I don’t usually do much introspection. Frankly, my innermost thoughts and feelings aren’t all that interesting, even to me, and so I rarely write about them. But suddenly it’s different. I feel the need to unburden myself. I’m worried.
Here’s the problem. It’s about auctions. I have recently begun to develop a habit of buying up job lots. A shelf of jugs. A box of mixed ceramics. A table-top of sauce tureens.
It’s getting worse. A few weeks ago, I couldn’t bestir myself to drive for 40 minutes to view the Friday sale at the Dunfermline saleroom, so I bid for and won four job lots on the strength of some rather confused photographs in the online catalogue. I spent £89.98 including buyer’s commission, VAT and the online bidding platform fee.
On the Monday morning I collected my purchases and was horrified to find myself with three large cardboard cartons of the type used in furniture removals, each filled with pots of all kinds and all descriptions plus a few miscellaneous pieces of dodgy bric-a-brac. I didn’t do a count, but there were perhaps 100 objects in all.
Most of the stuff was cracked or chipped or broken or incomplete. Cups without handles. Teapots with broken lids. A garniture of three vases with one complete, one with a large section missing from the base, one in three pieces. A stationery rack with half its slats missing.
Quite a few of the objects were of no interest at all – a kitsch mass-produced china nude, a naff pottery box, some horrible tourist ware. Other objects were of some interest – but not to me.
I returned home, staggered into the house with the boxes, and unloaded them on to every kitchen surface. Frances was out, so she wasn’t present to witness my confusion and shame. I deemed it wise in view of her fortuitous absence to minimise potential for marital disharmony by disappearing as much of the detritus as possible before she returned. By the time she did so a couple of hours later, I had taken the following actions, in a rapid and decisive manner which in normal circumstances is foreign to me:
- I had sorted the stuff into three categories: a pile of objects broken beyond repair (for the rubbish bin), a box of items of interest but not to me (for the charity shop), and a display of pieces with possible collecting or re-sale value (for retention and research)
- I had tipped the discard pile into the landfill bin for collection by the Council on the next bin-day
- I had placed the charity shop box in the boot of the car to be transported for immediate donation
- I had carefully washed and dried the retained objects to render them fit for handling and inspection.
If all of the above makes me sound as if I am thoroughly scared of my adored wife, that’s not the case (or only partially the case). I took quick and drastic action mainly because I was so dreadfully concerned about my own behaviour. What was I thinking of in buying all this stuff? This crap? My house is already as full as it can decently be filled with carefully curated objects which have been added to my collection in a fairly restrained and somewhat considered way over a collecting career of almost seven decades. What was I doing by bringing back 100 extra pieces of unsorted, uninspected, unspeakable trash?
Had it come to this? Was I changing from a collector into a hoarder? Oh Lord! Hoarding alert! Time to get a grip!
There is a recognised obsessive-compulsive mental illness called Hoarding Disorder. It is described thus in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
“Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value … due to a perceived need to save the items and to the distress associated with discarding them.
The difficulty discarding possessions results in the accumulation of possessions that congest and clutter active living areas and substantially compromises their intended use. If living areas are uncluttered, it is only because of the interventions of third parties (e.g., family members, cleaners, or the authorities).
The hoarding causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for oneself or others).
The hoarding is not attributable to another medical condition … [and] is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder.
… Difficulty discarding possessions is accompanied by excessive acquisition of items that are not needed or for which there is no available space. (Approximately 80 to 90 percent of individuals with hoarding disorder display this trait.)”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t29/
Hmmm. Does that describe me? It is currently quite possible to move around my home with ease, and, in most rooms, to do so without running the gauntlet of piled-up junk. So if I’ve got Hoarding Disorder, perhaps I haven’t got it too badly – yet.
But could it be that my new-ish tendency to buy uninspected accumulations of random stuff foreshadows the onset of a clinically significant hoarding compulsion? Am I halfway down the spiral leading to a full-blown psychiatric diagnosis? Even if I’m not quite there yet, should I take myself in hand and exercise some self-restraint?
Luckily, there is a fool-proof way for anxious collectors like me to check whether our innocent hobby is turning into a dangerous medical condition; a way to measure if our habit of buying and keeping stuff falls within the normal range of collecting behaviour, or if, by contrast, now is the time (a) to make changes or (b) to get professional help.
I got this reliable methodology from a book published about five years ago. When I first used the technique to check up on my habit, I satisfied myself that my behaviour was normal (for a collector), and that there was no cause for concern that my accumulation of stuff might be deteriorating into a hoarding compulsion.
I wonder, if I test myself again five years on, if that will still be the case?
The book is about collecting antiques and art objects. The author attempts in various ways to analyse the hobby, and devotes his Chapter 10 to the topic of normality as it applies to us collectors. I’ll describe his method in some detail in case it might be of use to readers with similar anxieties to mine about the extent of their own collecting tendencies.
First, the author identifies two specific classes of human behaviour for scrutiny: hoarding and collecting. He then describes a bottom-to-top scale for measuring activity within each class.
- the person at the low end of the scale says, “I am entirely uninterested in material possessions and own only those which are essential for my life”
- the person at the top end of the scale says “the main focus and purpose of my life is to acquire and accumulate material possessions”.
- the person at the low end of the scale says, “I am interested in art and antiques for their value only and for no other reason”
- the person at the top end of the scale says “I am interested in art and antiques as objects or sets of objects only and for no other reason”.
Detailed case studies are presented to describe outliers who lurk at or beyond the outer limits of each scale. These are brief stories about real, fictional or imaginary figures whose obsessive-compulsive behaviours in relation to the accumulation of objects prevent them from interacting in society in a normal way.
In the dead centre of each scale is the average person-in-the-street, while the average person-in-the-auction-room would perhaps be rather above the middle of each scale. As you would expect, auction rooms are likely to be filled with people who tend by nature towards acquisitive behaviour of one kind or another.
The author then provides a diagram showing the two scales set at right angles to each other, using a well-tried analytical technique called quadrant analysis. This method is useful because, as the name suggests, it creates four quadrants between the scales which represent an individual’s behaviour on both scales at the same time. In the centre is the perfectly-adjusted Mr or Ms Average, with no need to worry about his or her degree of normality. By contrast, the outer edges of the diagram are populated by the outliers whose extremes of abnormal behaviour are described in the case studies.
The chart looks like this (I have made some minor adaptations but don’t think I’ll get into trouble from the author for doing so):
The author makes an attempt at labelling each quadrant with a generic type of behaviour which might be applicable to the people who inhabit it. So:
- if your hoarding and your collecting tendencies are both below average (lower left quadrant), he suggests that you exhibit minimalist behaviour, with little interest in objects but high interest in wealth
- if you are low on the hoarding scale but high on the collecting scale (upper left), you might be rather on the nerdy side, preoccupied with collecting but without much time for other material things, or, perhaps, for other people
- if you’re high on hoarding but low on collecting (lower right), then you might, for example, be someone who indiscriminately amasses quantities of fairly random stuff in the confident expectation of turning a big profit – perhaps a market trader or car-boot sale regular might fit this definition
- if you’re high on the hoarding scale and high on the collecting scale (upper right quadrant), that’s where you would expect to find serious collectors, experts and dealers, who can healthily and happily combine their strong interest in antiques and art with normal functioning in the other departments of their lives.
Using this method, it’s now possible to analyse your own behaviour, considering which quadrant you belong in, and how close you are to the Average in the centre, or to the Outliers at the extreme edges.
As a reader of the Random Treasure blog, there’s a high likelihood that your interest in antiques and art places you somewhere in the upper right quadrant, but not very far away from the Average position. And that’s where I found myself when I undertook this exercise five years ago.
But am I still in that same position today, or does my recent compulsion to buy bulk auction lots indicate that I’m veering steadily (or unsteadily) towards the outer, non-functional end of the Hoarding scale?
Let me check. Fortunately I still have the chart marked up to show my judgement of my own behaviour in 2017: rather above the middle in both the Hoarding and Collecting scales, but well away from the danger zones. And now in 2022?
Yes, indeed, I think I’ve moved a little upward and significantly to the right. In the diagram above, the green circle (healthy) represents my hoarding/collecting health status in 2017, and the amber circle (warning!) is me right now in 2022.
I’m not what you’d call an outlier yet, but am beginning to tend that way. This is worrisome. It could be dangerous. Where might I be when another five years have passed?
But at least now that I have a measurement, I can try to deal with the situation.
I wonder if any Random Treasure blog readers find themselves in a similar position to mine, with similar anxieties about their harmless collecting hobby turning into a dangerous obsession? If so, then I highly recommend that you get hold of a copy of the book that I’ve been banging on about, and read Chapter 10 carefully. The author even helpfully includes a blank chart so that you can measure for yourself the extent of your habit.
Elsewhere in the book, the author analyses other aspects of collecting, including provenance, aesthetics, value and ethics. He writes about his long collecting career, and tells the enthralling story of an old statue bought cheaply in a local auction and later re-sold for a life-changing sum.
The book is available for sale here.
Its title: Random Treasure: Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy.
The author: Roger Stewart. That would be me.
It is imperative that I try to deal with the worrying mental condition in which, after self-analysis, I find myself. So I’m taking myself in hand. Here is my four-step programme for the next few weeks:
- Reduce incomings. No more bulk purchases. No more job lots. Much less trawling through auction catalogues. Much more selectivity in charity shops.
- Increase outgoings. Get rid of some stuff – whether by donation to charity or by sale.
- Exercise self-restraint and self-denial. Consciously attempt to kill the urge to accumulate more and more stuff.
- Engage in displacement activities. Fill the time otherwise used for buying antiques with other absorbing and (preferably) exhausting projects.
I think it’s beginning to work, particularly the exhausting part. For the time being, I’ve stopped compulsively buying antiques and started doing energetic work in the garden, as a result of which I’m much too stiff and sore and tired even to think about purchasing anything other than an ample supply of Elliman’s Universal Embrocation, a patent liniment for horses or humans, which my late father swore by as a panacea for all his aches and pains.
Before proceeding, I should tell you a little about my relationship with my garden. It isn’t a happy relationship. I’m not a natural gardener, but am forced to engage quite energetically because our Victorian house has a large garden and I’m too stingy to pay for help.
Just occasionally I get enthusiastic about a garden project, which takes up all my time and attention for a short period. Such effort sometimes results in satisfactory completion, but more often than not the project fizzles out half-done.
My latest project is beginning to look alarmingly like it will be completed. It involves the vegetable patch. Annually, we try to grow vegetables of one sort or another in a small bed on the south side of the garden, sandwiched between a flower bed pretentiously called the Herbaceous Border (which is usually a mass of untended weeds) and an uncultivated bed pretentiously called the Meadow (which is permanently a mass of untended weeds).
In spring I dig over the patch. We plant vegetable seeds or seedlings. We omit to fertilise. We forget to hoe. We don’t water. Slugs, snails and squirrels invade. Our vegetables invariably fail. The bed develops, like its neighbours, into a mass of untended weeds. We continue to buy veg from the supermarket. Then, next year, we do it again.
But now all that has changed. I’m a huge fan of Japanese design, and to reflect this, my new garden project abolishes the vegetable bed altogether and replaces it with a Japanese Zen Garden:
“A traditional Zen garden, known as karesansui, is a minimalist dry landscape comprised of natural elements of rock, gravel, sand and wood, with very few plants and no water.”https://www.gardendesign.com/landscape-design/zen-gardens.html#:~:text=A%20traditional%20Zen%20garden%2C%20known,space%20from%20the%20outside%20world.
Several inches of earth have been dug out. The surplus soil has been taken to the municipal rubbish tip. The ground has been levelled. Stone and brick borders have been installed on all sides. A weed-proof membrane has been spread over the entire area. Suitable rocks and slabs have been procured from other parts of the garden and carefully positioned in a Zen-ish manner. A bulk bag of 14mm granite gravel weighing 790 kgs has been sourced and delivered to the front of my driveway. The gravel has been wheelbarrowed from the bulk bag to the Zen Garden, a distance of some 40 metres. The gravel has been levelled and smoothed. My brilliant woodworker friend Ron has fashion for me a custom-designed Zen Garden Rake, with which I have made an initial attempt at sculpting the gravel surface into grooved concentric circles and parallel lines.
It’s taking shape nicely. I’m so exhausted that I can scarcely stand or speak. My mind is temporarily miles away from buying antiques. It’s working! I’m cured!
Let me be clear that I have little knowledge and less understanding of Zen Buddhism, and no intention to embrace the Buddhist way of life. And I understand, of course, that I haven’t made a real Zen Garden, merely a small suburban Scottish pastiche, albeit constructed with respectful reference to sublime Japanese originals.
Nevertheless, I have convinced myself that in addition to fulfilling its current role as my displacement therapy, the Zen Garden has potential long-term transformative properties. When the project is complete, I picture myself spending at least an hour a day, each day for the remainder of my days, tending it mindfully.
I’ll have a small straw broom to sweep leaves from my pristinely raked gravel. I’ll cultivate moss upon my stones. I’ll place a seat nearby and will pass the hours in peaceful contemplation. I won’t need the crutch of antique collecting any more. I won’t be anxious or worried or obsessive. I will inhabit the extreme left-hand borderlands of the quadrant analysis chart, alongside my fellow minimalists. My consciousness will in consequence migrate to a higher, more spiritual plane. Who knows? I might find myself chanting mantras and wearing saffron robes.
If this is the final entry in my Random Treasure blog, you’ll know the reason why.
I’m aware that many readers come to this blog not for advice on their personal mental health, and certainly not for a commentary on the author’s mental health. No, you come for the objects which I write about and illustrate.
I’m also conscious that I might have left some readers in slight suspense earlier on in this piece when I wrote about the three large boxes full of stuff that I bought at the recent auction sale in Dunfermline. I noted that I had thrown out a number of broken items, had given a box-full to the charity shop, but had retained for further consideration and research a significant number of “pieces with possible collecting or re-sale value”. But then, annoyingly, although I showed you a rather crowded photo of the keepers, I didn’t tell you anything about them.
I apologise for this negligence and will make some small attempt to remedy it now.
I kept back 26 pieces, mostly (as you’d expect) ceramic in nature. A Cantagalli Iznik-type tankard, a Sunderland lustre cup, a blue-and-white pearlware tankard, a set of six Ridgways stoneware plates, a matching sauce tureen with ladle and a spare ladle, a German hand mirror with stamped leather cover, a Cyples jetware jug, an early Mason’s Mazarine blue vase, a small pearlware conical jug, a sprigged stoneware tankard, a similarly sprigged porcelain jug, a desk folder or blotter with Sevres-type porcelain cover, a Scottish lustre jug, a Coalport porcelain inkwell in the form of a Roman oil lamp, two small flow-blue coffee cups, a miniature gilt metal picture frame, an 18th century Worcester teapot with no lid, and a tiny green-painted lead model of a frog.
Unfortunately that’s all the information I have space to provide here, but it’s possible that some of these objects might feature in future posts – if, of course, there are to be any future posts (see last section).
Below, however, for your perusal, is a slightly less busy photograph of the keepers, plus some close-ups. I’ll be happy to answer queries about any of the objects. And, of course, in line with my new determination to increase outgoings from my collection, they are all available for transfer or donation to new owners. Probably.
After all, who needs possessions when there’s a Zen Garden to be tended?