The Collector

April 14, 1997

When I lived in England, I began collecting one of each coin that passed through my hands to take back home for my grandfather. He had a modest coin collection with a few curiosities, but nothing of any value. When I was little he'd let me paw through it, and told me a bit of peculiar numismatic history from time to time. After I'd gotten a sixpence and a florin and a crown and so on, I began expanding my collection to include one for each year that was still in circulation. I became somewhat obsessive: if my girlfriend didn't let me go through her change I became unreasonably agitated; I went to the bank and exchanged pound notes for crowns and half crowns and catalogued and gloated when I'd filled a gap.

But there was always more. The thrill of collecting entirely eclipsed any pleasure in owning. As soon as the quarry had been run to ground, it lost all its sheen and my interest turned toward the next conquest. I began to feel uncomfortable. I realized that I had unearthed and fed a part of myself that I did not much like, and I stopped my aggressive collecting (though I still looked at coins as they passed through my hands) and contented myself with what I had put together.

When I returned to the States, I gave the collection to my grandfather, who was pleased to have been thought of. He arranged the coins carefully and affixed them to black construction paper with Scotch tape.

After he died, thieves broke into my grandmother's home, tied her up and stole the collection. They tried to sell it in town, and were in consequence apprehended. The collection was returned in an old grey plastic lunchbox, which is how I inherited it shortly thereafter. I've steered clear of collecting anything since.

The music producer Ed Denson was one of three obsessive collectors of old jazz recordings. This trio met once a week. Though they never actually played the records, they looked at them and talked about them and handled them with cotton gloves.

Ed had a particularly rare recording, perhaps the only copy of a session in which the Delta Blues singer Robert Johnson had done two or three takes of a particular song and of which only one had been released. The out-takes existed as original Edison discs, and this was one of them. One of the three collectors became obsessed with this recording. Each time the group met, he asked to see and handle it, and each time, with increasing reluctance, returned it. He offered to trade, he offered to buy, but the value of the recording rose in proportion to how much he wanted it, and he was each time refused.

One Tuesday night he, as always, asked to see the Robert Johnson disc. He began to tremble and sweat, until with a wild shriek he leaped up and, clutching the record to his breast ran from the room and out the door. He was never seen again, and the recording was not recovered.

This man had debated in his mind, "Shall I take this rare record, and satisfy my desire to posses something that I do not now posses, and by so doing alienate myself from the only two human beings who understand and share my obsession?" The answer was "Yes."

I understand from an anecdote that a collector of rare stamps managed, through the utmost exertion, to get into his posession the only two extant copies of an old and rare stamp, and when he had assured himself beyond any doubt that there were no more, burned one.

It's in there waiting to get loose.


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