Collecting: An Owner's Manual
An Owner's Manual
Words by Thom Bettridge. Illustrations by Jacob Rochester.
Step 0: Be Warned
What it means to “own” something has changed quite significantly in recent history. You can now buy and trade land in other universes. You can become a millionaire by selling your profile picture. You can own one one-hundredth of a Jordan sneaker. And sure, you can still own your “real” land, but it might be underwater in 20 or so years.
But before you even consider becoming a collector — a person who owns things just to own them — you have to accept that this is nothing new. Throughout human history, ownership has been subject to market forces, regime changes, and human psychology. The last of these things is often the most volatile — just ask your favorite rapper and the $100,000 Audemars Piguet he bought yesterday for $30,000, or your favorite cousin and their box of worthless Beanie Babies. Most people live in dread of the chaos of ownership. In particular, they rightfully fear the prospect that everything they’ve labored for could one day be worthless. But the collector inhabits this chaos of the unknown. In fact, it is their only path toward transcendence.
Step 1: Accept that You Might Not Be a Collector
There are many activities that are confused with collecting that are not collecting. These are some of the most common ones:
Clout-chasing: Owning things for the purpose of social capital is a practice as old as time, but it is not collecting. Objects owned by a clout-chaser do not have any intrinsic meaning or even a meaning in relation to one another. They exist as a means to a different end, and will therefore never hold significance as a collection.
Investing: Investors are people who buy things just to sell them for more money (usually to clout-chasers). Like clout-chasing, flipping is a means to another end and not a form of collecting. Flipping a house, a Rembrandt, oil futures, or cryptocurrency are all activities in which the object being flipped is relatively meaningless and inherently interchangeable. The most dangerous kinds of investors are the ones who think they can invest as a means to collect — to flip what they can flip, and keep what they value. These investors usually end up losing money as well as having meaningless collections.
Being a Nerd: None of these terms are meant in a derogatory sense, especially in the case of being a nerd, which is one of the most honorable things one can be. In past eras, we used the word “connoisseurship” to describe this type of relationship to objects: One in which materials, provenances, and miniscule details about objects are obsessed over and celebrated in and of themselves. Being a nerd and being a collector are very close to one another (and many collectors are nerds), but the difference lies in transcending the sum of something’s parts. A nerd worships an object for what it is; a collector worships an object for what it means, what it can mean, or what it becomes in relation to other objects. A collector seeks to say something.
Step 2: Make a Statement
If you’ve made it this far, you likely believe that you are a collector. And that’s 90% of the battle. The next 10% is the hardest: You now need something to say.
Collection is not about acquiring things. It is a process of producing meaning and ideas through things. Often the meanings behind collections are deeply rooted in a combination of history and personal psychology. Collections have been amassed to tell lost stories, to solidify artistic movements, or to memorialize dead loved ones. Consciously or unconsciously, collectors often seek immortality through the process of collecting, by turnings ones ideas (that come from a body that will one day die) into objects (something that can last centuries). Objects — physical and digital — are evidence of human existence. So perhaps one place to start as a collector is to ask yourself: If you died tomorrow, what room full of stuff with your name on it would you like to leave behind?
Step 3: Know Your Tools
Collecting is a highly complex practice, but like the game of chess, it contains gambits that anyone can study and employ. Here are some of the most fundamental ones:
Juxtaposition: Combining two things that maybe don’t belong together is a core gesture of collection. While telling me about the advent of his collection, collector Dakis Joannou told me about a sculpture he made as a young man in which he glued a coca-cola bottle and a pipe together. Warhol’s coke bottle stuck to Magritte’s pipe, these were the intertwining strains of Pop and Dada that come to define his collection. A collector is a creator who often builds by smashing things together.
Detournement: The act of creation through hijacking and/or destroying an existing object has become a more common practice, especially in our era of remixing. One of my favorite examples of this is Virgil Abloh’s Patek Philippe Nautilus, which he had blacked out by the customizer MAD Paris. In an area of collection where factory original conditions are praised, Abloh immediately “devalued” his watch by customizing it, only to create something that is ultimately much more significant. Detournement requires a daring that only true collectors have, because you cannot so readily flip something that has been “destroyed” through your own markings. The daring of this gesture stems from the belief that you can make something precious even better. Only collectors are crazy enough to think that.
Recontextualization: In many ways, a collector is someone who brings something from one place to another. Therefore, mastering how to leverage context is central to the art form of collecting. One of the most twisted examples of this is the Cloisters Museum in uptown Manhattan, which is a medieval monastery that was recreated from fragments of European ruins shipped to New York by the city’s oligarch class. Pasting together a continental provenance in the form of a Frankensteinian structure is the American unconscious at the peak of its powers — a type of depravity that can only come to life through collection. So as you collect, be mindful not only of your objects, but the frequencies generated by where you place them.
Canonizing: Canons get a bad wrap, mostly because the European one was used to justify horrendous violence against the world. But creating canons is a delicate and useful process that can often best be performed through the act of collection. We often think of canons as things that unify similar objects or ideas, but in the age of the internet canons can unite disparate yet connected things. Playboi Carti using the font of the punk magazine Slash for his album cover is a form of canonization that borrows a tunnel between punk and hip hop. Nigo commissioning chains from Jacob the Jeweler did the same from hip hop and Japanese fashion. These stories connect the seemingly disconnected, and create new and generative cultural narratives. At its worst, canonization builds walls. At its best, it build bridges.
Step 4: Go Public
The amount of important art and objects that is locked in apartments, chalets, and villas is a shameful reality, not a flex. Just like a company, a collection is only truly successful when it goes public. As a collector, it is necessary to be cognizant of how your collection can serve the public, either through exhibition, education, or research. If you do have the means or intent to make your collection public in one of these ways, make plans to sell or donate it to one that does. Otherwise, you are having a net negative effect on society by hiding these things from view.