Secret Backroom Art Collectors’ Club
One of the beautiful, and most frustrating, things about collecting anything, be it stamps, postcards, books or whatever, is that the possibilities seem to be endless. New works are published practically every single day, certainly when it comes to such valuable items as books, and the chances of ever having a complete collection are remote to say the least. That is, unless production stops, for some reason, and a collector knows exactly how many examples of a certain work are available, where they are, and the chances of getting hold of them. Postcards and stamps, your own personal field of interest, do not have any limits unless you specialise. By specialise, I do not mean that you necessarily limit yourself to one country or to a particular postcard publisher, but this is often the best way o get ahead, and also the best way to gain a complete set, the ultimate collection within your chosen field.
The problem, though, is that stamps tend to be issued by countries, and they do not come to an end all that often, and postcards are views which will always be reprinted as more tourists arrive to take in the scenery, and share their experiences with those at home. You can, of course, specialise in a specific year for both stamps and postcards or, in the case of the later, a printer, publisher or photographer which makes the search for new examples more exciting as time goes on. Or you can try to find a country which no longer exists, but which did, once upon a time, issue stamps. And there, as if by magic, we find that the German Democratic Republic, founded after the Second World War and operative right through to the first days of the Nineties, fits the bill perfectly. So, my small gift to you with this letter is a very limited selection of stamps from East Germany, complete with franking marks from the towns and areas represented. Not that I am suggesting you should concentrate your collection on this one small area of philately, quite the contrary, but a few of these works from somewhere that is no longer there might, just might, add a little interest. Personally I would never be so bold as to suggest someone collect in a specific direction, or do anything which does not really appeal to them as a collector just to satisfy the whims or ideas of someone else and, since I do not know where your own interests are headed, we can take it that my gift is perhaps of interest, and when not that it will be passed on to someone who might find it so. I mean, for all I know your interest might be confined to stamps which have an image of butterflies on them, it wouldn’t be unknown!
For a few years, when I first arrived in Germany as a civilian – which means after I had already been living here for about a decade – I collected postcards of the town I now live in. I had discovered that very few people had any interest in the history of the town, which is very rich and stretches back more than the eight hundred and fifty years admitted to. I found a bought five of the six original lithographic postcards published at the end of the nineteenth century – in about 1880 or so – and then began working my way up through the years until two things happened: the price of postcards suddenly shot up through the roof; I discovered not only something more interesting, but also slightly easier to handle.
Postcards, when I began collecting, were being sold off for sums well down in single figures, and it was possible to find even the oldest ones at a very good price – the advantages of the early auction platforms on the internet. Then, all of a sudden, someone must have discovered that there are people who are more than serious about collecting, and have some serious money behind them. Postcards I had bought a year earlier were suddenly on offer for twenty to forty times the price I had paid. I suddenly felt as if I’d stumbled into a secret backroom art collectors’ club, where prices are pushed ever upwards to give an artist a name, regardless of whether the works are worth a tenth of the price they are being offered at. The good thing about the whole story is that I had managed to collect most of the worthwhile postcards from this area, about one hundred and fifty different motives, so it made little difference on that side. I had wanted to work out into other areas, but that evaporated like dew in the morning sun as the prices shot up, and I moved on to photography.
And, since I have already mentioned it, art. Not the type of art you are going to find in a snobbish gallery with security men guarding the doors, but art from ordinary people, from students, and from those who have long since disappeared from this earth and whose names will never light up the eyes of a dealer. Flea markets, surprisingly enough, provide a massive source of excellent works of art if you happen to be interested in old prints which, luckily, I am. Now and then an original work will appear, where someone has died and the family cannot be bothered to do anything more than set their possessions out on the side of the street for the garbage collector, and where a sharp-eyed flea market worker happens by and sees a few pennies profit. To be honest, this is something I have always done, from my time in London in the Seventies right through until today. The only drawback has always been that I travel, and it is sometimes impossible to take everything with you just for a few months, or when you’ve no idea where you might end up at any given moment in time. I have perhaps three or four works I bought back in the Seventies which I treasure, and a beautiful Chinese silk embroidery which I gave my father as a birthday present many years ago – in the early Eighties .- and the rest has gone its way over time, and I have begun collecting, then stopped, then begun again. Life takes us along so many roads, but that is no reason why we shouldn’t collect memories – physical and otherwise – along the way, even when we know the chances of keeping them are slim.
Oh, I don’t mean the normal family and friends type of photographs which everyone – except me – seems to take, but those where someone has to update their status with a new image every ten minutes or so, and there is nothing else to be seen but their smiling visage. There is a certain degree of narcissism involved, when we have a need to constantly photograph ourselves and then share it for the entire world to see. And when someone tells me they do it for their family and friends, I begin to wonder why they don’t simply visit with them go and show them the real thing, rather than rely on a piece of modern technology to do all the social conversation, the intercourse. There is a big difference between someone showing a new outfit – especially if they happen to be a fashion blogger – to those who they rarely see, and it is good to keep memories of things we have done – Narnia included -. But a new photograph every few minutes? That’s the way it seems to me and, believe it or not, I have come across people, teenage women, who admit to taking and uploading one or two hundred photographs of themselves over a very short period of time. Is there nothing else in their lives but photographs of their own faces? I consider popularity to be something completely different to the number of Followers a person has on Twitter, Instagram of Facebook who, as we all know, rarely show any real interest in the people who are following them unless they know them personally. Most people, I can tell you from my own experiences on Twitter, are interested in numbers, in ratings, and measure the level of their popularity not by how many posts are read or forwarded to other people, a number which is incredibly small, but by the number of people who are following them. And when these people do not even bother reading what has been written? A person who has followed tens of thousands of people, even hundreds of thousands, how can they possibly read what those people have written? What is the point if there is no interaction? That isn’t friendship or anything like it, it is merely playing with numbers and these, I am afraid, do not, for me, show any level of popularity.
No, you are right, not everyone can afford to travel. Taken as a percentage of world population , I would hazard a guess at travellers being very much in the minority, even including those who are forced to travel by circumstances beyond their control, by wars and illnesses, famine and other political events. I had the advantage of being able to travel very cheaply, not having too many demands on life but something to eat now and then, and a reasonably dry place to sleep. And then I was also helped by my military service, which brought me to many countries around the world and left me with a good deal of free time to explore. In my youth I was happy enough walking through whichever country I happened to end up in, with a rucksack on my back and sturdy shoes on my feet. Travelling is, of course, not for everyone anyway, there are many people more than happy within their own four walls, or in their village or town, who do not need the excitement of travel. Many who are also happy to hear the tales of those who do venture out, but feel no pull to follow when hearing their stories. And I have seen and lived with those who are on the verge, who do not always know where their next meal is coming from, who exist on a hope and a prayer. I wish that more people, here in the West, experienced such a life, just to wake them up from the stupor of a society where everything is provided for them, where they have a safety net to fall back on.
Now, in old age, I do a lot of my travelling through the words of others, and mainly through journeys which took place years if not centuries ago. My reading interests tend to be along the lines of philosophy, history and literature with a foray, now and then, into crime fiction when I feel the need to release my mind from deep and dark thoughts. I am just finishing A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, with its intense plunges into the lives and thoughts of a small group of men in America, and will then be turning my mind to The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan and then, if nothing comes along to divert my attention, I shall wander through the mind of Simone de Beauvoir and her work L’Invitée, which was published in the Forties, and which I have in German. I enjoyed her novel Les Mandarin enough to search out a few other titles from her pen and, of course, the connection to Sartre and the Existentialists in Paris has always interested me.
Not that I would wish to have lived in those times, around the war years, and I have not even visited the café where they spent much time discussing or writing, or just smoking and drinking. It’s enough to be able to live in the present and explore the past through the eyes of those who were there, as much as explore the future – as you perhaps do – through the imaginations of those who create new worlds, or adapt what we have into something new. Sometimes we can travel by simply letting ourselves follow the words of someone else, by cutting ourselves off from the surrounding world as we know it, and allowing our mind to be transported away.
As to the ‘brain candy’ I enjoy, crime novels take a person away from the stress and problems of their everyday lives just as easily as a simple romance or a fantasy novel can. I have been reasonably lucky of late in finding a collection of German-language crime novels, from the late Fifties and Sixties, which I read as a teenager in English, but could not keep, and which someone has decided to leave out in a street library for anyone with an interest. Many of the books – there are about one hundred and fifty of them so far – are in prime condition, so that I almost feel as if they have been sitting on a shelf for the last sixty years, and have never been read, let alone opened. Many of the authors are best sellers from the Forties and Fifties who, with the passage of time have been forgotten, but who chilled and thrilled me as a youngster. Admittedly, the writing from those days is completely different to that of today, as are the crimes and detectives, but it makes a pleasant change to read the contemporaries and peers of Agatha Christie rather than struggle through a long and complicated tale where there is more emphasis on the alcohol-related problems of a recently divorced cop three days before his pension than the crime itself.
And I must admit, it is wonderful – for me – to be able to get hold of such books, rather than paying for them through an antiquarian or searching hopelessly through the flea markets for a decent copy, and being able to save my few pennies for other titles and, occasionally, since the world is hardly a fair place to live in, food. Sometimes, I must admit, my hobbies and other desires get the better of me, and I also need to count out my small change and see what can be afforded, what has to be pushed back until the following month.