All my life I’ve been surrounded by collectors: my grandmother, who energetically collated coupons, filing away bargains she’d never have time to buy. Boys in junior high who paid me good money for KISS pictures clipped from Seventeen, and college geeks who bored me with bootleg records that sounded like they’d been recorded in a roadie’s armpit. Adult friends who’ve amassed mind-boggling selections of French poetry and wooden spoons. The collector grooves on the feeling of being cosseted by personal treasures. Sometimes nostalgia links an artifact to a fleeting moment in the past; other times our inherently obsessive tendencies keep us searching for a complete set, a better version.
Caroline Clifton-Mogg glides gracefully round the subject in A Passion for Collecting (Bulfinch Press, $40). Dividing her subjects into categories including exotica-loving “Explorers” and genteel “Miniaturists,” she suggests that the compulsion affects people of all temperaments and budgets. Most inclusive are “Utilitarians,” who chase down broken mirrors and eggcups. But the photos mostly focus on those souls who can afford to follow their passion to the absolute limit, like J.P. Morgan, who once hired a man to live in Greece for several years in pursuit of Byron’s manuscripts. Contemporary antiquarian Peter Hove’s walls are crowded with crumbly Greco-Roman busts; he dubs himself “a collector of the unwanted, underappreciated, orphaned.” Meanwhile, Emma Hawkins’s kitchen pays homage to the Victorian cabinet of curiosities, complete with stuffed birds decking the walls.
Barton Lidice Benes dates his interest in relics to 1963, when he snatched a bone from Rome’s catacombs. In the ’80s, AIDS sharpened his desire to memorialize, and he began to create reliquaries—the miniature museums documented in Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils and Other Metamorphoric Rubbish (Abrams, $29.95). Benes sorts his ephemera into loose classifications (accidents, excreta), using juxtaposition for effect. For example, Larry Hagman’s gallstone and a snippet of Madonna’s panties figure in Benes’s “celebrity museum.” Other reliquaries—the hair museum containing tufts from Václav Havel and killer David Berkowitz, or the AIDS museum with cremated remains of a friend sculpted into the shape of an AIDS ribbon—may be less crowd-pleasing, but better convey the darker side of collecting.
The oversized, gratuitous nature of the coffee-table book format seems to invite fanatical content. Diane Keaton’s Clown Paintings (powerHouse, $29.95) is so bad it’s good—just like its subject. In this very personal ode to clown art, Keaton urges readers to take the kitschy genre seriously, presenting 66 in-your-face images to further her cause. Her favorite is a portrait with potted cactus sitting rakishly atop a whitewashed head, though I prefer the pathos of the stately fellow with tiny chef’s cap, giant feet, and a bucket of lobsters in hand. Sadly, few of Keaton’s pals share her passion—of the 33 comedians who contribute mini-essays, most display extreme clownophobia. An exception: Steve Martin’s melancholy riff on the sex life of clowns, which captures the book’s mood perfectly: “Sometimes ejaculation is premature because the clown suddenly imagines 40 of his fellows crowded into a Volkswagen.”
Visionaire is the definition of collectible. Each issue comes fetishistically packaged—in a metal box, say, or an Hermès purse. The theme inspires a cross-hatching of art, fashion, and commerce that aficionados scramble to collect. For instance, “Light,” guest-edited by Gucci’s Tom Ford, arrived in a light box, with large transparencies by fashion photographers such as Mario Testino, art-world figures Sam Taylor-Wood and Wolfgang Tillmans, and designer Alexander McQueen. At $175, the thing is now so damn expensive that the coffee-table book commemorating it costs way less than one issue. Dreaming in Print: A Decade of Visionaire (Edition 7L, $70) is a greatest-hits anthology for anyone morally or financially unable to shell out big bucks on the magazine.
For an oddball take on fashion fanaticism, try Fairie-ality: The Fashion Collection From the House of Ellwand (Candlewick Press, $40). Styled as a couture collection for sprites and pixies, Fairie-ality is part children’s book, part fashion parody. With its relentlessly whimsical design (foldout invites, vellum pages), it flies a little too close to angel shtick. But the sylphlike gowns—assembled out of pheasant feathers and spider silk, bottlebrush and calla lily petals—often look lovely levitating. And author David Ellwand replicates the coy cadences of fashion-speak with glee: “This dancing dress of lilting lily petals in two colors oozes self-assurance. Trust us.”
The new frontier of collecting is lowly, mundane stuff overlooked by the average eye. In the tradition of Martin Parr’s celebrated Boring Postcards series comes Bad Hair (Bloomsbury, $9.95). Designed for teensy coffee tables, Bad Hair is a gallery of deeply uncool coiffure options rescued from outmoded ’70s hair salon posters.
Several of the season’s other small-format offerings delve more seriously into the world of decayed and disregarded artifacts. Inside the varnished red covers of Sitting in China (Steidl, $25), Michael Wolf’s photographs of Chinese chairs suggest personality as much as function. Sometimes people occupy the seats: A boy with a broken leg is pulled through the streets on a makeshift chariot; rows of sleeping women sit on milk crates, heads on tables. More often the photos zoom in on the objects themselves, like the metal chair with grubby string stretched across it like macramé. Endcommercial (Hatje Cantz, $39.95) looks at New York in a very similar way, forging commonplace images into a secret key to the city. It silently decodes the grammar of urban life, with categories such as “Street Script” (the hieroglyphic marks left on pavements and walls by surveyors and “Blue City Cover” (blue tarps floating from rooftops and dumpsters). One section, “Fading Markets,” depicts deserted shop fronts; another tucks Gucci and Prada facades under the heading “Corporate Monuments.”
The Hotel Book: Great Escapes Europe (Taschen, $40) offers a more typically coffee-table version of the quest for singular spaces. Lushly illustrated, this jumbo volume is both dream book and travel guide. Some retreats fall within a reasonable price range (for $80 you can stay at a Sicilian hotel where each room is designed by an artist), though most are unadulterated fantasy (the Swedish ice hotel, or the $400-a-night Burgundy castle with moat and drawbridge). Now that people want their homes to look like hotels, many of these resorts strive to look like homes, scattered with faux heirlooms from a past that never was. As the book says of one fancy joint in former East Germany, “This seems like a place that is kept in the memory, of a blissful childhood holiday”—even though the place only opened in 1993. Conjuring false memories or grasping at real ones, hunting for the authentic, perfect, and extraordinary: That’s what collecting is all about.