn’t their lost monetary value that so upset her: my mother would (probably) rather flog her only daughter on eBay than part with one of her treasured antiques.
Despite my early dabbling in stamp collecting, coin collecting and, very briefly, woodlouse collecting, I haven’t inherited her collector’s sentiment — but it is a common one. According to a study by Ashley Nordsletten and David Mataix-Cols of King’s College London, a third of adults collect.
This same study also estimated that 2-5 per cent of the population are hoarders. It was only in May that hoarding was officially reclassified as a mental disorder in its own right (it was previously seen as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder) — and it’s not just experts who are starting to look at hoarding differently.
Programmes like Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder on Channel 4 have invited viewers to rubberneck at those at risk of being buried alive under the weight of their own belongings and in the process have raised public awareness of the condition. The cramped, squalid homes of those on Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder may not look anything like the fine-art collector’s Mayfair pile — but I wondered whether there can be hidden parallels. In its extreme forms, collecting can easily become obsessive.
Nic McElhatton, chairman at Christie’s South Kensington, mentions a collector (not a Christie’s client, he makes clear) who has amassed seven or eight thousand silver mustard pots, and while this is undoubtedly a picturesque trove, is the underlying behaviour any less pathological? ‘Collecting can become a disease,’ McElhatton told me. ‘As a collector myself I understand that, because it can be hard to walk away from something and not to add it to your collection.’
There are plenty of examples of people whose collecting habits have ruined them financially — an indicator, perhaps, of a habit that’s got out of hand. When a big collector unexpectedly sells up they rarely cite financial distress — but as McElhatton points out, auctioneers know big sales are motivated by the three Ds — death, divorce and, yes, debt.
Ashley Keller, a PhD candidate researching hoarding at King’s College London, believes there are certain characteristics that distinguish hoarding from collecting. The biggest difference is levels of organisation: collectors engage in ‘ritualistic behaviour around organising their items’, she explains, ‘whereas with our hoarders we see a much more indiscriminate acquisition process, and this emphasis on organisation just isn’t there’.
The second distinguishing feature is distress: ‘Most of the collectors we see are enjoying their behaviour even when they’re acquiring quite a bit… Whereas for hoarders, while they may enjoy getting the items and they may enjoy talking about an individual item, the overall behaviour is very destructive and it’s very unpleasant for them.’
One of the most intriguing findings from the research on hoarders and collectors at King’s, however, was that collectors tend to have larger property sizes than hoarders. Keller says that there are two conflicting interpretations for this.
Either hoarders tend to have smaller properties because they are functioning less well — unlike collectors, they are suffering from a prolonged psychiatric condition so their career suffers or they stop working at all. Or, because one of the criteria for being a hoarder is that your living space is impeded, it takes longer for someone with a big home to reach that stage.
I doubt David Gainsborough Roberts would mind being considered eccentric, although he’d certainly draw the line at being labelled a hoarder. He has amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of memorabilia in his Jersey home. The scope of his collection is broad — paintings by Cézanne, Churchill and Hitler adorn his walls, while he has the largest collection of Marilyn Monroe’s dresses as well as countless other pieces of film memorabilia.
He tells me his collecting is driven by his love for history, and that for him, collecting is a compulsion. ‘Some people are compulsive eaters or compulsive alcoholics or compulsive clothes buyers or whatever they do. I’ve always been a compulsive buyer of history,’ he says.
Roberts clearly relishes the thrill of a new purchase, and like many collectors he says he’ll never, ever sell: ‘I might go and live in a one-bedroom flat somewhere, but I’d never sell the collection. I’ve been too much a part of it, there’s been too much research, it’s been too many years.’ His nephew Nick, however, points out that Roberts’ collecting habit has serious downsides too. ‘I’ve seen the other side of it, and it’s great when the cameras are there, and when people are walking around, but afterwards cleaning up is a nightmare,’ he says.
Nick has tentatively followed his uncle and started collecting memorabilia. He started off by buying the see-through dress Kate Middleton allegedly seduced Prince William in at a student fashion show, for £78,000. ‘My mentality at the moment is very much to look at it as an investment and not solely as a collection, but who knows, I might change my mind,’ he tells me. ‘It’s when people start saying, “Oh, I love that, it’s a bit over the budget but I had to have it,” that you go wrong.’
Even his uncle sticks to set criteria when making acquisitions. First there has to be an interesting story behind the object, and secondly it has to be affordable: ‘He’ll never buy beyond what he’s brought with him to the auction. He might, say, have £1,000 in his pocket and he won’t spend beyond that.’
I wondered if auctioneers ever feel they ought to intervene if a client’s collecting spirals out of control. McElhatton is ambivalent. ‘We have a certain duty to advise our clients to make the best of their collection, but to a certain extent it’s none of our business. If they want to obsessively collect 50 things that are identical to things that they have, it’s their business,’ he says.
‘If they’re getting themselves into financial difficulty because of it, I’d feel quite wary of talking to them about it because I’d feel it wasn’t really my concern, but there is a certain duty of care, perhaps. To be honest I haven’t been in that situation. A less honest auctioneer might just love that kind of situation and encourage the client to buy everything.’
When someone’s collection extends beyond their means, it can be time to sell. We tend to imagine this as a very sad occasion for the passionate collector, but McElhatton notes this isn’t always the case. ‘I’ve seen the release be cathartic for some people, in that it has been so obsessive and the collection has taken up so much of their life that when it comes to dispersing it and removing it from their life in some cases it becomes a relief,’ he says.
There’s little risk that a Christie’s client will find themselves on Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder, but perhaps collecting is a more dangerous hobby than most enthusiasts care to admit.
Similarly, if one mark of hoarding is the distress is causes, could it be that the wealthy are simply insulated, thanks to larger houses and domestic staff, from some of the effects of their reckless acquisitions? There is therefore certainly the possibility that the old cliché holds true, that while the poor are mad the rich are merely eccentric.