Passion At Play
Three collectors share their stories
Do you have to be rich to be a collector? The answer is no. Of course, there are billionaires who build vast art collections out of passion or as a tax haven. However, it isn’t just the super wealthy; it’s estimated a third of us collect something, and we’ve been doing it for about 12,000 years. Collecting, also a uniquely human endeavor; no other creature on the planet collects things just for the sake of it.
So why do we do it? Psychologists have many theories: Collections can create identities for people; they can prolong the idea of longevity because the collections will exist when we won’t. Regardless, collecting is a deeply personal experience, so we spoke to three avid collectors based in New Orleans to tell us what ignites their passion.
What do you collect?
I collect and restore European classic cars made by Austin Healey, Jaguar, Land Rover, Alfa Romeo and Porsche.
From where did your passion stem?
My father had a Fiat Spider before I was born and always talked about how much he loved classic European cars.
At 13, I got a summer job at a stock car racetrack in Loranger, Louisiana. One of the guys had a Triumph Spitfire and a Volkswagen Beetle, and taught me how to work on them. I realized how simple they were compared to modern cars.
From then on, I knew I wanted my first car to be a classic. But when the time came my parents informed me that I had to buy a car with an airbag, so the classic idea was put on hold.
However, I carried on helping anyone who owned one, and when I was in high school I became an EMT at Lime Rock Park, Connecticut, one of the most famous racetracks in the U.S. The highlight of the year was the Lime Rock Labor Day Vintage Car Festival.
So how did you finally purchase a classic for yourself?
I joined the Atlanta Austin Healey Club when I was 25 and the Members helped me find a 1958 Austin Healey 100-6. My siblings and I purchased the car and I restored it. We gave it to my father for his 58th birthday.
A few months later, I heard about a 1956 Austin Healey 100 found in a barn. It took me eight months to restore and afterward I learned that it’s one of only 640 made, with only 250 still in existence – a rare find indeed!
What happened next?
I started getting calls from people about cars. I looked at online auction sites and I bought one locally from Carbine Motorcars.
So, you’re a bona fide expert now?
I love the restoration work and I’m not afraid to ask for help.
What other cars do you own?
Following the Healeys, we acquired a Jaguar, a few old Land Rovers, an Alfa Romeo, some Austin Healey Bugeye Sprites and most recently, a 1972 Porsche 911T.
One of the best things is that my passion has re-ignited my father’s interest and we now work on the cars together and go for drives, I can honestly say it’s brought us even closer.
Which one is your favorite?
I would have to say my first, my 1956 Austin Healey 100. It is powerful, light and nimble. Whether you’re driving in the mountains of North Carolina or through the streets of New Orleans it’s fun. The potholes just turn a straight-line drive into a winding road.
The Bugeye Sprites aren’t much larger than a go-kart; they just make people smile when they see them on the road.
What will you ultimately do with them?
I have only sold one car over the past 16 years; my two daughters will be the next caretakers of my collection.
Where do you keep them?
I usually have one car at my house and the rest are kept in a warehouse.
Do you use them?
I drive the cars weekly to make sure they are running correctly. I travel to two to three road rallies each year and I have fun taking friends on drives. I occasionally attend car shows.
Why is collecting important?
For me, working on the cars is very therapeutic. Driving the cars is the prize; it puts a smile on your face that lasts for days! The fact that the cars are appreciating doesn’t hurt either, but that’s just a perk!
Do you connect with other collectors?
Yes, I’ve made close friends with enthusiasts from all around the U.S. and in England.
Does collecting influence your lifestyle?
Definitely it does to some extent. Last year, my family and I all went to Glorious Goodwood, the UK’s most famous classic car show. Also, internet classifieds in random towns are a gold mine for parts, so I’ll often bring back a part or two from a vacation.
What do you collect?
As a child I collected toy soldiers, postcards, books, music boxes, busts of composers, shells and beads (Native American trade beads, Venetian glass beads and worry beads). Now as an adult, I collect 17th and 18th century engravings of my college at Oxford, Blind Earl porcelain and commemorative English monarch coronation and jubilee china; my latest thing is items associated with the Duke of Wellington.
What ignited your passion?
My grandfather was the ultimate collector. His office was a cabinet of curiosities, the walls were festooned with taxidermy specimens of his many hunts under which were maps, antlers, barometers; he had bookcases of atlases, books, journals, stamps, coins; globes of the earth, the moon, the heavens; it was a treasure trove of stuff from his whole life. To paraphrase Proust, it was a room full of “remembrances of things past” and all of us grandchildren loved getting lost in that office. Every object had a story attached to it.
My family also influenced me. We were always able to bring souvenirs back from our travels. As child, I had as much excitement of anticipation of the souvenirs as the trip itself.
Tell us about your latest collection?
My latest collecting craze started at my wedding weekend six years ago in England. My dear friend, the writer Antonia Fraser, hosted a luncheon in our honor and informed us that we were getting married on Waterloo Day, June 18 – the day in 1815 that Wellington defeated Napoleon.
Since then, I’ve collected things Wellington – busts, bronzes, china, Staffordshire potteries, engravings, books, commemorative coins and 19th century political satire cartoons. Wellington is fun to collect in New Orleans as it’s a city where most people sympathize with and collect the loser of the battle. Every room of our house has a representation of Wellington of some kind. You can play “Where’s Wellie” as you pass from room to room. Wellington is cheaper to buy in New Orleans than Napoleon!
Tells us about your favorite pieces.
Everything is my favorite. If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t buy it. My grandmother gave me a music box for Christmas every year from the time I took piano lessons – most are from Vienna, a few Italian ones. My favorite one is from when I was about 10 years old: a German carved wooden Schroeder from the Peanuts comic strip series; he’s at the piano with a bust of his favorite composer, Beethoven and it plays the theme from the third movement of the “Emperor Concerto.”
How do you find items?
Specialty shops, auctions and eBay.
What will you do with them?
I use, admire and display my collections.
Are there new collections you would like to start?
No. My accountant and financial planner both agree that I must work on collecting retirement assets
Where do you keep them?
All over my house, the music boxes, composer busts and miniatures are kept in the music room along with other music-related objects, like an early 18th century music stand and sconces from the estate of Arturo Toscanini, the great Italian conductor.
Do you use any of the items or are they only to be admired?
I definitely use everything.
Why is collecting important?
For nostalgia and memory of the past. They also commemorate events.
Does collecting influence your lifestyle?
I invariably find something to add to an existing collection on holiday. The great thing about collections is there’s always room to extend the empire!
Japanese Fine Art Textiles
How did you start your collection?
I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on a Japanese textile. It was presented to me in 1985 in my gallery on Julia Street. It was magnificent. It was huge 91-by-51-inches wide. It depicted an elephant and a levitating Buddha in a sumptuous fabric, utilizing many types of hand stitching and different colored gold threading. I was instantly captivated. I had never seen anything like it. I bought it immediately. Then I framed it and hung it in my living room. Anyone who came to the house would ask about it, it was so stunning, unique and interesting.
Obviously, the story doesn’t end there. On the contrary, this textile was the beginning of my quest to know more, which led me all over the world and introduced me to so many amazing people.
What did you do next?
I knew this textile wasn’t a one-off and I had dozens of questions: where did it come from? Who made it? Which part of Japan was it from? What techniques were used to make it? What was its cultural, political and social significance?
I was already very familiar with Asian antiquities, so I was intrigued by this piece that was so unusual. For the next 18 years I traveled the globe trying to learn more. I researched in libraries and museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I went to Paris and Japan, gathering as much knowledge as I could.
In the end, I ended up writing a book, Re-envisioning Japan, Meiji Fine Art Textiles, which was published last August (2016).
As an Asian antiquities expert, I was delighted to be able to tell the story of this nearly forgotten and certainly overlooked beautiful Japanese art form.
Did you meet people through this endeavor?
Yes, I connected with experts everywhere and it was very satisfying to be able to include extensive essays by world-renowned scholars in my book.
Can you pick a favorite?
I have over 300 textiles at this point; to name two favorites I would say The Elephant and the Buddha and one (that’s also in the book) of two Lohans (wise, enlightened scholars) and a tiger. The needlework in that one is simply sumptuous.
Where do you keep your collection?
I have several of my favorites on display in my homes in New Orleans and New York, but most of the collection is in climate-controlled storage.
Why do you think collecting is important?
Collecting has had and continues to have a major influence on my life. My collection truly adds beauty to my daily existence and it has taken me on so many educational journeys. I have met people from all over the world and learned about my items through them as well as about the customs and cultures of many countries.
What advice would you give to a young collector?
Follow your passion; it’s obvious but true and sometimes harder than you expect, but stick with it.
I had a shop on Royal Street, Diane Genre Oriental Art & Antiques, for 10 years and literally the people of the world walked in. Through meeting and placing my antiquities in businesses and private homes, my business become international and my world expanded in many ways. So many of the contacts are still my friends.
As far as starting a collection, I’d say fall in love with an object and let it speak to your heart. Do some homework on it and then if your passion persists, stick with it and turn it into a lifelong learning experience.
Do you think collecting is important in this digital age?
Yes, very much so, I strongly believe that collecting actual items is crucial. Digital images will be filed away but real objects can live with us forever, enriching our lives every day.