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Rembrandt's Feathers

Rembrandt's Feathers

Tell me what you collect, tell me how you collect, and I will tell you who you are. —Jean Willy Mestach, artist and collector

This month, I decided that the time had finally come—the time to throw out the 4 boxes I had stored in my attic since leaving my childhood home. These boxes lay piled in a corner with 30 years of dust and dirt on their lids. Unopened in all these years, they were filled with things I didn't need or miss. But before tossing them out, I decided to take a look inside.

Holding my breath with excitement, I carefully cut the tape from the first box, then ripped open the top as dust puffed into my face. There, inside the box, were dozens of clippings of pictures and articles about Danny Kaye, my childhood hero. As I pored through the faded images, I could see my orange-haired idol up on screen again, dancing to the tune, "I'm Hans Christian Andersen, I've many a tale to tell."

I pulled the tape from the second box. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, was a 3-ringed notebook containing dozens of recipes I'd collected during my adolescent fling with becoming a chef: chocolate cake made with mayonnaise, cheesecake with 3 kinds of fatty cheese, deep-fried chicken. How could I, whose
American Heart Association Cookbook
is tattered from use, have once valued such recipes?

The third box contained Playbills from Broadway plays I barely remembered, each one signed by the star of the show: Zero Mostel, Barbra Streisand, James Valentine, Brian Bedford. The fourth box contained my once-beloved Madame Alexander dolls. I lifted one from the box, smoothed her hair, and carefully straightened her fraying period clothing, as I had often done as a child. Here in the attic, surrounded by my long-ago collections of clippings, recipes, playbills, and dolls, a torrent of childhood memories flooded my present-day world.

Why people collect
Why do people collect? Is collecting a primal activity, perhaps rooted in the survival activities of primitive hunter-gatherers? Is collecting universal across cultures and economic classes? I wonder what drove Rembrandt to collect Amazonian parrot feathers. Did their colors appeal to him? Did they feel good? Did they conjure up the vision of the entire bird? Did he collect them merely to serve as models in his artwork? Collections and collectibles span the range from the most mundane to the most unusual, from those that have only personal value to those that also possess great economic value: pebbles; metal lunch boxes; potato chips in the shapes of animals; Pez dispensers; Elvis memorabilia; the noted art collections of Getty, Guggenheim, and Gardner. Even scientists could be viewed as collectors of data for discovery.

Both of my sons are collectors. My 21-year-old still has the collection of superhero figures he and his friends had drawn as children. My 17-year-old collects banjos of different styles, sounds, and ages to go along with his passion for bluegrass music. When younger, both boys collected newts during early morning walks while we were vacationing in New Hampshire, nurturing them, and sometimes naming them before returning them to the wild.

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