The psychology of collecting

Have you ever wondered where your interest in collecting comes from?

What drives people to spend their lives in pursuit of this or that white whale? The answers really are fascinating.

Collecting only became possible once humans settled down and started farming (circa 9500 BC).

Before then humans were nomadic hunter gatherers who lived in small groups. Anything not totally essential to the day to day survival and religious life of the tribe would have been near impossible to keep.

Once we got down to building stable communities, that’s when the fun really starts. Here is a by no means exhaustive look at the psychology underlying the hobby we all love.  


At its most basic, collecting is about organisation.

Most of us started our hobby in childhood. Your poison doesn’t matter. Russian stamps, Roman coins, Pokemon cards, the impulse is the same.

Collect stones

Kids will collect absolutely anything (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Children usually start collecting around the age of six. By the time they’re 10, most are either bored with the hobby or doubling down.

Some researchers believe the impulse to be rooted in our hunter-gathering past. The need to categorise, collect and collate is innate in most kids. It’s how they learn about the world. It allows them to explore their interests and escape their anxieties.  


This one applies chiefly to memorabilia collectors. Contagion is the idea that artefacts are imbued with the essence of the person who owned them.

The image below might just look like a pair of old opera glasses. And, of course, that’s what they are.

Lincoln was holding these opera glasses when he was shot (Image: Nate D Sanders)

Lincoln was holding these opera glasses when he was shot (Image: Nate D Sanders)

But they’re also the opera glasses Abraham Lincoln used on the night he was assassinated at Ford's Theater. Suddenly they’re interesting. A piece of history. They were right at that moment.

It’s something I’m very familiar with.

Look in my store and you’ll see plenty of items that fit the bill. There’s a genuine thrill to holding an item connected with a historical moment. You can imagine the notable person holding it too. Standing where you’re standing. Seeing what you’re seeing.

Thrill of the chase

You’re probably familiar with that breathless feeling you get when you spot that piece you’ve been hunting for years.

Moby Dick

A stamp collector closes in on that elusive penny black block (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The elation when it’s finally in your possession.

There’s really nothing like it.

And it’s a feeling that endlessly refreshes itself. The collector’s work is never done.


One of the most exciting things about collecting for me has been the fascinating people I’ve met over the years.

Chicago Coin Con

One of the great joys of collecting is meeting like minded people (Image: Chicago Coin Show)

Visiting collectors and looking through their collections, learning from their expertise and talking shop is a great pleasure. That feeling of camaraderie is wonderful.

Discovering other people that are interested in the same quirky thing as you can be life affirming.


Collectibles offer a unique connection with history. When you hold a coin made in ancient Rome, or an arrowhead crafted during the Neolithic period, you are in contact with something with a past.

Arrowhead neolithic

This arrowhead connects you with millennia of history (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Someone long ago made this piece. Others will have held it.

It makes us feel part of something larger than ourselves. Some collectors take steps to keep their collections intact after they die. For most of us though, there’s a recognition that we are merely custodians. Others will follow us. The unbroken chain will continue.

Happy collecting, 

Paul Fraser

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