Private Obsessions of a Remarkable Collector

Writer Paul Theroux has traveled the world by plane, train, horse, and foot. For his book North Star Africa, he went by canoe, "chicken bus," and cattle truck from Cairo to Cape Town. Along the way he amassed a lifetime of knowledge—and favorite things.

About four years ago I saw what I considered a masterpiece of its kind in the Chor Bazaar, the so-called Thieves' Market, in Bombay. It was a reverse-glass painting of an Indian nautch girl—dancing girl—caught in a sinuous move, intentionally teasing, probably done in the mid- or late 19th century, with Chinese characters in black brushstrokes on the wood-slatted back and set in a decaying frame. I wasn't sizing it up. I was teased, indeed falling in love. It was an old feeling.

The collector's instinct, which is also a powerful appetite, begins with a glimpse of something singular, and a smile of recognition, as though the collector has noticed what Auden once called "a soul-bewitching face." The collector has fallen hard, but the feeling cannot be openly expressed or the collector's urgency will be betrayed. Meanwhile, emotion takes hold as the collector lingers, fizzing with curiosity. From fascination to acquisitiveness, the feeling deepens, becomes tinged with a kind of benign lust, and next a sense of calculation, and finally a blatant greed for possession. The collector's catchphrase, like the lover's, is "I must have it." So much ambiguity seems almost dangerous in its seductiveness. Yes, it is a kind of passion.

Money is the least of collecting's motivators. With enough money you can own anything and you can pay people to find the stuff. Collecting isn't about paying money for something rare. The need to discover is the driving force, making collecting such a complex preoccupation, it is almost imponderable. To avoid being self-conscious, I have not deconstructed my own impulse much. I tell myself that I am not "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," as Autolycus says in The Winter's Tale, and I insist that my travel has been enriched by this enthusiasm.

Another crucial distinction: Collecting is not the same as shopping. It has a greater affinity with hunting or, as I suggested above, in the language of desire, with the trawling associated with seduction, resulting in a love affair. Collectors are not merely possessors; they are themselves possessed by the search and at last by the objects of their affection. What lover doesn't know this?

In all collecting, effort matters more than cash, and uniqueness lends beauty to an object. Intimate knowledge and stealth are part of the quest. Since connoisseurship cannot be taught, collecting involves intense self-education. You must know the history of what you own—Avoir sans savoir est insupportable, as the saying has it. I find in my nearest big library books on collecting beer cans of the world, bottles, coins, Chinese porcelain, modern first editions, movie posters, seashells, and much more. But for many of us, there are no handy manuals or guides. What has sustained me over the years is the thrill of the chase. Add travel to collecting and you have the sort of passion that can sustain half a lifetime of pleasurable searching.

That reverse-glass painting was probably done by a Chinese painter in Gujarat, I found out later. The process of painting on the back of a pane of glass an image to be viewed from the front was European in origin (a cheaper and quicker version of stained glass), but the style of this piece was Chinese, the subject secular and unusually sensual. In the 18th century, Europeans introduced this technique of painting to India, where it flourished. The Chinese had learned reverse-glass painting from early Jesuits in China at about the same time or earlier, and some itinerant Chinese artists eventually got to India, where they produced many of these secular paintings.

I bought this beautiful thing and I looked for more. It wasn't easy to find others, but I was delighted by the variety I encountered—religious, mythical, erotic—and the out-of-the-way places where I found them.

With each new painting I was possessed with a greater desire to know more about reverse-glass painting in India. Barbara Rossi's From the Ocean of Painting, a survey of India's popular paintings; Glass Paintings: An Ephemeral Art in India, by Samita Gupta; and a piece by Roy C. Craven Jr. in a 1983 Arts of Asia magazine were helpful. With the passing years I have found out enough so that I can identify the good ones, the range of subjects, the various styles, the regional differences—places as distant from each other as Tanjore in the south, Bengal in the east, Gujarat in the west—and many artistic sensibilities at work, as well as the hands of Chinese and Indians.

As all collectors discover eventually, the objects of their affection become scarcer and more expensive as time passes and their taste develops and their connoisseurship ripens. But whenever I go to India, I look for such paintings. What entrances me is that though these reverse-glass paintings are superb, they are not treasures in the classic sense but rather beloved objects from a household created by an individual hand, someone with enthusiasm and vision.

Not long ago I was researching another area of my collecting enthusiasm, African artifacts. Verifying a piece, I found quoted in a catalogue a wise observation by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote (in La Flamme d'une chandelle): "Whenever we live close to familiar everyday things, we begin once again to live slowly, thanks to their fellowship, and so yield to dreams which have a past, yet in which there is always something fresh and new. The objects we store away in our treasure chest of things, in our small personal museum of beloved things, are all of them talismans for our dreams."

Bachelard, a great explicator of reverie, of the precious space in houses and of old-fashioned handmade objects, like oil lamps and cupboards, is an ideal philosopher for the dreamier collector.

It is hard for me to separate collecting from travel, which seems to me an associated activity. Traveling collectors are people I recognize. One of the greatest pieces of Marquesan art (now in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts) is the wooden carving of a graceful human hand collected by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was sailing the Pacific in the 1880s, looking for a place to live. The traveler Sir Richard Burton filled his labyrinthine home in Trieste, Italy, with his collection of African and Middle Eastern artifacts. On his many visits to Haiti, Graham Greene—one of the least acquisitive of men, but a compulsive traveler—became enamored of 20th-century Haitian paintings and ended up with a superb collection, some of which he mentioned in his novel The Comedians.

These travelers were not merely treasure hunting in distant lands but rather giving a point and purpose to their journeys. This is salutary because travel at its most rewarding is a solitary quest. I also have periods of thinking that travel can seem one of the most annoying, self-indulgent, even futile ways of passing the time. But travel should be about looking deeper into the world at large, into oneself. It is obvious that the study of the material culture of a place reveals subtleties in the history of its people. I don't think it is a rationalization to say that collecting is a creative activity as well as a spur to wider, more sensitive travel and true discovery.

The collector's passion is something I have felt my whole life, though really I did not collect anything for a number of years, not even books. I was nomadic from the time I left college in 1963 until ten years later, when I settled down in London. I had lived in Italy, in Uganda, in Malawi, and in Singapore. In this decade of traveling light, I had wandered widely: into the Congo, to Nigeria, to Borneo, to India and Burma, all over Malaysia, throughout northern Sumatra and East Java, and to Bali. I coveted much of what I saw but bought nothing. I hardly owned anything at all, was virtually possessionless, until I was in my mid-thirties. Where would I have put it?

There was another reason. In those days in Africa, most of the desirable artifacts had spiritual power and were in frequent use. Not much was for sale. I recall in the mid-sixties witnessing a frenzied all-night dance of the Agnoni people, called the Nyau, or the image dance, in the Malawi bush, at a place on Lake Nyasa, in the village of Mua: drums, masks, bells, rattles, headdresses, and a symbolic image that was paraded in the firelight. Around that time, on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, the Sukuma people held dance competitions at which they displayed elaborately carved human-size figures with movable limbs, called mabinda. It did not occur to me to buy any of the masks or artifacts that were used in these ceremonies, and probably the dancers would not have parted with them.

After I bought a house, my life changed dramatically. For one thing, with a real home, a place to return to, I became a bolder traveler. And perhaps the collecting passion itself depends on surrounding oneself at home with objects of personal significance. For the first time I was able to collect the things I saw in my traveling.

I set out from this first house in the early autumn of 1973 to take the trip I wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. On that trip I became an actual collector rather than an ardent fancier and I began to understand the joy, and the psychopathology, of collecting. I was deeply melancholy on this almost five-month trip alone. I missed my family badly; my spirit needed soothing. I had time on my hands. In Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, the Kapali Carsi, I spent days comparing jewelry and samovars and carpets. I bought some Seljuk bracelets. I took the train to Iran and in the bazaar of the holy city of Meshed I found an ancient blue-glazed tile. Going overland, I continued into Afghanistan, where had I wished I could have swapped my gold Omega watch for a crate of tribal rifles, with mother-of-pearl inlay in the stocks. I bought some small Mogul miniatures in Pakistan, some Rajasthani pichavais (temple paintings) in India, a dagger in Sri Lanka, a watercolor in Calcutta, a Buddha in Vietnam, and more. The larger items I sent home, the smaller ones I kept with me to Japan and on the homeward leg on the Trans-Siberian Express. In those days, a traveler with a glittering dagger in his bag was not viewed as a threat.

The Rajasthani pichavai, I learned, was from the temple at Nathadwara, an image of young Krishna, Shri Nathji. I found some of these in London, and the next time I went to India I searched specifically for more of them. Highly colored, beautifully painted, some of them quite large, they seem to me the epitome of the art of veneration—piety and skill given expression on a piece of cotton cloth. Thirty years later I am still fascinated.

In the late seventies, on the Old Patagonian Express trip from Boston to Esquel in Argentina, I discovered Spanish colonial paintings of biblical scenes, of Christ, of patron saints watching over South American cities. I could not afford expensive ones, but I found slightly damaged paintings, beautiful but needing a little restoration. I studied the subjects, the periods, the restoration techniques. When I was traveling in Ecuador, researching my novel Blinding Light, I found more of these colonial paintings and by then could distinguish between an original, a good copy, and a brazen fake.

I had first gone to China in 1980, a time when there were impromptu flea markets in many rural towns and villages. I found a large lacquer fish, a teapot, a scroll, a cricket cage, a jade bowl, some gilded lions that had been casualties of the Cultural Revolution. Back home, I researched the objects. The cricket cage, a smooth pumpkin-colored gourd with a minutely carved ivory top, interested me most. On subsequent trips to China and Hong Kong I looked for cricket cages, for cricket paraphernalia—food dishes, ticklers, fighting arenas, containers for catching crickets—and I educated myself to the point where by the time I set off to write Riding the Iron Rooster, that trip could have been subtitled "in search of cricket art," though I did not mention it in the book.

One of the paradoxes of traveling in the Pacific, as I did in the late eighties and early nineties for The Happy Isles of Oceania, is the discovery that not much of the traditional material culture still exists. There were exceptions, but on most islands where there had been wood and clay and thatch, missionaries and traders had introduced plastic bowls and tin pots, aluminum boats and canvas shelters and corrugated-iron roofs. If you want an authentic Hawaiian calabash or poi bowl or dogtooth-leg rattle, you will need to go to a dealer or an auction in Europe or New York. I have never seen any Hawaiian piece I desired for sale in Hawaii, though I have seen many in Paris and Amsterdam.

In quest of The Happy Isles, I found that canoe art still existed in some places, notably the wilder shores of New Guinea; on the Trobriand Islands and Palau, the outlying islands of the Solomons; and in Vanuatu. The people there are still making and decorating canoes in the old way. The epitome of canoe art is found in the splashboard and the prow of a Trobriand voyaging canoe, in the cleverly made and decorated scoops used for bailing the canoe, and in the varieties of paddle. On many islands the people are still firing pots or carving slit drums or making masks and war clubs. I picked up many of these objects, and I saw in some islands the remnants of an older culture, in particular the war clubs.

Collecting and studying Pacific war clubs has occupied me for the past ten years. Every island has its own form of club, with a specific purpose in battle, out of wood or whalebone. In Hawaii and Kiribati sharks' teeth were fixed to clubs, and the Maori fashioned clubs from pounamu, or greenstone. The Fijians created the greatest variety of clubs, and the successful warrior often inserted the teeth of his victim in the club head to give it greater power. Many Pacific clubs are works of art, and not battle-scarred at all, leading me to believe that they served the same purpose as ceremonial swords did in Europe—an intimidating object to swagger with. Many old prints engraved by European navigators show Pacific Islanders engaged in head-bashing, but quite a few depict men holding a gracefully carved club as a symbol of authority.

With the passing years, the traditional culture of Africa has given way to modernity, to Christian or Islamic conversion or to the dazzle of electronics. And by degrees African artifacts of all sorts have become available, even the masks from the Nyau dance and the marionettes from the Sukuma people that I coveted in the sixties. Of course there are dealers in the great cities of the world, but it is still possible to find pieces in Africa. And some of the simplest are the most evocative. I own a Baga snake sculpture and some Chokwe helmet-masks, Yoruba ibejis, and Lunda walking sticks, but I have come to see the beauty in a stool, a bowl, a comb, something that had been carefully made and used often in a village, the old, worn, everyday things that Bachelard spoke of. Such a masterpiece of simplicity and grace is the African tree trunk smoothed and shaped by the Dogon people into a ladder, used to gain access to an upper-story granary.

Any scrupulous examination of our pleasures, even our aesthetic pleasures, and especially collecting, will probably reveal deep down a twisted pathological condition. And it is impossible to be a collector and not to be overwhelmed by such an accumulation of worldly goods. As a collector I am always battling self-consciousness and trying to avoid the bigger questions raised by this happy obsession. I am given heart by Bachelard. In his telling phrase, justifying all the travel and effort of collecting, one could not do better than his identifying these objects as talismans for our dreams.