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.


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.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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  • Harry, I know this “solution” won’t work for all your collectibles, but consider selling some better items through an auction house like the one I work for, Heritage Auctions in Dallas. That way, at least there will be a small trace of your beloved items left for you. Heritage keeps an auction archive online, with large photos and descriptions, of each and every item sold at auction. You can always go back and take a look – and sometimes, that can be enough. I know – I’m having to sell off things I never though I’d part with. It still isn’t easy, but I know I can always “go back and visit” with those sold-off treasures, at least on my computer screen.

  • Most dealers I’ve met have a favorite thing they collect, some just keep the best of the lot, continually trading up to the best example they can afford, others filling barns with multiples of similar items to the point they don’t recall where they all are.

    The most famous ( and saddest) example of this being William Randolph Hearst, whose collection was so large, diverse and it took years to sell off. Hearst had agents all over the world buying for him, some of his stuff was simply warehoused and never pulled out its shipping crate.

  • Lisa Mull

    Ah, Harry, a rose by any other name….
    I inherited, and have passed down to my daughter, the collecting bug. My sisters have it, also. When my mother “was through with it”, as she used to say about her collections upon her demise, we three divided up the estate. At the time, I had a small townhouse, and her furniture was then stacked against the walls. I could see it, and appreciate its beauty; I just couldn’t use it.
    Eleven years later, I live in a four bedroom house with just my husband and me. My husband thinks I have a lot of “stuff” (“stuff”?! How dare he?!), so I have been dutifully attempting to relieve myself of those things I cannot care for here (“in my tiny space,” she said facetiously). Therefore, my daughter, and her husband and two adorable children, in their enormous house (she said, again, facetiously–about the house, that is), with their two gigantic dogs and one tiny back-up dog, have furniture stacked up against walls, and boxes of “stuff” that neither she nor I, nor my sisters, remember their history, but it came from Mom and Dad; therefore, we must carry on the family tradition of keeping it.
    In truth, I sold one thing on eBay. It about killed me.
    I did make a fantastic transaction late last year. My brother-in-law bought my third of a Chinese snuff bottle collection for my sister for Christmas. Now the snuff bottles will remain in the family.
    Maybe I should ask him if he’d like a deal on the stuff in my daughter’s house.

    • Len Knauer


      I would love to have your template.

      I am one of those collectors that doesn’t have a database of all of my collections. P(50 years worht)
      Anything you can do to help would be greatly appreciated.


      • Len: Email me at duncan@LDRB.ca and confirm the collection content (ie: books) please. I will send you an excel spreadsheet and go over it with you to help out.

  • Duncan McLaren

    Loved your article. I was a very passionate collector for many many years, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, even have two or three copies of some things. Loved my collection but the scope grew as did the items. When my career in running a marketing and promotion agency “died” after many many years I changed careers. I became a dealer. I had been thinking about doing this for a number of years and this likely help the death of my previous career. In any event, I decided to make the transition 100% or not at all so I decided to take three of my most favourite items (not the most expensive, but expensive, and sell them (in this case via another dealer). I did it but all the emotions you describe and perhaps some others were there before, during and a little after. I changed my mind set and approach if you will. I decided to collect collectors (registered Helping Collectors Collect) and saw myself still “collecting” but the time period varied. From one day to years. The added benefit was the plus side of some very hard word and a very steep moribund business learning curve. Specifically I LOVED the learning and discovering new information EVERYDAY. When I collected, in most cases lusted after an item and when I got it put it on the shelf and after the next lust. No problem, I did go back and take things off the shelf later and look and enjoy but not as often perhaps as I should have. The point here is simply ONE option is to professionally sell your collection (over time of course) and re-define your collecting goal. This strategy however needs about at least 5 to 10 years to execute and it is work not a hobby if done with the same energy as one applied in collecting.
    You main point regardless, is 100% valid. Some form of planning or dealing with the disposal stage is part of the circle of life and collecting. I recommend to any of our collectors at a minimum is have an electronic database of all your collectibles with all key information. You would be surprised maybe, how many collectors do not have this. If they don’t have one I provide a template to guide them to at least get this information down.
    Cheers and thank you again for sharing your Stages of Collecting Grief thinking.
    Duncan McLaren

  • Malinda

    Harry, maybe it is time to tune into Hoarding:Buried Alive, you sound more like a hoarder than a collector, although most hoarders I have met claim to be collectors. Who wants to keep everything you buy, hasn’t your taste and style evolved at all over the years?

  • Harry,
    I have truly enjoyed your very informative article. Like many collectors it all started for me back when I was a child,…collecting rocks, coins, comics,…In Illinois where I grew up the bigtime local show was “Bozo’s Circus” and I watched it everyday,…when my dear mother gave me my very first Bozo item I was hooked. I was like a magnet and enjoyed not only the collecting part but the searching and researching as well. Little did I fully understand the sccope of my collection until one day my family asked, “what are you going to do with it all?”

    Well, I wanted to move away from the question as fas as I could, and I said, “I am going to write a book.” They all laughed. Well, I did just that. It took some time and again, the research end was really the part I enjoyed. During the creation of the book, I had many folks who were a big help and as it would go they added to my collection,…I am very happy to have met them all and feel very blessed to have made friend with them.

    Now that the book is finished and in print, I am still with the collection,…but, I am now moving beyond the stuff and into the stage of parting it off and into the promotional stage for the book entitled oddly enough “The Bozo Chronicles.” I am dealing with the fact that the collection does not define me, it was just a part of my life growing up,…and I am satisfied knowing that I have finished that part and that the collectibles will now make someone else happy. The book will stand the test of time and live beyond both myself and the stuff.

    I hope that you too will find some additional happiness from your collection knowning that when you are selling off the items they are going to make someone else very happy and you are spreading the joy. You will hear it many times from the collectors when they buy something from you, “Thank you, I am happy that you had saved this item” or “I have been looking for this for a long time.”

    Understnd you were not just a collector but an archivist, a historian of types. Most of the folks that buy something from you will carry the story of meeting you and the story you can share with them about the item. It will out live us all.

    I bet your vast collection of items would be of interest to others who are putting together collectible books, displays, movie sets, designer rooms and more. Your insight, knowlege and collections are of interest to many,…offer them and when you do you will feel the true joy a collection can bring.

    Your fellow collector and understanding friend.
    God bless you,
    Tom Holbrook
    Author of “The Bozo Chronicles”

  • Mark Phillips

    Well Harry,

    I feel your pain. I however was a dealer for over 30 years and parting was my livelihood. I find myself buying back things I sold because I missed their utility in my life and the sentiment attached to them. I built a 5,000 sq. ft house and swore I wouldn’t fill it, guess what? Yes, I filled it in six years.We ought to start a 12 step program together.
    I live in the Hudson Valley and believe me when I tell you, it has become a dealers graveyard! We all visit each others stuff like going to museums, just not so well displayed and much more dusty. While I don’t consider myself a hoarder, I certainly know some. My collection reaches critical mass and I send loads to auction. I’m afraid buying a building to house your collection might have been a missed opportunity to stop and think, how much is this costing me, both financially and emotionally?
    I thank you for your article and think it is so poignant, to so many, including me. Grieving is tough part of life and maybe we should reserve it for what counts most “people”. Elevating “things” to that status and I do it too, is our first mistake. Things shouldn’t have to rule our lives…..
    Thank you,
    Mark Phillips

  • Rich Haller

    I have been collecting Russian lacquer boxes since my first trip to Russia in 1998. I tell people “you know you’re a collector when you don’t have enough space to display your collection”. I’m afraid I have not kept any records (scandalous, I know) so I don’t know how many I have, but it must be 150-200.

    At the moment, I am living in a studio apartment. Of my collection, 21 are currently on display, five of which are of “museum” quality and one that may be. The others are carefully stored in individual cardboard boxes which are in turn kept in large plastic boxes which are under my bed, including several pieces of museum quality.

    Since I intended my collection to have educational value, some of the boxes are ones that I didn’t love including one excellent forgery of a Palekh that is better than many real Palekhs, but also some of the cheapest boxes, the ones sold to Russian tourists who can not afford anything better. I also have boxes on the same Russian fairy tale or legend by different artists and from different villages (there are four) so that people can see and hopefully appreciate different visions and styles of the same theme.

    My daughter and her husband have no particular interest in them. They would probably enjoy having a few. I have occasionally thought of giving my daughter one in particular which I am sure she would like, but I can’t bring myself to part with it. Maybe one of my two grandchildren will get “the bug” when they get older, but I have always thought the collection would go to a museum who was interested in displaying them appropriately. But I have yet to contact one.

    So I know something of what Harry and other commenters are feeling. I keep telling myself to stop collecting more, but so far, I have not been able to follow my advice for more than severals month before “relapsing”. Yes, for me it is like being an alcoholic. 😉

    I am amazed that so many other people don’t feel the awe and pleasure that I get from the boxes. But I don’t understand the fuss that oenophiles make over wine.

  • Donna Kershaw

    Kubler-Ross was actually referring to the bereaved when she wrote about the seven stages of grief, not the dying person. Given that perspective, the comments about those who have to deal with our collections when we are gone are right on the mark. The heavy emotional component of having inherited a treasured item, or 200 items, should not to be taken lightly by those of us who do the leaving. As the daughter whose parents purged themselves of a 300+ year old house and 17th century furnishings when moving across country, I can safely say that their grief was palpable BUT not having to do the same thing upon their death was a blessing for their children. I have my own “collections” and hope to get rid of them before they become just stuff to my children.

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