What makes a collector? Much has been written on the subject and it still appears hard to define. Here's a selection of books that will help you to reach a definition of your own. Collecting, the Passionate Pastime, by Susanna Johnston with photographs by Tim Beddow, published by Viking at 14.95, has unearthed 29 varied and intriguing collections in Britain and describes both collection and collector. We are used to works on the great collectors who, however eccentric, are deemed dignified and even noble, especially when the fruits of their lifetimes' labors end up in the public ownership. But while Ms. Johnston's collectors are certainly eccentric - and some might even be great - they are not in the mainstream. Her collectors nurture individual passions; they might even be seen as trailblazers.
The book illustrates the two main types of collector - the hoarder and the classifier. The hoarder has the eye of the jackdaw and acquires anything that appeals to him. Into this category fit the ecclectic collections of the late Charles Paget Wade - whose house, Snowshill Manor, and its contents are now the property of the National Trust. Another hoarder was Sir Christopher Chancellor whose assembled a huge oriental collection.
The classifier, on the other hand, is driven to form the definitive collection and spends his time in endlessly filling in gaps. He is necessarily a loner; there would be no rarer acquisition than a spouse willing to share an outlandish obsession. Extremism is almost endemic to the classifier and all of Johnston's examples are in the same mold as the man I knew who collected over 3,000 Staffordshire pottery figures, which he left to his bemused heirs. While they wondered what to do with the mammoth assembly the decision was taken out of their hands when they discovered that the West Tower, in which the weighty treasures were kept, was sinking into the moat!
Several of the collections illustrated are as quirky as might be found in the genre. Massed arrays of milk bottles, wireless sets, antique woodworking tools, vintage cameras, British police equipment, sewing machines, toy soldiers, and grocery packaging show their creators to be chronically afflicted with the collecting bug. But in a few cases, the public at large will be the beneficiaries of their drive to save these obscure objects for posterity.
While other people's collections may be perennially fascinating, most collectors are also concerned with the more mundane but essential aspects of their own acquisitions: what to buy, how much to pay, and how to care for it once bought. The MacDonald Guide to Buying Antique Furniture, actually a guide to buying English furniture, offers an excellent course for the beginner. The book begins with a brief history of the development of styles and techniques with more than usual emphasis on construction, which is clearly illustrated with line drawings. After brief and useful comments on care and repair, the author, Rachel Field, goes into detail on the points to look for in buying pieces of the classic styles from late Tudor to Victorian. She guides the reader through the minefields of fakes, forgeries, reproductions, and repairs. This is not a skill that can be acquired without effort but, armed with this guide, the would-be collector might wisely begin training his eye on pieces before venturing into the market place. This new edition is published at 9.95.
Price guides to virtually everything a collector might think of have proliferated in recent years. Because the prices of antiques of all kinds have become far from stable these guides are republished annually. Sotheby's has taken advantage of the immense range of items passing through their rooms to publish Sotheby's World Guide to Antiques and Their Prices, 1987 Edition. At 14.95, it represents good value for there are about 8,000 items illustrated and described together with the price realized at auction. The guide concentrates on the more modest end of the market in antiques not covered in their annual review and will appeal to any collector as an indicator of market trends that would be hard to find in any other way.
What is modest to Sotheby's may not be modest to everyone. The Lyle series of price guides aims to cover the ground that can unequivocally be described as modest. A Fortune in Your Attic, 6.95, covers a host of items you may not have realized are being collected at all. Prices begin at less than one pound.
The proper care of antiques is a major concern to everyone fortunate enough to have any, with the possibility of partial or even total destruction if not approached with the utmost caution. The National Trust, which owns about 80 major country houses with their vast and important contents, has amassed a fund of knowledge of how to care for them. The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, a Penguin paperback at 6.95, is a distillation of their hard-won experience. Although few of us have the problem of how to restore a state bed or clean a Paul de Lamerie silver centerpiece, the principles are similar for dealing with much less exalted pieces. Sound advice is given for amateur care and some repair with explicit warnings of the dangers involved and when to seek professional help. Of particular help to collectors are the tips given on providing the correct environment both for storage and display.
The auction of the sunken cargo of porcelain and gold from the Dutch East India ship ``Geldermalsen'' at Christies in Amsterdam earlier this year caught the imagination of antique collectors all over the world. Many who had no previous interest in Chinese porcelain fought to acquire a piece from this romantic wreck, which sank in 1752, fully loaded and on its way to Amsterdam. Prices at the auction soared to six times the estimates and have gone on to greater heights in antique shops in many countries. Now the ship and its cargo have been set into historical context in The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain, by Dr. C.J.A. J"org en Groningen Museum in Holland. This is neither an account of the raising of the wreck by Captain Michael Hatcher nor of the auction, but the results of Dr. J"org's research. Using the existing records of the ship, he describes the significance of this cargo, which has given historians a uniquely complete view of the precise pieces that were imported in the mid-18th century. He sets this into the context of the China trade in general and the Dutch East India company in particular. Published by Kemper of Groningen. Available at some bookstores or, in Britain, direct from Han Shan Tang, 717 Fulham Road, London SW6 5UL. Expensive at 25, but of great interest to collectors of Chinese porcelain.