I recently read an article in Psychology Today by Dr. Shirley M. Mueller that got me thinking about my own experiences and others I have heard from; a side of collecting often experienced but rarely discussed.
In the article, Dr. Mueller, a neuroscientist, shares her personal and emotional journey selling pieces of her Chinese export porcelain, knowledgeably and passionately collected over a 30-year period of time, and what it felt like when they failed to find acceptance or realize value when put up for an online auction.
“My cherished objects, I was sure, would find a receptive audience,” she wrote. “After four or five days, I was adrift. It was as though no one wanted my objects. This pained me. Selecting and caring for them had been my avocation, the way I filled my leisure time, and my salvation from my work. If no one wanted to bid on my porcelains, perhaps I wasn’t worthy, either.”
Much has been studied and written about the psychology of collecting, an area of study that seeks to understand the motivating factors explaining why people devote time, money, and energy making and maintaining collections. Less, it seems, has been written about the psychology of collectors de-accessioning or selling off these same items. And it is not just about the collectors.
Eighteen years ago when I inherited by grandfather’s autograph collection with the intent of organizing his over 6,000 signatures and finding them new homes, I was struck by how difficult it was to see some of my most favorite pieces from his collection sold. If it sold too quickly, my first thought was that I did not charge enough. If an item failed to realize the value I had established, disappointment felt more like failure. Making it even more difficult, many of these items were handwritten notes and personally inscribed programs and letters to my grandfather, which made each sale feel like a fresh loss and made me feel guilty about his real intent for the collection after he was gone. For those of us who inherit the cherished collection of a loved one, there is this additional, emotional component to contend with – the burden, guilt, and responsibility of doing right by the collection and the collector.
With so much of a collector’s identity, time, and money wrapped up in what can be a life-long passion project, it’s hard not to take the rejection personally when nobody wants what you have or shares your informed opinion on its value or importance. It is easy to understand how Dr. Mueller – or any passionate collector for that matter – could find themselves questioning their identity as a collector when their work does not receive the recognition they hoped for, whether that’s monetary value on the open market or acceptance by a museum or institution. “Though my very public sale was online for all to see,” wrote Dr. Mueller, “my pieces seemed invisible to the very audience to whom they should appeal. To me, this meant my efforts were not respected or appreciated…What I didn’t count on is what low offers—or none at all—would do to my psyche.”
Perhaps, Dr. Meuller goes on, she should have. As a neuroscientist, she is familiar with a neuroeconomic principle called the “endowment effect,” as it pertains to the online transaction of deaccession. “It means that we value what we own more than the identical piece that someone else possesses. By extension, it implies that the porcelains I am selling are more meaningful to me than they would be to a person interested in buying them. This is partly because I have already invested time, effort, and money in them. A successful bidder would not share in this, except for the time she spent perusing the auction Web site, executing the winning bid, and then paying. Her time and effort would only come later when she arranged for shipping, unwrapped her new possession, and incorporated them into her collection. Only then would she develop what I already possessed—the endowment effect, a hallmark of ownership.”
While this explains the psychology behind establishing value in an online exchange, it does not completely address the feeling of loss that comes from selling something that is personally meaningful or the guilt when deaccessioning items from a loved one’s collection. But when it comes to realized value as an emotional barometer, it is important to remember that something is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. And, as all collectors know, demand and value are cyclical and timing is everything. A bad market, poorly promoted auction, and other extraneous market factors, while having an impact on what is eventually realized, is not a reflection on the collector or a statement of their life’s work. Sometimes, it’s just about timing and marketing.