All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
If this was a meeting of Collectors Anonymous, I guess I would have to stand up and say "I am Mel Birnkrant and I am a collector"; well perhaps I wouldn't say my name, because then it wouldn't be anonymous. I have been a collector since I was born, although, I didn't realize it until some 40 years ago. Since that time, most of my friends, as well as, my few enemies have been culled from the ranks of either collectors or dealers, or more often those, who are collectors and dealers both. But in all that time, I have NEVER discussed Collecting with any of them, or anyone else for that matter. Of course, all collectors talk about WHAT they collect, and even their rationale, which is usually devoid of any insight, as to WHY they think they collect it. And they never stop talking about what they WANT, or as collectors like to say, "what they NEED". But none of them ever talk about, or as far as I can see, even think about the abstract concept of collecting, and what it's all about.
But I think about Collecting all the time. One might even say that I dwell upon it. So when Betty Green asked me to take part in a discussion about not What I collect, but rather about Collecting, itself, I was instantly intrigued. And before I could blurt out the words, NO WAY, which would be my normal response to the absurd idea that I would speak in public, I found myself saying, OK.
The fact is, I might know more about collecting than anything else. I know about collectors. And I know about Dealers. And I know how and why many collectors became dealers, and why some dealers are either friend, or foe. And I know about shows, and flea markets, and auction houses. I can share insights into the Antique Road Show, and enthuse about the joys of E-Bay. But most of all, I know about the Secret World of Collecting, a world of Adventure and Excitement and Great Mystery. And I came here today willing to tell all I know. So, if you want to know anything I know, just ask me.
Riva and Doris visited our house the other day, I guess, to sort of check me out, and see where I was coming from. And, as they were leaving, Riva said, "Oh, by the way, please bring a couple of objects from your collection, big enough to see from the back row, to talk about." I groaned, I'm always reluctant to talk about my collection and what I collect. Far too many collectors assume that what they collect is of vital interest to everyone, and that they all want to hear about it, and hear about it, and hear about it, some more. I hate it, when that happens!
Nonetheless, I brought a couple of things along. The first is this amazing photo of part of the collection, just so you can get some idea of where I'm coming from. This IS where I just came from, and I say the photo is amazing, because I blew it up on my computer from a tiny 4 by 6 inch snapshot. That, to me, is amazing!
The kinks aren't completely worked out yet, but the basic theory simply stated is: "Collectors are trying to Stop Time, and are inclined to Take Up Space"
Time consists of three parts. The first part is "The Future", about which we know nothing, other than the fact that it is rushing towards us at faster than the speed of light. The second part is "The Past", about which we know Everything, almost all of which, we soon forget. Both these parts are very, very long. The third part of time is called "The Present". And it is very, very short. The present is that fleeting speck of time, in which the Future instantly becomes the Past.
Most of us think, we live our lives in the present. But the fact is we live, mostly, in the Past. We are surrounded by the past. Everything our eyes see: this building, the furniture, the clothes we wear, and the people in this room were all made in the past. Even the words you are hearing me speak, by the time they reach your ears, were spoken in the past. And, when we look into the night sky, we are looking deep into the past. Many of the stars we see are so far away, that their light has taken millions of years to reach our eyes. And we see them, not as they are now, but as they were, many millennia ago.
Then how long is the present, in which we think we live? How long does it take the Future to become the Past? Perhaps no longer than the 24th of a second in which we see one frame, of a movie. Or, maybe, even that's too slow. A still photograph can capture and preserve a slice of "Present" only, one-thousandth of a second long.
Our short lives on this planet are like a fast ride on a merry-go-round. Whirling through space, time flies all around us, and swiftly passes us by. Some of us are content to just hang on, and enjoy the ride. While others among us, are intent on grabbing golden rings. We reach out to capture and hold them to our hearts, to save a cherished fragment of the newly formed past, before it is forgotten. Those of us, who attempt to keep the golden rings we gather, are called Collectors. And those of us, who choose, instead, to trade them in as payment for the ride, are called, Dealers.
There is a sad irony in the fact that the rings that one collector sees as precious gold, might, to another, look like common brass.
And collectors hang on to these pieces of the past, in order to create the illusion that the present has more substance. When many objects from the Past are gathered together in one place, they fatten up the Present. And time itself seems to move more slowly, and the Present seems to last longer, in that place where the Past is always present.
And, sometimes, in museums, like this, where the art and artifacts of the past have gathered, Time, itself, stands still. Thus, Collectors preserve the Past, not only to enrich the Present, but to Stop Time, or slow it down, at least. And thus, create a feeling of Permanence in an ever-changing world.
That's, more or less, the Time part of my theory. The Space part is easier to explain:
This is a very Big World. It is easy to feel small and insignificant in it, and hard not to. But we collectors have our STUFF! We like to have lots and lots of STUFF. It requires us to occupy more Space. Our STUFF makes us feel Bigger. And the more STUFF we get, the Bigger we feel. Look at me world! I am here! And, I'm significant, because I take up lots of Space. And the stuff that we collect also Amplifies our Persona. It can reflect and define who we are, or who we want to be. For those with identities that are weak or ill defined, collecting can create one, albeit sometimes arbitrary. For those with strong identities and something to express, collecting can be the means of self-expression.
Collecting can in fact, be an Art Form. Just as a painter must make decisions, like choosing what color, into which to dip his brush, the direction of each brush stroke, and where to place it on the canvas. So too, must a collector make decisions, choosing what objects belong in his collection, and how and where to place them.
With a little creativity, a collection can become a work of art. ... A less creative collection might, on the other hand, amount to little more than "paint by numbers", an unimaginative and slavish compulsion to follow the numbers and fill in the blanks.
When I was a kid, and first heard the word "collecting". That was what Collecting was all about, following the numbers and filling in the blanks. Collecting was about Stamps, Coins, and Butterflies.
I had a "stamp-map" of the USA. It was a sort of beige affair, with stamps indigenous to the various states, pre-printed in black and white, intended to be covered over and replaced by actual stamps. I hung it on my bedroom wall, and spent my parent's money, which was referred to as "my allowance" on stamps. Each stamp was neatly mounted with a little "stamp-hinge" and set in place. Some of the stamps were common and worthless, while others were mildly expensive, and a little bit rare. It seemed to me that the rarest stamps were usually the dullest and least interesting in appearance.
Nevertheless, I rode the streetcar downtown, each weekend, with my friend, Bucky, to see a movie and buy a stamp or two, until, at last, all the stamps were collected and all the spaces were filled. Well, all but one, that is.
In a masterstroke of audacity, the idiot who had designed the Map had included the picture of stamp showing the Wright brothers' plane, accidentally printed up side down. I didn't pick up on it, until I was well into the collecting process. But this, I came to learn, was just about the rarest and most valuable American stamp there was. Only one example existed and it was valued at a King's ransom. So, I, or anyone else who purchased this map, was robbed of the dubious joy of ever being able to complete it. Save one person, perhaps, as if the sole owner of that priceless stamp would paste it on that cheesy map.
Thus, the collection was as complete as it was ever going to be! So what? An empty accomplishment, worse still, it was ugly! I had tried Collecting and found it was a pointless bore!
I gave the map to Candy Small, the little girl next door. She was adopted, and I felt sorry for her. Little Orphan Candy got all my best stuff, including my Disney cells. I had purchased them in person, for 2 dollars each at Disneyland, in 1955, the year it opened. The Disney studio was unloading its garbage for two dollars apiece. Up till then most cells had been merely thrown away. I riffled through the thousands of cells stacked in boxes and carefully picked out the best available views of each and every character from Lady and the Tramp.
I was 17, that year, and I was visiting California for a job interview at the Disney Studios. And they hired me! I was to begin, when I graduated high school in the fall. But, I never went back. My lifelong Dream of one day, working for Walt Disney evaporated before my eyes, when I beheld the humdrum reality of what it was really like at the Disney Studios. Thus, I went to college, and art school, lots of art schools, instead. And I also decided to grow up. So, when I left for college, I symbolically gave the cells, and lots of other childhood stuff, to Little Candy Small, next door.
Now, four years later, after a year at the University of Michigan, and two at Pratt Institute, I was attending the Academi Julienne in Paris, living on the Left Bank and playing at being a poor and starving artist. One fateful day, at the Paris Flea market, which at that time, was the only "Flea Market" in the world, I found myself standing and staring at a puzzling object, an object that was destined to profoundly alter the course of my entire life.
And, here it is now........ This cast iron bank! It caught my eye from afar, shining like a beacon amid a sea of ancient things. Though younger than the stuff around it, this image was older than, and unlike any Mickey Mouse that I had ever seen before. But it wasn't the Mickeyness of this object that caught my eye. It was the fierce power of the image, the pure and unexpected geometry, the straight lines and sharp angles, the pointed snout, sharp elbows, and how they contrasted with and played off of the round elements of his anatomy. And then there was this gentle subtle shift, as he gently leans to one side, not enough to destroy the symmetry, but just enough to keep him slightly off balance, always in motion and alive.
I found this to be a fascinating sculpture! But, alas, it was also Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse was almost unknown to me as a child, Donald Duck was popular in my day and Mickey, by then, had all but disappeared. What Mickey images I had seen, were 1940s Mickey at his wishy-washy worst, with pink face, eyeballs and chubby cheeks. Although I had never seen a Mickey Mouse as powerful as this, he was still the symbol of everything I had rejected and outgrown. And a battle raged within me.
Could I give in to the spell, that this fierce, yet friendly object was casting upon me, and embrace it, in spite of the fact that it was Mickey Mouse? It seemed like hours passed, as I stood mesmerized.
I guess you're all wondering what happened. I won't keep you in suspense any longer. I bought it! Considering that my Hotel room rent was the equivalent of $30 a month, His price of $10 dollars was not one to be taken lightly. This was no small purchase. But the money was not the issue, it was, instead, the inner conflict, that I finally resolved by convincing myself that this object was a sculpture, first, and Mickey Mouse, second.
Thus, it was in Paris, that I discovered the two Great Loves of my life, my wonderful, wife, Eunice, and collecting Antique Toys! I returned from Europe after just one year. The money I had intended to last for two years was spent on the irresistible treasures I discovered there.
Eunice followed a few months later. Her friends had tried to warn her, "This man is a toy collector." They said, "You will just be another toy in his collection".
They were right about the collector part, [not the other, of course]. The Old World full of amazing objects had transformed me. I had become a collector, but I didn't realize it yet. Ever since my pointless foray into stamps, I didn't think the word, "collector" would ever apply to me.
When I was a kid, I recall that in almost every house, there would be at least one special thing. Something that seemed interesting, and out of the ordinary. And I would associate the inhabitants of that house with that one unusual object. So I began to look for and acquire my own "one special thing", one special thing after another. I was just doing what I thought everybody did; if you like something, you decorate your house with it. But the special things began to multiply, until I found myself surrounded by a staggering quantity of special things. And I wondered "Is there something wrong with me?" A wise friend assured me, "You're not crazy. You're a Collector!"
The words rang true, and hit me like a Revelation! It was as if I had been suddenly, given a License to Collect. And thus, began the great adventure of my life, Collecting.
I became a collector innocently and unconsciously. Collecting and I, met, somewhere on the road to happiness. I didn't discover it, lying ahead of me on that road. Collecting had, in fact, been sneaking up behind me, all my life, until it finally caught up with me, and became my guide, from there on out.
And guide me it did. Collecting became the window through which I saw the world. And it opened a door through which I stepped to join the human race. Often, I have felt like a dispassionate spectator, even to the real events of my own life. But Collecting changed all that. The great adventures and the great insights of my life have, time and again, come to me through the experience of collecting.
Through collecting, I have known the thrill and excitement of being a Great Explorer, discovering a lost world.
Imagine yourself adrift on a vast ocean, surrounded by nothingness and mediocrity as far as the eye can see, which isn't very far, because a mist hovers above the water. Then one day, out of the mist, an object floats by, an incredible object, such as this mouse. You rescue it, before it can drift away or disappear beneath the waves.
Then every so often, other objects appear, carried to you on the tide, and you collect them, one by one. These beautiful things, where are they coming from? Surely they are signs that you are nearing land. Could it lie just over the horizon, this wonderful place of untold treasures, the likes of which you have never seen before? As you sail on, the treasures multiply, until your boat is full.
Then, suddenly, one day, the mist clears and you discover that you have sailed across the Gulf of Time, to discover a whole New World. And you first set foot upon the shores of an Enchanted land, from a time long ago, before you were even born.
And that's how I came to Discover and Explore the Golden Age of Comic Characters.
Now, when I watch a film about Marco Polo, or contemplate Columbus Day, I can feel and understand what it was like to be a great explorer, not as a spectator, but as one who has, also, experienced the thrill and adventure of it all. For I have "Been There", "Done that", TOO!
As a Collector, I have stalked the Forests of Schupp's grove, roamed the Plains of Renningers, and explored the exotic Jungles of Brimfield. Sometimes I was a Big Game Hunter, determined to bring 'em back alive. And I was good! My eyes were keener, my trigger finger was quicker. I was always ready to draw my weapon and press the trigger that made the ball point pen pop out, to write that check, faster than the next guy. I was Frank Bucks, and I almost always bagged the wildest and the biggest game. And the other hunters showed respect and stood in awe of Me. In those amazing days, I was the best!
At other times, I was the King of Beasts, himself, on the prowl, in the Flea Market of the Night. The moonlight glistened on my coat as I held a flashlight in my paw, and my whiskers tingled with excitement. I was hunting the mouse, and my ears pricked up, listening for his roar.
By day, your eye must be All Seeing. One learns an art, akin to speed reading, to scan a million objects in a second, looking for any peek, at any part of any thing, that you know to exist, or hope might exist. Better still, you hope to see the thing unknown. The work of art, so wonderful that, in your wildest dreams, you couldn't imagine could exist.
It is at times like this, that the Present becomes exquisitely real to me; and I live in it, most fully.
So, when next you visit a Flea Market, like Stormville, for instance. I hope that you will see it through different eyes, and be aware that while throngs of people casually mosey down the aisles, a great drama is inconspicuously taking place around them. Although, some folks are bored and tired, and trying to decide whether to have fried dough, sprinkled with powdered sugar, or, instead, a sausage sandwich, or looking for a place to sit, or some fairly decent used venetian blinds, and bedeviling dealers with tales of what their Grandmother had, there are Great Hunters in their midst, Lions, and Tigers and Bears, with Eyes as sharp as an eagle's, and feet, as fleet as any fox. Collectors and Dealers too, are on the prowl. And Great Adventures are unfolding all around you, in the Collector's Secret World.
Then, with one foot out the door, Riva looked back again and said, "By the Way, be prepared to speak for 10 to 15 minutes on your own." "OH NO!" With that in mind, I prepared, by thinking about collecting a lot, especially, during the past week. In fact, it was last Monday, on the way to get the snow tires changed, while rounding the corner at the Glenham post office that my very own "Theory of Collectivity" first popped into my head. It deals with role of collectors in the Universe, with particular emphasis on their relativity to the Time/Space continuum
About ten years ago, I participated in a panel discussion on the subject of collecting. Although, I think about Collecting all the time, I had never actually discussed it before. So, I must admit I was intrigued. Then the organizer of the event informed me that I would be required to speak for ten to fifteen minutes, on my own. Oh, NO!
Agonizing over this unexpected turn of events, I sat down at my newly acquired computer, and one finger at a time, Wrote for the First Time. All my life I have been crippled by an inability to spell. I tried to disguise that fact by developing handwriting so illegible that nobody could tell. I could barely read it myself.
Important documents, even book reports, my final year of college, were dictated to my wife, who scribed them out in her flamboyant, and highly feminine, Victorian English handwriting that, to my embarrassment, everybody thought was mine. All the product and catalogue copy I wrote, over the years, for Colorforms had been dictated over the phone to a secretary in New Jersey. The stories I later wrote as a toy inventor were dictated to my partner, Andy, who is blessed with perfect spelling and grammar. By the way, you may have noticed, I donít know how to punctuate either.
Thus, like a man who had been in shackles all his life, suddenly, set free by the miracle of Spell-Check, I saw words slowly walk across the printed page for the first time. I, not only, wrote the speech below, but followed it with notes to myself to cover a number of anticipated questions. Giddy with this new found ability to write, I got carried away, and the notes turned into several little essays, related to collecting. Starting with the speech, itself. Iíll share them with you now.