Edward Perry Warren on Collecting

From Edward Perry Warren: The Biography of a Connoisseur pp.338-340

Warren on Collecting:

A collector is thought to be a dreamer on days gone by, a loafer in idle lands, who culls a vase from a shelf or chooses among many objects in a shop. By many he is supposed to live a life of disinterested and luxurious nonchalance, gloating over beautiful things, free of his time, lavish in his expenditure, a leisurely grandee.

This impression is a mistake. He is a commercial traveller, a forager. He usually loses his money; he always loses his time. He is in the thick of danger. He daily sees forgeries and futilities which he must on no account buy, while leaving to the owner a satisfied sense which will bring him again with other things; he daily weighs lie against lie to elicit the truth; and if he is enthusiastic he allows a pure chance of a find to outweigh the sure discomfort of a journey; he stays months in a place and acquires little, then in getting out of a carriage or hurrying to a train the object turns up and all his plans must perhaps be changed. He receives with equal complaisance the idle intriguer, the petty huckster, the foolish and faithful adherent, the empty-headed grandee, the agent on the make, the cheating dealer, and the man whose object is to get money for not preventing a purchase—with equal complaisance but with carefully graded differences of manner. With one he is adroit, with another soothing, with a third frank, with a fourth inscrutable. He uses men according to their values, remembering a service to the third and fourth year, rectifying and condoning mistakes, acting through one while avoiding giving offence to another or being known to a third. He takes an interest in private affairs, illness and financial trouble, he sends salutations and writes constantly to those from whom he obtains one or two things a year. His letters must do him no commercial harm if shown, his agreements no harm if known. He must lie in wait for a cat-like pounce, send over seas at a rumour, arrive tired but smiling and patient. He must carefully examine what he would like to kick out of the window, and endure men he would like to murder, expect nothing and be ready for anything. When an object is offered he sometimes has a cold chill. It is either worth a thousand dollars, if genuine, or five cents, if false, and if it is genuine he probably hasn’t the money at the bank and is informed that another appropriation is improbable. If the object is good he is probably sure it will not be popular, if inferior, he may have to take it for courtesy and give it away. He lives in a shower of letters and telegrams, serious, foolish, ignorant or imperative—according to the connoisseuring powers of those who report objects. He hears that a treasure is found near Ancona when he is promised Naples. If he doesn’t hurry he may lose it, and it is twelve hours by rail and the trains don’t connect. The report is probably a lie, but it may be the one thing of the winter. A friend of mine travelled four days to see a monument adorned with life-size figures recently unearthed and discovered that by an error of description it was a small bronze three centimetres high sold years ago. Another friend heavily laden with the portly reminders of many years of good dining padded eight miles along a dusty road under the Italian sun to see one of those Roman standards representing eagles which unaccountably have all disappeared save one or two. He found a stuffed bird. I myself have ridden four days over hill and dale through a Scotch mist to behold two antique bronze heads held together with screws of equal antiquity. You must be in all places at all times, and pacify four people reporting the same purchase, and every one ready to offer it to someone else unless he sees his commission. You must remember that while it is quite proper to proceed on the assumption that your friend is lying, yet it is discourteous to tell him so, or to consider him less a friend on that account. You hunt and buy and have patience and have secured nothing. At the end of an exhausting season you return home surprised that the few purchases which you after all did make and with which you were fairly content are suffiencient to make an excellent sending, and that in spite of all the money you have spent they cost so little.

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