Homo collector - Man as a Collector

Foreword to the book 'Sammlerglück' by Ulrich Halder (translation)

„Sammler sind glückliche Menschen“

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)

No one knows for sure whether this statement „Collectors are happy people“ was really made by the great Goethe. But we certainly know that Goethe was a passionate collector. He has collected 40,000 objects in his Weimar period, 9,000 copper engravings and drawings, 8,000 books and manuscripts, 4'500 engraved gemstones, 18,000 stones and minerals – a true reflection of his wide-ranging interests from art to nature. Goethe was one of the most important private collectors of his time. But he also supported the libraries and collections of the Weimar Court because he believed in their educational value. For him collecting was a way to know: „I love property not for the owned object, but for my education.“ But did collecting also make him really happy? Still as an old man, he collected with passion and loved to show his treasures to his visitors. With his enthusiasm for the Thuringian geology, he even enticed quite a number of distinguished ladies of Weimar to join him in collecting stones. It seems that the collections never became a burden to him, but on the contrary, especially during difficult times, they consoled him.

Even as Goethe did, countless not so prominent contemporaries once indulged – and still do today – in collecting all sorts of things. What drives them to sacrifice hundreds of hours, often large amounts of money, their own appartements or even houses, not to mention friendship or marriage, to pursue some strange oddities? Are collectors insane, perhaps?

Collecting is a highly personal matter; the private collector does it for himself, not for others. So only he can give a valid answer, speaking for himself. May I give my personal view? I’m interested in flutes since I learned to play it as a boy. I am fascinated by the history of this instrument, which is almost as old as the history of mankind. I find it fascinating to track down old instruments that have been around for decades, probably forgotten somewhere in a cupboard, on a flea market, in the internet or with an other collector. I enjoy to imagine their hundred or more years of former existence, to estimate their value for my collection and my purse. And I love to feel their precious wood, their ivory mounts and silver keys, to make them carefully playable – and then to timidly play them, getting a first impression how they may have sounded a long, long time ago. Does it need more to justify my passion? I could imagine that many other collectors – whatever the 'object of their desire' may be – have similar feelings. And that they occasionally may also have the suspicion if collectors are perhaps not a little bit crazy, excessive and selfish …

Homo collector - man as a collector did of course exist long before Goethe’s time. In caves in Burgundy, which were already inhabited in the Neanderthal era, fossils and mussel shells from far distant regions were found. Perhaps a 100'000 years ago man has hunted and collected not only for his naked survival, but also kept 'useless' objects that he liked for some reason. May be that collecting things 'for their own sake' is a very old, playful and creative achievement of early man. It might be even much older than the first artistic testimonies such as cave paintings, ivory figures, and yes: bone flutes, of 40’000 years ago. Thus it is conceivable that in the Homo collector of today two archaic needs are still present: that for accumulating and keeping, and that for esteeming, comparing and collocating things with pleasure. Be that as it may, I follow my colleague Goethe: I enjoy my treasures every day and like to share my happiness with others.

Ulrich Halder (Hsg): Sammlerglück. Warum sammelt der Mensch? With portraits and reports by Regula Tanner und photographs by Hansueli Trachsel. hier + jetzt, Verlag für Kultur und Geschichte. Baden 2010. ISBN 978-3-03919-147-5

photo book cover and portrait U. Halder: Hansueli Trachsel, Bern

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