The Right Stuff: The Surprising Compatibility of Collecting and Minimalism
It may seem incongruous to encounter an appraiser writing about the benefits of a minimalist mindset, but that’s exactly what this article is. The following thoughts and observations are my personal opinions gleaned from years of client interactions and close study of the interrelationship between people and their personal possessions.
This is a topic I’ve been mulling and writing about for a long time, with the goal of using my unique perspective gleaned by virtue of my professional role to help provide a vision of an alternate way of doing things to people who may be searching for one. As we approach Black Friday and the holiday shopping season, once again I hear the influx of consumer pressure encouraging people to go even further down the material rabbit hole — deeper into debt, deeper into clutter, deeper into an expectation to participate in a social custom that is increasingly unrecognizable from the context of its original cultural significance.
Which brings me to minimalism. I completely understand why minimalism has become so popular in our culture. It may sound sacrilegious for an appraiser to say this. Doesn’t my business depend on appraising peoples’ things, you ask? How can I advocate for them having fewer things? The longer I’ve worked one-on-one with clients and had the opportunity to learn about how their relationship to their objects has impacted their lives, the more firmly I believe it’s not about the amount of stuff you have but instead (my apologies to the ghost of Tom Wolfe) about having the right stuff. In my eyes, the cultural trend of minimalism is an attempt to redefine the relationship between humans and their things and establish a healthier dynamic. Minimalism isn’t about not having any things, it’s about having the right things that bring you joy and increase the quality of your life.
And yet the art and antique world in general still relies on a “more is more” philosophy — the somewhat frantic assumption that more purchasing of more objects will somehow keep the field afloat and full of lucrative opportunities for the appraisers, galleries, auction houses, and dealers who populate it. Instead, I’ve noticed the opposite phenomenon. The more weighed down we become with material goods, the more we dilute our ability to appreciate and enjoy them.
Possessions lose their importance to us and emotional significance when we are awash in them. Appreciated objects are maintained through regularly updated insurance appraisal reports, professional cleaning, and collection management. Speaking from a purely business perspective, there are far more opportunities for an appraiser or fine arts professional with a client’s small, cherished collection of finely-honed objects collected over many years with care and love, than with the residential contents of a shopaholic who has run out of room to stash more items. Just think about how often in our culture we read someone’s proud declaration “I walked into [insert big-box store of choice] and walked out $100 later with a shopping cart full of things I didn’t know I needed.” These cartloads of cheap manufactured goods are the empty calories of our material food pyramid – just as our nutrition has become overly processed and unfilling, leaving us soon hungry for more, our material world of objects has followed the same trajectory. We are stuffed, yet we remain unsatisfied.
The clients who’ve built a beloved collection of artifacts are the ones I most enjoy working with. Each item has a story and was selected with care, and the clients are happy to invest in maintaining and protecting their possessions with an insurance appraisal report because it already holds significant value for them emotionally.
Some of my saddest projects have been estates where children are left struggling to deal with thousands of objects, many of them having little monetary value but still taking up significant time and emotional energy for the remaining loved ones to try to liquidate. Even more tragic is when the amassing of these estates was accomplished at the expense of time and attention taken away from the heirs during their life. I notice that frequently there is an expectation that those collectibles need to be worth a lot of money to offset the time and attention they diverted away from the family relationships and the very expensive “trophy” objects featured on reality shows reinforce this attitude. I really hate having to be the one who has to break the news to a grieving son or daughter that the crammed houseful of collectibles that consumed a parent’s attention for years really isn’t worth much now from a market perspective. It makes the sting of those lost personal interactions all the more painful.
In our current culture, monetary worth has become synonymous with value in general, and I’ve found this brings about a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering and leads people to make choices about how they spend their time and resources in ways that don’t really serve them. It can also be paralyzing for surviving loved ones to tackle the process of clearing out an estate because of the fear that everything might potentially be valuable and the sense of expectation that they need to obtain top dollar for everything in a sale to do right by the loved one’s memory. These internalized cultural expectations cause so much unneeded stress, and what I most regret is the lost time people have in life because their attention is focused on their objects rather than on their relationships with their loved ones.
I think it’s also important to remember that humans have never had as many personal possessions in our entire history as a species as we do in the 21st century. As part of my academic training, I had the opportunity to read the estate inventories of many 17th, 18th, and 19th century individuals. The contrast in the overall quantity of items as compared to our modern-day possessions was shocking. The complete listing of all the worldly goods of one of the richest men in an 18th century city may have only totaled two or three pages. Take a look around the room you are currently sitting in and start making a mental list of every object you see… It’s going to be quite a long list, isn’t it? I believe there is an argument to be made that the human brain isn’t even evolved to function well having to keep track of thousands of objects. We’ve never lived this way in all of human history before the consumer revolution of the mid-20th century, and there is no reason why we would be designed to thrive in these new conditions. Minimalism is not something new, it’s simply a reaction back towards how we have always been.
Objects are energy. They take up our energy to amass and maintain and they emit their own energy that impacts our quality of life. Have you ever had a gift from someone you didn’t like that made you feel uneasy every time you looked at it, until it eventually found a permanent home stuffed away in the back of a closet? Imagine the impact of living in a house chock full of that. Minimalism is so popular because it directs our relationship with our objects back into a more balanced dynamic. The interrelated downsizing and tiny house trends that have sprung up in the last few years also hinge on this exploration—an urge to seek out and rediscover what is truly important.
I’m writing this to say there is a different way. You don’t have to participate in the prevailing cultural approach to objects. I’ve read nearly all of the major books in the minimalist movement and I feel compelled to say that there isn’t a particular one I completely identify with. I am a lover of beauty, of good design, of the uplifting creativity that comes from living among exquisitely appreciated things. I think too often minimalism is popularly defined as “if you just get rid of all of your things, suddenly your life will be wonderful.” I know how unrealistic that is. Yes, it is hypothetically possible that good things may happen in your life if you get rid of all your possessions, but then you’ll also be sitting on the floor in the dark.
For me, minimalism is about identifying the right stuff and forging a new path for yourself. When you focus in on what you really love and enjoy, that allows you to better appreciate those cherished items and also frees up time and energy for you as you no longer have to maintain the things you don’t enjoy. Minimalism as I define it is about having really great things you love, perhaps in smaller quantities. I’ve long found it fascinating that the minimalist pioneer Joshua Fields Milburn, co-founder of The Minimalists, has a gorgeous collection of modern furniture. He has only a few things but they are really great things—what for him, personally, is his “right stuff.” Your own “right stuff” will be as unique as you are, and the process of identifying what that is can help you discover new insights about yourself.
In closing, I want to reiterate that I don’t intend this to be a lecture chastising you to not buy things. I have no business telling people what choices they should make, and as much as I respect the philosophy behind the “Buy Nothing Day” and “Opt Outside” Black Friday protests, I am also cognizant of the immense privilege inherent in those attitudes. Not everyone has the economic opportunity to make the choice to not utilize access to sale prices on Black Friday for their financial health. I issue no judgment in this matter. All I suggest is that as you move through your material world and encounter choices about what you might add to it, remember to consider what will truly serve you and explore identifying what is your own “right stuff.” In doing so, you will also be able to experience the joys of collecting with a minimalist philosophy, sharing your daily life with possessions that are cherished and continually provide beauty and inspiration.
Sarah Reeder, ISA CAPP, AAA AM is Co-Editor of Worthwhile Magazine and owner of Artifactual History® Appraisal. Sarah can be reached at her firm at https://www.artifactualhistory.com/