Rinker on Collectibles: The Seven Stages of Collecting Grief

It is the question every collector dreads: “What is going to happen to all your stuff?” The question usually carries the unsaid assumption—“when you die.” A collector who dies with his/her stuff is fortunate, no blessed. My stock answer always has been, “when I die, it is not my problem.” If only this had proven to be the case.

Like most collectors, I am forced to face the “what is going to happen” question while still drawing breath. It is not something I planned. My goal is to collect until the day I die, a desire I still hope to accomplish. What I failed to anticipate was a time when my pile of goodies became bigger than the space available to house it. I collected merrily for more than 60 years assuming there would always be space.

There is no way I am going to condense 14,000 square feet of stuff into less than 3,000 square feet of room. I refuse to rent space, especially several states away, knowing the chances of my resurrecting the material are between slim and none. The only answer is the disposal (what an ugly and disgusting word) of several major and most secondary collections.

I love my objects. Each is as precious as the next. They are all my favorites. Every one of them has a separate and unique personality. They are as vital a part of my life as the blood that flows through my body and the air that I breathe. The loss of any one of them reduces a portion of my soul. The mere thought is overwhelming.

As I face the prospect of deciding what to sell, keep or toss after more than 60 years of accumulating, I passed the collecting stage decades ago, I recognize that I am about to go through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s seven stages of grief. Ross’s “On Death and Dying” (1969) focuses on the grief process as it related to tragedy and death, especially when associated with a terminal illness. Her concept quickly expanded to all forms of catastrophic personal loss, such as freedom, income and jobs. It is time to expand them one step further—to the agony and grief a collector feels when faced with the irreversible need to dispose of some or all of his/her collections. Death in this instance is defined as “no longer owning the object.”

The Kübler-Ross stages apply to two different types of loss: (a) after the fact and (b) facing the fact. I have talked with collectors who have lost key pieces through theft and breakage. Such losses are catastrophic. In collecting, loss is almost always about the inevitability that the loss must occur. There is no stopping the ticking of the clock. It will strike 12.

The seven stages of collecting grief are: (1) shock and denial; (2) pain and guilt; (3) anger and bargaining; (4) depression and an intense feeling of loneliness; (5) the first light, a far different stage than Ross’s upward turn; (6) acceptance; and (7) parting.

Shock and Denial: No collector sees the end coming. When I put 5093 Vera Cruz Road—the former Vera Cruz (Pa.) Elementary School where my collections are housed—up for sale, I knew it would sell. The sale took 18 months, plenty of time to develop a plan for what I would do with my collections. The longer the building took to sell, the more I deluded myself into thinking that it would never sell (my secret wish), thus postponing the need to deal with the “what to do with my things” question forever. When the building did sell, I was no further along in deciding what to sell, keep or toss than when I first put it on the market.

Making the decision to sell the building took more than two years. Although my personal and economic situation had reached the point where selling The School made sense logically, I continuously denied reason. Something surely would occur that would save the day and allow me to keep The School. The stars upon which I wished were non-responsive.

I was in shock when I called the realtor to list The School. I felt a strong sense of betrayal to my things. I had set a plan in motion to put them on the street, to send them to new homes, the equivalent of relegating them to an orphanage.

Pain and Guilt: I never became a dealer because I could not comprehend why someone would want to sell anything he loved. I did not trade. I kept everything. The mere thought that I would ever have to dispose of even one object was painful. The need to sell everything was my worst nightmare. My nightmare is reality.

I bought objects for reasons. “Because I wanted it,” the only reason a true collector needs, was first and foremost. However, objects turned into illustrations that appeared in the books I authored and edited and were used for classroom hands-on education, decoration and reuse. I found multiple “justifications” for everything I purchased. The reasons remain valid. This is why I am experiencing strong guilt pangs. What happens when I need one of these objects in the future and I no longer own it? What will I do then?

I built my collections not only to serve me but the trade. By selling them, I not only fail myself but my trade as well. The guilt level is high.

Anger and Bargaining: I am angry I did not plan better. If only I had bought less and saved more. I failed to anticipate the long-term costs to house and maintain my collections.

While blame is not one of the Kübler-Ross steps, it is very much part of my anger at myself. I am a mirror-blamer. When assessing who is to blame for something, the first thing I do is look in the mirror. I could blame shifts in the economy and collecting tastes, eBay, unappreciative current and future generations of collectors, and others for my dilemma. The simple truth is that I and I alone am to blame for the situation in which I find myself.

The bargaining over what to keep versus what to sell or toss has been going on for years. Fortunately, I do not have to sell everything. I still have 2,800 square feet to fill. I can keep some things. But, what? There rests the problem. How can you tell one object you love it enough to keep it and another that although your love is strong, you have to leave it go? Right now the “keep” list would fill 6,000 square feet. The bargaining continues.

Depression and Loneliness: Selling is depressing. I get depressed every time I think of the task ahead. I strongly suspect I will feel depressed when the process is over. The “what might have been” world will end only when I die.

The memories of the things I have to sell will linger. Most will last a lifetime. The antiques and collectibles business is about creating memories; memories that are more tangible than intangible.

I remain unconvinced that I will ever be able to fill the loneliness in my heart that is going to result from the sale of my things. Death I can accept. The sale of my collections I am not certain about.

First Light: First light occurs when the why-I-have-to-sell question is replaced by how-am-I-going-to-sell-it question. The answer to the latter question can be very depressing. It certainly has been for me.

Developing a dispersal plan and beginning its implementation is a sign this stage has been reached. I have found a home for the Rinker Enterprises reference library. It will not be broken apart, at least not at this point. This fact has given me hope.

Acceptance: Linda’s and my move to Kentwood was the necessary “face the music” stage. The reality of how much space is available for my collections has been determined. One object has to go for every new object that moves in. What does not fit has to be sold or tossed. There is no longer a “keep” question. Resistance is futile. There is only acceptance. What remains has to be sold.

Parting: This is far more painful than divorce. When children are involved in a divorce, the “ex” is never truly gone. This parting is final. There are no visitation rights. One last look, one last touch and then the object is gone.

Shakespeare was wrong. Parting is not such sweet sorrow. Parting is hard, painful and numbing. When it finally ends, as I know it inevitably must, I cannot help but think of Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) lament in “Casablanca” (1943): “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” She is the grim reaper of disposal, death’s female counterpart.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“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..

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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