Nicole Contaxis

Collecting Comfort


ISSUE 24 | COMPULSION | JAN 2013

I was nine when my neighbor was arrested for embezzlement and fraud. My parents attempted to explain the gravity of the situation, but their three children did not understand. My younger sister asked, “Does this mean we can’t ride their snowmobiles anymore?” To be fair, snowmobiles are fun.

I was preoccupied with something else. Crime may have been a distant idea at that point in my life, but selfishness was not. My brother, after all, tended to hog the Super Nintendo. What I’m trying to say is that all I could think about was my neighbor’s cars. He collected antique cars. It takes a special kind of person to collect cars. Jerry Seinfeld collects cars. These kinds of cars aren’t driven; they are delivered and admired. They are one-of-a-kind, historically important cars. Cars that need to be shipped to an island in Canada in order to be painted properly. Status symbols of a nearly unearthly variety.

The cars were sold, the snowmobiles were sold, he went to jail, and his family, innocent and unknowing, spent years trying to reassemble a life. The ramifications of his crimes were far-reaching, but to this day, I still think about those cars and the entirely unreasonable selfishness they embodied. Before his crimes were discovered, I stood in his garage with him and my father as he described the extensive process required to get the right shade of red. If my father recalls correctly, it was a DKW F1 from the 1930s, one of the earliest consumer examples of a front-wheel drive car. My neighbor’s reaction as my father leaned against the fender made it clear that the two men had different priorities. I still cannot understand my neighbor and his cars. I mean, seriously, he refused to drive them. The cars were barely cars anymore; they had become museum pieces.

Collectors are strange people. I currently work selling antiquarian and rare books. I deal with collectors frequently. Outside of the expected modern first editions and books about dead presidents, people also collect books about books, books about snuff boxes, and books by certain printers. How a collection begins may seem a bit odd; when does someone decide that they need every printed bibliography of English literature?

But the beginning isn’t actually that weird. I ‘begin’ to collect many things. I have three breakfast-in-bed trays that feature dinosaurs. Sometimes you buy something because you like it, and sometimes you like more than one version of it. It feels simple and organic. But when does ‘liking’ become hunting? When do a few dolls become a cramped apartment filled with Victorian child-like nightmare toys? Where it gets weird is at the end. (As an aside, I realize that I may only see the ‘beginning’ as normal because I currently inhabit that space, but I try not to over-think it.)

So, we buy things we like. We buy objects to create the world we want to inhabit. I like a world with warm sweaters, cute trays, plush couches, and coffee tables with ample storage (if anyone has suggestions for a cheap but nice coffee table, please let me know because I’ve been looking without luck). One of the people I work with likes a world in which Civil War-era bullets and draft papers are filed away in innumerable metal cabinets. The difference is not that extreme, especially if you consider how long I’ve been looking for the right coffee table (again, suggestions are appreciated). We both create a physical environment to meet our emotional and physical needs. But what about Civil War ephemera fulfills my co-worker? What about antique cars fulfilled my former neighbor? What is it about these historical objects that offer comfort?

I will defer to Nietzsche on this one. In “The Use and Abuse of History for Life,” he argues that history should serve the present. Our understanding of history, no matter how accurate or inaccurate, should serve modern needs. He categorizes the different ways that history can be used, and one he holds in particular disdain is the history of the antiquarian. The antiquarian serves history, attempting to catalog and save the minutiae of the past. These attempts can become all-encompassing, and the possibilities of the present may be largely ignored. Preservation exists above all else. Nietzsche’s understanding of the antiquarian does not allow for the casual collector; the antiquarian by definition is pathological, abandoning the needs of the present for the past.

Of course, action and attempts to serve the present take many forms. If we want to be revolutionaries, we construct a radical history. We rely on history to contextualize ourselves; our lived experience of history may be simplistic or even incorrect, but it is essential. What we need from our possessions is what we need from our history: an understanding of place and purpose. Our history helps us create personal and societal narratives, placing our stories into larger epics. We shape our histories to meet our needs the way we decorate our apartments to do the same.

It does not seem like a stretch to argue that the collector and Nietzsche’s antiquarian have something in common. Of course, many collectors manage to live their lives and inhabit the present without a problem. Their artifacts serve their present; the artifacts shape how the collectors understand themselves and provide the comfort that comes from creating one’s own space and building one’s own world. Collecting is their hobby, and everything is okay. Hobbies are hobbies, people are people, and mostly I try not to over-react. But when is a hobby more than a hobby? When is the collector actually Nietzsche’s pathetic antiquarian?

Perhaps the easiest place to look to is the criminal collector. Like my neighbor, there are people who collect items in such a way that they endanger the rest of their lives. They risk their families, their livelihoods, and the legitimately owned artifacts in order to expand their collection.

Meet Barry Landau. Barry Landau used to come to the store where I currently work. He used to research in the museum where I once worked. He is in jail for years now (here’s hoping I don’t end up working there), but he is a bit of a different beast than my neighbor. You see, my neighbor collected cars, and he bragged about his cars. He bought the most expensive cars, the prettiest cars, and the most impressive. His ‘world-building’ consisted in social interaction and narcissism as much as it did in a preoccupation with antiquarian goods. In fact, if you knew the man, you’d probably think he cared for nothing other than himself, forget an abstract concept like ‘history.’

Barry may have cared. He talked about, wrote about, and seemed to cherish history. His book, The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy, helped him gain respectability in a world that he had been lying his way into for a lifetime. He claims to have worked for and had close relationships with Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Nixon, and more, but no one can find evidence to support these claims. He did provide plates for George W. Bush’s inaugural lunch. I guess that is something.

He was known for social manipulation in many circles. In the ‘70s, he was a Warhol hanger-on. Dining at Elaine’s and partying with artists and celebrities, he worked his way toward fame. The Andy Warhol Diaries features a strange anecdote involving Barry Landau, Andy Warhol, Phyllis Diller, and a bottle of champagne. After a drug-related scandal with the owner of Studio 54, he faded away only to return as a self-styled presidential historian. Although the FBI investigated the Studio 54 scandal and referred to Barry as an unreliable witness, he managed to skirt illegality for most of his life, preferring to be a social climber rather than a criminal.

We may not know exactly when he began to steal from museums, dealers, and libraries, but we do know that it began in earnest when he met Jason Savedoff, an attractive 24-year-old man. Out of the 10,000 items found in Barry’s apartment, the FBI determined that 6,500 were stolen. They are still in the process of returning these items.

Barry kept at least 6,500 stolen objects, and he kept them in his apartment. He kept them the same way you might keep your favorite childhood stuffed animal or in the way my colleague stores his Civil War bullets. The objects were not his, but he used them to construct his space. He may have stolen them, but he made them his in a certain way. He referred to himself as a ‘caretaker’ in multiple interviews. These objects were intimately his, if not legally or ethically so.

Here is a secret most people don’t know about archives: it is frighteningly easy to steal from them. If you want to steal a historic document, all you need to know is how that document is cataloged. Many holdings are merely cataloged by folder, meaning that while a librarian may notice an entire folder is missing, they may not miss a single document. Furthermore, many archives still rely on hard-copy card catalogs. If you can destroy the hard copy (which Barry did), there is no record of the document existing. It is hard to be accused of stealing something when there is no record that it ever existed. But, before you rob an archive, here is a caveat: it is very difficult to find a fence. Barry would need to unload a large amount of stolen and unique goods, and only a similarly unique person would want to buy it. Clearly, selling stolen historic documents is not as easy as selling a stolen iPod.

The point of this digression is that Barry may have kept the artifacts for many reasons. Perhaps he had a problem finding a fence, although he did sell several artifacts to collectors at high prices. Perhaps he was waiting to sell some of the other documents. I don’t know. But, I do know that even though he had 6,500 stolen items in his apartment, he had an additional 3,500 legitimately acquired historical artifacts. His relationship with these objects, both stolen and not, is complicated.

In the end, of course, he kept the artifacts in his apartment, and he created his world with these objects. He may have considered himself a ‘caretaker,’ but what he was first and foremost was a creator. He took the world and made it what he wanted, regardless of the law or ethics, and his world is most faithfully encapsulated in his apartment, the showroom of his emotional and physical needs. He surrounded himself with the belongings of the famous and powerful because that is what he needed. Or thought he needed.

Much the same can be said about my neighbor. He stored many of the cars in a specialty garage. It was heated and insulated and always seemed to have freshly painted floors. It was pristine, seemingly untouched. If a car had dirt on the tires when it was delivered (which happened much less frequently than you might think), the tires would be cleaned before the car entered the garage, and any trace of dirt would be removed from the floors. These cars existed entirely outside of their intended purpose. My neighbor stole in order to buy the cars, he stole in order to build this garage, and then he created a space in which the cars were no longer cars and the garage was more of a museum.

Nietzsche’s antiquarian is most helpful here, at the crux. The antiquarian may feel wholly devoted to history. He may think that he has dedicated his entire life to the preservation of the past. However, he is doing no such thing. The antiquarian creates a particular kind of space in which the emotionally important historical artifact can become just that, rather than a car, a document, or a breakfast-tray. We are accustomed to collective creations of this kind of space, and we cherish our museums, libraries, and archives. Hell, we are even relatively accustomed to those institutions stealing artifacts (hello British Museum). We only begin to raise an eyebrow when such a space is under the direct control of a single individual. A toy museum is not weird, but an apartment filled with antique dolls is. It may be that we can too closely see how history is being used to satisfy an individual’s emotion needs, rather than those of an entire population.

Or, perhaps, without a grounding and legitimizing institution, a collector’s compulsion to ‘preserve’ and to ‘caretake’ can go unchecked and become criminal. I am unconvinced that an archivist doesn’t approach an object with the same emotional dedication as a collector. It is a low-paying, highly educated position with nearly altruistic purposes: preserving the work of someone else for the world and education of others. The question at the beginning of this piece could have easily been, “Why in the hell would anyone want to become an archivist?” It is a difficult, frequently monotonous, and generally unappreciated position. It almost seems like only the crazy would volunteer. Yet the archivist has the rules and the ethics of a larger institution to cull any compulsion and the dedication to work for little reward. The collector, when fueled by narcissism, selfishness, and desperation, can find himself a criminal.

I like to think that the institution appears less strange because we believe these objects have communal importance. Whether legally obtained or not, they do not belong to the collector; they belong to us. The archivist, after all, works for us. The world that my neighbor built in his garage and the world that Barry built in his apartment are mirrors of the world we create for ourselves in our apartments and in our homes. Yet boundaries persist; because most of us do not rely on history alone to create our stories and to give us comfort, we design worlds of individual importance, not communal. Our compulsion and need for comfort in our homes is a nearly universal phenomenon, but it generally does not inhibit the research, education, and knowledge of a group’s past. Collectors may be largely harmless, but in the end, they turn objects into personal museum pieces and, in turn, limit the ways those objects can be used for the benefit for those who manage to live in the present.