The Neue Galerie's recent $135 million acquisition of Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch- Bauer I caused a commotionbut value is subjective, and for a certain type of collector, there's hardly any difference between a pricey painting and a used postcard found in a tiny antiques shop. Marilynn Gelfman Karp's new book In Flagrante Collecto (Harry N. Abrams) reveals the spoils of a lifetime spent as a treasure hunter in search of the "holy grail."
"Mostly writers hypothesize about why people collect, or are astonished by the auction sales price of something," Karp, an art professor at NYU, tells the Voice. "I decided to go on record about the actual and very specific reasons why any collector acquires those objects of desire."
The book places collectors into three categories: Full Pockets (represented by gold-loving Silas Marner); Deep Pockets (art collector Lorenzo de' Medici); and Big Pockets (Tom Sawyer). It is with Tom and his love for junk (Twain: "a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles . . . ") that Karp happily identifies herself in IFC. To the right owner, there is a "compelling dynamic inherent in common overlooked, material goodsthey are precious despite having no "intrinsic value." When asked about the different categories, Karp makes clear why one collects even the humblest of items: "No matter what is collected or how many, the collector is imbued with the arcane qualities and unique graces of his oddments. That sublime state is evidenced in a nimbus of inner peace and knowing rather than a proprietary stance."
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Karp divides her miscellany into humorously titled chapters: "Whoops, It Broke" (wishbones, glass Christmas ornaments), "Nobody Cared" (shopping lists), and "Unintended Survivors" (figural candles, fireworks). In presenting these items, Karp says she wants "to bring them back to those who had forgotten about them and to those who had never known of their singular existence." By bringing together salvaged objects cap gun pellets, Do Not Disturb signs originally intended for only a brief existence, the collector discovers beauty and meaning unexpectedly. "One card doesn't have large significance," the book states. "A group of categorically gathered postcards can be central and revelatory."
The objects also expose links between past and present. The charming social calling cards used in the 19th century eventually led to the introduction of the business card, which in turn brought about the X-rated ad cards of today. Printed in lurid colors, offering everything from "Hot Kinky Coeds" to "Fetish Girls," these photographs blur the line between the social and business worlds. But as the book clarifies, this development "was not strictly a sequential process, but overlapping. In each incarnation these cards are collectible. Together they tell a story of American social and business outreach."
Each collector is a lonely hunter. The activity "is not a team sport," says Karp. "It is about binary vision. It is about exigency, strategy, and valor." Despite the solitary nature of the pursuit, Karp introduces her readers to some other collectors. One ("Richard G.") saves slivers of well-used bars of soap and mounts them on wooden boards. Displayed in this way, they appear like smooth, softly colored sea glass. Something that would have eventually washed away has been utterly transformed.
The unique qualities collectors possess bind them into a community as well, not only in flea markets or on eBay, but also in terms of their worldview. Karp compares collecting to gastronomy: "It's about savoring, ingesting. What is collected is accretion. It becomes part of you, enhances your being. What moves a person to save what others regularly kick aside or throw away separates the world by that sublimely logical divisor: collectors and others."
Because the collector's relationship to his belongings is so personal, it can easily be misunderstood. Terms like "pack rat" and "hoarder" spring to mind, as do comparisons to Harlem's Collyer brothers, with their mansion full of rubbish. Conversely, Andy Warhol was an avid collector of the more-is-better variety; the sale of his collections generated millions. The different ways they are now remembered "demonstrate that society prizes some objects over others, and that those who organize their accumulations in ways that others perceive to be coherent have a chance at informing future generations."
Karp laces In Flagrante Collecto with items from another of her collections: literary references to collecting itself, with quotes from Susan Sontag and Borges among others. A passage from Walter Benjamin closes the book: "Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them."
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