`Collectibles' Tell Story of Their Times

ANYONE who watched baseball cards turn into blue-chip investments of the '80s cannot easily dismiss the latest entries into the collectibles market: celebrity cards. From classical musicians and cartoon characters to fascist dictators and soap-opera stars, the faces on these new series bear no resemblance to pitchers or infielders.

Will Seiji Ozawa someday rival Reggie Jackson as the star of collections commanding impressive prices? Will Bugs Bunny or Gen. Augusto Pinochet outrank Nolan Ryan at a Sotheby's auction? Given the hot market for collectible cards, which represent a $1.4 billion business annually for sports cards alone, anything is possible.

But the prospect of parlaying minimal investment into maximum profit may be the least of the forces driving other collectors, whose offbeat collections center around such humble items as hotel soap, cereal boxes, and expired credit cards. For them, the object is not financial gain but emotional appeal. As they turn little heaps of consumer flotsam into something focused and ordered, they become curators of their own tiny museums. They also find an outlet for individuality, a sense of private interest and

identity: I collect, therefore I am.

Like the twigs and grasses and pieces of string that birds weave into a nest, a collection becomes more than the sum of its humble parts.

"Collectibles" may be one of the vaguest words in the English language. To qualify as an antique, an object must be 100 years old. But a collectible could have rolled off a press or an assembly line a minute ago. Here beauty and value are primarily in the eye of the collector, giving even the quirkiest objects an unexplainable appeal.

This freewheeling definition has its pitfalls. For pack rats, the word "collectible" offers a perfect justification for hanging onto possessions, on the off chance that everything has potential value. Who could have predicted, for instance, that old lunch boxes would become valuable?

Spring represents a season of good intentions, when homeowners vow to clean out the attic and basement - or else. But confronted by the possibility that unused belongings might be pieces of eight in dusty disguise, their tendency is to keep rather than toss. The old prospector's rallying cry - "There's gold in them thar hills" - echoes through modern-day minds as residents prowl through boxes and trunks. Then there are those other seasonal temptations, yard sales and flea markets - elaborate games of mus ical possessions in which one person's castoffs often become another's collectibles.

In the bottom drawer of a sewing cabinet in our house, a plastic bag contains several dozen empty wooden spools. An earlier generation of seamstresses in the family used the thread, leaving the spools with no function. But whenever I consider throwing them out, I hear the voice of a relative who once casually said, "They don't make wooden spools anymore. These might be worth something someday." y I harbor no illusions that these tiny relics of domesticit ever rival baseball cards in value, producing a windfall to finance a cruise or a comfortable retirement. But the smooth wood serves as a reminder of days before plastic ruled the world. And unlike the paper labels on today's plastic spools - "Mercerized cotton-covered polyester" - the wooden spools bear intriguing imprints: "Corticelli Spool Silk. Warranted." "Belding Bros. & Co. Shade 641." "Dragon Three Cord." "Manlove's Thread for Irish Lace ."

Why keep an empty wooden spool? If usefulness is the only criterion, then most collectibles could be defined by another "c" word: clutter. But the worth of the collectible lies in what it has come to represent above and beyond its original function. Through this second identity, a collectible takes on the value of an archaeological artifact. Even the humblest matchbook bearing the name of a vanished hotel becomes as irreplaceable a treasure in its small way as a cooking pot from Pompeii.

A matchbook, a wooden spool, a fragment from the Berlin Wall - all such souvenirs conjure up so much more than their mere physical presence. They are the bric-a-brac of history itself, and a collector will never give them up - though under the right circumstances, any collector will trade.

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