This column examines two types of memories—collecting and personal. While there are similarities between collecting and personal memories, there are key differences. There also is a difference between memory and reality. Memory changes, becoming distorted over time. Reality is constant. Memory is preferred over reality, especially when it offers a more positive view of a past moment or incident.
As the objects I left behind at The School (the former Vera Cruz [Pa.] Elementary School) are sold or prepared for sale, thousands of collecting memories are swirling around in my head. Like most collectors, I keep a mental rather than a written catalog of the things I bought. Questions “When did I buy that?”—or perhaps the more correct query is “Why did I buy that?”—arise continuously. In most cases, I have answers. As to their accuracy, I am not as certain as I would like to be.
Growing up, the party game “whisper down the alley” was popular. The correct name for the game is Chinese whispers. In the United States, it is also called the grapevine, messenger game, pass the message, telephone whispers or whisper down the lane. Contestants create teams, each of which forms a line. A message is given to the person at one end of the line. He/she repeats it to the next person in line. The process is followed until the last person in the line reveals the message. The fun comes when the final message is compared to the initial message.
Collectors whisper to themselves. They quietly talk to themselves as a means of reassuring that their purchases were accomplished in a wise and sound manner. Few collectors admit doing this. However, if you stand as a silent observer at an auction, flea market, mall, shop or show, you will observe numerous examples of this practice.
Collectors also are ardent storytellers, especially when the tales involve the hunt. The difficulty is that collectors tend to embellish these tales, the difficulties and challenges increasing with each telling of the stories. Over time, the changes become permanent. Collectors are heroes, at least in their own minds. The antiques and collectibles bargains they discover are the peaks they climb. Each purchase is a conquest worthy of bragging rights.
While normally clear and precise, a collector’s memory becomes clouded when the issue of what the collector paid for an antique or collectible arises. If the question is asked by a partner or spouse, the collector’s memory vanishes. “I did not pay much” or “it was a bargain” are substituted in place of providing a fixed dollar amount. What a collector pays is limited to the collector and his conscience. Even his or her God is not involved.
Collecting memories are never lost. “I once owned that” is not a viable construct. Memory ownership does not pass with the sale of the object. Collectors mentally own every object until the day they die.
Collecting memories also remain with the pieces. Subsequent collectors take pride in the fact that that an object they own is “from the collection of (name of collector).” The trade term is provenance, one part of which is the ownership record. Early in my collecting career, I purchased an individual salt shaker from a collector whose sales pitch included the comment that it once was part of “the McKearin collection.” Impressed by this fact, I probably overpaid for the item.
TRIVIA QUIZ: Who are George and Helen McKearin?
My wife Linda’s Victorian-era jewelry collection contains several pieces pictured in editions of Christie Romero’s “Warman’s Jewelry.” In theory, this increases their perceived value. As the objects from my collections are sold, I wonder if some future collector will tout the fact that I once owned a piece in his/her collection. Although I keep telling myself that this will not be the case, my friends assure me that it will. Neither rhyme nor reason always applies in the antiques and collectibles field.
Unlike personal memories, which can fade over time, collecting memories last. A collector need only close his/her eyes, recall a memory and relive it with the same intensity as the moment it was made. Although collectors rarely discuss this aspect of the joys of collecting, there is no denying its existence.
Personal memories are far more vulnerable than collecting memories. The desire to recapture them is one reason. The warning that “you can never go back” applies. During my undergraduate studies at Lehigh University, I was selected to represent Lehigh as a Washington Semester student. I spent the fall of 1961 semester attending American University in Washington, D.C. While there, the Washington semester students often frequented a Massachusetts Avenue bar located just off campus. Approximately five years later, I returned to the bar to relive my memories. New ownership had completely changed the bar’s theme. I was in shock. This memory erased all my earlier memories.
I should have learned from this experience and avoided repeating it. I have not. During a visit to Washington, D.C, last week, I decided to have dinner in the Chinese district, something I had not done for more than 20 years. A district that once spread over several blocks is now reduced to one block. The surrounding area, once somewhat seedy, is an upscale version of New York’s Time Square. I ate at Tony Chang’s, a location I visited back in the 1960s. When I asked the waiter when the restaurant started, he responded sometime in the 1990s. While this may have been when the present ownership took over, I know the history dates back much further. Memory trails have a bad habit of breaking.
Personal memories contain a much higher percentage of negative memories than do collecting memories. “Forgive and forget” is a concept frequently used to encourage individuals to put negative memories aside. There are some who are lucky enough to have the ability to do this. Many do not.
The only thing a true Pennsylvania German, of which I am one, knows about forgiveness is how to spell it. Pennsylvania Germans never forget slights, far overshadowing the reputation attributed to elephants in respect to memory ability. When it comes to my negative collecting memories, they seem inconsequential, even laughable. I am not certain why this is the case. I need to give it more thought.
I have been told that as one becomes older, one’s earlier memories come into sharper focus and short-term memory lapses. I have not found this to be the case. Instead, I find recalling the details of earlier memories, once sharp in focus, more difficult. Many of the individuals I could ask to clarify those details are dead. I am in the process of writing several short stories about my adolescence and young adulthood in Hellertown, Pa. Although tempted to ask those who still are alive about certain incidences in hopes of stimulating more detail, I fear the responses will taint rather than clarify my own impressions.
With the increased educational emphasis on critical thinking, teaching memorization techniques has fallen on hard times. I was educated in the era of battle-axe female instructors whose intimidating size and ability to yield a ruler or yardstick to maximum effectiveness allowed no room for error when reciting “In Flanders Field” or the opening stanzas from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I have no regrets being educated in the memorize-what-your-read era.
I spent a great deal of time teaching participants attending my Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles, now in hiatus, the importance of memorizing and remembering what they encountered. One exercise required them to diagram the living room in their house, accurately describing the objects, on the floor and walls, within it. Most were surprised at how little they remembered. I employed a similar technique when training museum curators during a brief teaching career at York College (Pa.). Students were required to diagram rooms after a visit to the home of private collector. Students were told that there are occasions when they will only have one chance to view and handle an object. If they did not develop the ability to remember what they saw, the information would be lost to them.
Increased value of one’s worth and ability, based solely on the amount of object exposure, is one of the positive aspects of growing old in the antiques and collectibles business. No young appraiser, auctioneer, collector or dealer stands a chance against an old-timer providing the old-timer’s memory remains sharp and accurate. Antiques and collectibles memory is cumulative.
Trust an old-timer who knows.
TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER: Helen and George McKearin are the authors of “American Glass,” published by Crown Publishers in 1941.
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“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.
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