Ask an avid collector what he (hard-core collectors tend to be male) likes most about his avocation, and he’ll tell you it’s the hunt. A true collector isn’t someone who just happened to acquire a few things of a certain type and put them on a shelf together. It’s the person who always has an eye on the next elusive prize, who seeks out antique malls and flea markets and swap meets wherever he travels, who always can make room for one more piece of treasure should it bob up to the surface amid the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life.
While many of us have dabbled in some form of collecting — a childhood stamp album, maybe, or a passing infatuation with vintage salt-and-pepper shakers — the
full-throttle drive to collect seems like a genetic predisposition. Although its purposefulness sets it apart from the kind of pathological hoarding on display on recent reality-TV shows, there is an undeniably obsessive quality to the collector’s quest. And while a collector’s passion is usually focused on a particular sort of object, more often than not there are other kinds of collectibles that also lay claim to his affection.
Psychologists and other thinkers have come up with dozens of theories to explain the collecting mania. A desire to define oneself through the assembling of objects in a collection is one common explanation. “For a collector — and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be — ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects,” opined philosopher and theorist Walter Benjamin. “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”
An attempt to wrest a semblance of order out of the chaos of an uncertain world is another popular theory. “A different, more meaningful, more ordered world can speak out of things as humble as old shoes or bottles, out of autographs or first editions, which, in their pleasing arrangement, in their structure and variety, tell of beauty, of security,” writes Philipp Blom in To Have and to Hold, his history of collecting through the ages. “Even the sanitized miniature world of a train set with its polished engines and little station houses, its evergreen trees and its tiny rosy-cheeked passengers can thus become a utopia that holds a powerful attraction above the world outside, and the control over the timetables of an old Märklin set stands in stark contrast to the powerlessness we cannot help but feel when faced with time itself.”
Whatever the motivation behind their dogged pursuit of their objects of desire, collectors have always been among us, from ancient Egypt to the Internet era. A rare issue of Superman found on eBay might not seem as alluring as a Pharaoh’s glittering hoard, but you’d have a hard time convincing the comic-book aficionado of that. When it comes to collecting, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.
Collects: Vintage Racing Bikes
Also Collects: Coins
About 20 years ago, John Barron was biking with a friend when he was hit by a car. Although he was “banged up for a few weeks,” he says, there were no lasting injuries. Barron’s bike, on the other hand, was totaled, so he had to replace it. “I bought a bike called a Cinelli,” he says, adding that it was an Italian racing bike made in 1978. “It turned out that it was a very special bike.”
So special, in fact, that it inspired Barron to collect several more Cinellis, along with a number of other vintage racing bikes. He currently owns nearly a dozen Cinellis, though he’s restored and sold more to other collectors.
In the basement of his south Minneapolis home, where he keeps his collection, Barron points out a silver 1961 Cinelli with all of its original parts “that’s probably the nicest of its kind in the world.” Even its fenders are extraordinarily rare because people tended to take them off; he says he could get $3,000 just for them. Then there are the pale green Cinellis from the late 1950s that were ridden by the Italian national racing team. “There are only like six of these known in the world,” he exclaims, “and I’ve got three of them.”
Early on in his collecting, Barron realized he had an eye for old bicycle parts. “You can find an old bike, but over the years it might have been upgraded with different parts,” he says. What you want as a collector are original or period-appropriate parts. So he “scoured the countryside,” combing through parts in bike shops. “I was able to find all this old stock that these folks had, and I’d buy everything I could,” Barron says.
He learned to distinguish parts from different years by nuances like changes in the typefaces of words stamped into the parts. Barron has traveled to Italy seven or so times to buy bike parts at huge swap meets, and he’s been to Japan twice as often to sell parts to collectors there. “It just so happens that I have taste in expensive, rare stuff, and a lot of them do, too,” he says.
Rarity isn’t the only factor in determining value, Barron insists. Desirability is also essential. And that might have very little to do with performance. “I bet that I could take a 2014 Toyota Camry to a racetrack and beat 10 different Ferraris from the 1960s,” he says. “But does the collector want a 2014 Camry? Hell no. They want the ’60s Ferrari.”
Collects: Theatrical Skating Memorabilia
Also Collects: Asian Artifacts
Growing up in Enid, Okla., Roy Blakey didn’t get to do a lot of ice skating. But when he saw his first Sonja Henie film at the age of 11, he knew he had found his passion. “There was a scene in Sun Valley Serenade that was just seared into my memory,” Blakey remembers. “They had painted the ice black, and all the skaters were in white costumes, and they were swirling and spinning and dancing. And I thought, that’s the most incredible thing I ever saw.”
Fast-forward 70 years: Blakey, now living in Minneapolis, appears on Antiques Roadshow with one of the 10 original Henie costumes in his collection of theatrical skating memorabilia, the largest of its kind.
Blakey reserves the same sort of reverence for Henie, who won three Olympic gold medals before starring in a slew of Hollywood films as well as her own touring ice-skating show, that fans of ’50s rock ’n’ roll have for Elvis. “She put the whole thing on the map,” he says. “She turned the whole world onto ice-skating in the ’40s, including myself.”
What started as a fanboy obsession with collecting programs and other souvenirs turned into a livelihood for Blakey, who was hired to perform in a skating show at a nightclub for U.S. servicemen in Garmisch, Germany (where, coincidentally, Henie won her third Olympic medal). That led to a five-year stint performing in a skating show at a supper club in the Conrad Hilton hotel, which in turn led to a six-year gig with Holiday on Ice (produced by Minneapolis sports promoter Morris Chalfen) that took him back to Europe and on to Asia and South America. “I worked in bullrings in Spain, in 2,000-year-old coliseums in the South of France — incredible experiences,” Blakey fondly recalls.
During his time in Chicago, Blakey took photography classes. He honed his skills taking pictures of visiting dignitaries while on tour with Holiday on Ice. After hanging up his skates, he worked as a photographer in New York for 25 years, specializing in shooting theater people and other performers, before moving to Minneapolis to be near his family — including his niece, Kerri Pickett, with whom he shares a photography studio.
Last spring, Blakey and his collection did a star turn at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Film Festival in the premiere of The Fabulous Ice Age, Pickett’s documentary about show skating. Blakey continues to add to his collection; he recently acquired a pair of Henie’s skates made in St. Paul by the Strauss company.
Just this summer, Leila Dunbar, his appraiser on Antiques Roadshow, flew to Minneapolis to assess his full collection, which now includes some 26,000 items. “My goal is to give this collection to a university or a museum or a library,” says Blakey.
Collects: Metal Lunchboxes
Also Collects: Little Debbie Snack Cakes
When prospective clients visit the Ramsey Engler office in downtown Minneapolis, they sometimes start off “playing their cards pretty close to the vest,” says Steven Engler, who runs the interior design business with his wife, Laura Ramsey Engler. But then he shows them the lunchbox collection that covers an entire wall in his office, “and all of a sudden they’re 7 years old, and the whole relationship changes.”
He got started collecting metal lunchboxes about 30 years ago, while visiting a friend who owns a vintage furniture and collectibles business. “He’s taking me through this 40,000-square-foot warehouse, and he hands me this Roy Rogers box, and he says, ‘Do you want that?” Engler recalls. “And I said, ‘Wow, I had that when I was a kid — sure, I’ll take that.’ And then I started thinking, I wonder if there’s some more of these.”
He quickly found out there were, though it took some looking to find them. “When I first started collecting in the early ’80s, they weren’t categorized as a collectible,” he says. “There were no books, there were no values, there was no grading. I’d pick them up at garage sales and estate sales.” But that’s all changed: “Now they’re all on eBay, and they’re a known collectible. They’re graded just like coins or anything else.”
When companies first started making themed lunchboxes in the 1950s, they mostly stuck to Western themes, Engler explains. The first of these, a Hopalong Cassidy box, sits on his top shelf, along with ones emblazoned with images of Zorro and Annie Oakley and Trigger. Then, starting in the 1960s, the themes broadened to include other popular TV shows (examples in Engler’s collection: Star Trek, Get Smart and Happy Days) as well as musical groups (the Beatles and the Bee Gees).
The era of metal children’s lunchboxes came to an end when, prompted by incidents of kids bonking each other with them, states started banning them. Engler has the very last model to roll off the production line, a 1985 Rambo in pristine condition.
Why a grown man would pay good money for a kid’s lunchbox is not fully appreciated by some — including Engler’s wife. “I tried to explain to her that if you buy a pair of $500 shoes, when you walk out of the store they’re worth $100, and two years later you give them to Goodwill,” he says. “When you buy one of these for $500, they go up a bit every year.” But since she’s still not convinced, Engler’s slowed his collecting the past few years, though he adds: “She did let me get for my birthday last year, this nice Rocky and Bullwinkle one.”
Also Collects: Guitars
Dave Kapell, creator of Magnetic Poetry, blames his mom for planting the seed of his ukulele mania. In the 1950s, she and her sister organized Hawaiian tours for their fellow 3M employees, and they would entertain their island-bound colleagues with ukulele music. “They would actually sing songs on the airplane, standing in the aisle and playing ukulele, and teach the songs to the tourists,” says Kapell. Back home, she did the same for her 7-year-old son, teaching him “My Little Grass Shack” on the ukulele — “the very first thing I ever learned on any instrument,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until 35 years later, when his ex-wife was in the hospital undergoing treatment for breast cancer, that he picked up the ukulele again. “I was trying to keep her spirits up, and I’d bring my ukulele to the hospital and play,” he recalls. “She loved it and said she didn’t want to hear anything other than ukulele music. And that’s when I started getting back into it.”
“Into it” he most certainly is. Not only does he play the ukulele in various ensembles, including the Lau Hawaiian Collective (cofounded by his Hawaiian-born girlfriend, Kim Sueoka), but he also has amassed a collection of some 70 ukuleles of all shapes, sizes and vintages. Many he got for a song when he first started acquiring them in the late 1990s. “I was seeing them at garage sales and flea markets before ukuleles became hot,” he says. “They were selling for around $5.”
He owns several made in the traditional Hawaiian style out of koa wood. Among them is a 1920s vintage Martin that was in a box of ukes he picked up for $50 at an auction. He also owns plastic ukuleles made by Mario Maccaferri, the Italian luthier who designed guitars for Django Reinhardt, including the plastic T.V. Pal uke endorsed by Arthur Godfrey on his 1950 television show, Arthur Godfrey and His Ukulele. But the ukulele from the instrument’s 1950s heyday most coveted by collectors is his Jungle Uke, covered in striped synthetic fur.
Among the more recent acquisitions in Kapell’s collection is a U-Bass, a baritone uke with rubber strings. He also has a few “banjoleles,” including one he bought in Sweden. “The ukulele is huge in Sweden,” says Kapell. “Here, they give kids recorders to teach them music. In Sweden, they give them ukuleles.”
Maybe that will start happening here, too, now that the ukulele is once again cool and everyone seems to want a cute little uke. “I was driving down the street yesterday,” Kapell says, “and I saw a woman walking along with a brand-new ukulele with the price tag hanging off of it and a big smile on her face.”
Diane Sims Page
Collects: African-American Memorabilia
Also Collects: Depression-Era Glassware
Visitors to Diane Sims Page’s home may be surprised to be greeted by a cast-iron lawn jockey. Although the 19th century statue isn’t a blatant caricature like later versions, it still serves as an unsubtle symbol of African-American servitude. But to Page, it’s an undeniable part of her family’s history that needs to be preserved — just like the thousands of other artworks and artifacts that fill almost every square foot of her home.
When Page and her husband, Alan (Vikings Hall of Famer and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice), first built their home 40 years ago in Minneapolis’s Lowry Hill neighborhood, it had the contemporary look of its era: shag carpeting on the floor and Andy Warhol prints on the walls. “A friend came over and said, ‘Where’s the African-American heritage to expose your children to? Why don’t you have any African-American paintings?’” recalls Diane, whose own heritage is mostly Norwegian. “I said, ‘It’s not intentional; I don’t know that it exists. I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for it.’”
Her friend brought her some books of poetry written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African-American poet to gain national attention. Diane fell in love with his poems, many of which are written in dialect. That infatuation sparked a 20-year collecting spree. “I started collecting his books, and then I started seeing some art and I started seeing things in antique malls,” she says.
Some of the framed pictures on her walls are black-and-white portraits of unknown men and women. “When I first started collecting, I’d go into antique malls and see these beautiful old photographs, and I couldn’t stand to see them just sitting in antique malls,” she says. “So I bought them.”
In stark contrast to these dignified portrayals are Jim Crow–era images, such as an 1897 print of black babies above the caption “Alligator Bait.” Vestiges of segregation include a sign from a Dallas streetcar that reads “White Forward, Colored Rear” as well as posters for the “Georgia State Colored Fair” and for the “Atlanta Colored Music Festival.” A watercolor painting depicting African Americans swimming in a pool in Pasadena, Calif., is titled “Only on Thursday,” because blacks only were allowed to swim the day before the pool was drained and refilled each week.
One of the most poignant pieces in Diane’s collection is a handmade canvas sign on a pole that a black family carried to greet the train bearing Abraham Lincoln’s body after his assassination. On one side are the words “Uncle Abe, We Shall Never Forget You,” while the reverse reads “Our Country Shall Be One Country.”
Some have questioned why Diane would want such disturbing artifacts as a slave-branding iron or Ku Klux Klan figurines in her home. “I wanted the history of the Jim Crow, and the segregation and the Klan,” she says. “I wanted all that history to be documented so that people know that it existed. This happened.”
Also Collects: Dealer Emblems
Aman’s home may be his castle, but his garage is his sanctuary. Especially when he has a garage like Duane Saunders does. In his hangar-like hangout at the AutoMotorPlex in Chanhassen, he has created a gleaming shrine for his collection of minuscule mementoes of automotive history.
Saunders holds 17 patents for sports-medicine and physical-therapy products that The Saunders Group marketed all over the world. As he contemplated selling his company several years ago, he realized he would have to come up with something to replace it. “My kids said, ‘Dad, you’re going to go nuts when you retire, because you don’t do anything but work,’” Saunders says.
Having fond memories of a tiny late-1950s BMW Isetta he bought while stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, he thought it might be fun to find another Isetta and restore it. Then one day while driving, he saw a car on the side of the road with a For Sale sign. “The interior was totally ratty, and the floor was rusted completely out of it,” Saunders recalls. “I didn’t even know what it was, but it was little.” He ended up buying and restoring the diminutive car, which turned out to be a 1970 Subaru 360 (notoriously branded “unacceptably hazardous” by Consumer Reports in a review that concluded: “It was a pleasure to squirm out of the Subaru, slam the door and walk away”).
After buying another tiny three-wheeled car called a Free-Way that was made in Burnsville in the early 1980s, Saunders tracked down two BMW Isettas stored in a barn south of Carver. To say they needed a lot of work is an understatement, judging by the “before” photos on the wall of Saunders’ garage. Fortunately, he found someone experienced in auto body and mechanical work to help him. “I always tell people that I’m good at taking things apart, but I have to hire someone to put them back together,” Saunders says with a smile.
His microcar collection has since grown to include seven Isettas, six slightly larger BMW 600s and a 1956 Messerschmitt KR200 (built by the German aircraft company, it has a steering bar like an airplane’s and a canopy top that swings open like a cockpit cover), not to mention a couple of early ’80s electric Comuta-cars (described by Saunders as “a golf cart made into an automobile”).
Saunders also collects wine corks and creates art with them, including a huge map of Europe — made with corks from each country — hanging on a wall of his garage. A couple years ago, he covered an Isetta with almost 2,000 corks he cut in half and painstakingly glued to the car. “My two hobbies are cork art and car restoration,” he explains, “so it’s only natural that I cover a car in corks.”