Why do we collect those objects of desire?

THE word 'collector' is much misused. Almost anyone who invests or gambles in the art market is routinely referred to as 'a collector'. So, too, are Charles Saatchi, who might better be described as a very astute dealer, and others who have only ever bought one or two things in their lives. True collectors have a theme to their acquisitiveness, and there is a coherence in what they buy, even where it is not limited to one field or school of art.

There are as many different attitudes to collecting, as ways of going about it. For some, the aim is to assemble a comprehensive account of a subject. Once that goal is achieved, they may well release everything back into the market, or pass it to a museum, and begin again in another field. For others, beauty, the very best available, is the point. Yet others want a study collection, in which first efforts, bosh shots and damaged examples have equal value with a perfect work. Some collectors start with anything they can capture, and buy better as funds and knowledge allow. Some are single-subject obsessives; others match objects, styles and periods to produce a complementary whole. A few, of whatever type, are able to buy the best of what they want when they want it, without having to compromise along the way.

The urge to collect is sometimes said to be a predominantly male characteristic, and the related species of spotters (trains, planes, birds, Playfair pillar boxes) do seem mostly to be men. Cigarette cards, beer mats, football programmes and stamps have their first constituency among schoolboys. But then, Elizabeth Taylor (husbands and rocks), Imelda Marcos (shoes) and Catherine the Great (lovers and paintings) were undoubtedly among the world's great collectors.

From Pokemon cards to Warhols may seem a long journey, but the instincts that drive the primary-school child and the yupped-and-come millionaire are the same. The acquisition of something immediately recognisable to one's peers, who know precisely what it is worth, is a declaration of status. For collectors in more aesthetically or intellectually interesting fields, peer appreciation is also an important part of the pleasure—as anyone who tours the galleries during London and New York's Master Drawings and Master Paintings or Asian Art Weeks will understand.

For a true collector, money is not the main point. That something one acquires should prove to be a bargain and/or a good investment obviously adds to the satisfaction, especially if it is something bought early on that will allow one to trade up when resources have improved. In short, a true collector knows both the price and the value of everything, but is principally interested in the latter.

This editorial appeared in the June 6, 2012, issue of the British magazine Country Life. The Editor has kindly allowed it to be included here.