The Thin Grey Line: Collecting vs Hoarding

March 8, 2016 - Michele Woodburn

Greetings Royal Friends and Followers,

When does “Collecting” become “Hoarding”? This really is the thin grey line isn’t it? It isn’t a new subject either, but it’s worth revisiting from time to time. Many of us who are collectors call ourselves hoarders, but in reality aren’t. To complicate matters, many of us who are collectors share some habits and behaviors with hoarders. So, collecting vs hoarding, when do you realize you have crossed the line?

People in general seem to be relatively predisposed to acquire. Edward O. Wilson, in his book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices, lists four drives that determine our choices. First on the list is the drive to acquire. It is followed by the drives to bond, learn and defend. Most of us start by acquiring items that we need, then items to make our lives more comfortable or attractive. Then we may begin to acquire items that have been in our families for more than one generation. Or we may acquire items in multiples just because we like them. Now, are we collectors, or hoarders?

Super Collector Stan Dybus Jr.

Some collectors become very focused on a single type of collection and develop extensive knowledge and numbers in that one area. We have never been able to focus that completely. In the Royal Household, we jokingly refer to ourselves as collectors of collections because we have so many collections. Our collections fill our little castle, and in the course of our business, we have encountered many people just like us. We fill our homes up with “things”! Suddenly, when faced with a move, a need to downsize or the death of a loved one, we have to deal with    a l l      t h a t       STUFF!

It becomes overwhelming. I have often heard family members refer to the loved one who has passed as a hoarder. Usually the reality is that they had acquired a lifetime of stuff. We belong to a consumer society, and we all seem to have too much stuff! Sometimes the reality is not far from the mark. We have handled true hoarder estates though, and there are some notable differences. This whole topic rose to my attention again following a Facebook post by a local fire department on the topic of safety related to hoarding. So climb on board folks, we’re going to talk about that thin grey line.

The Queens books

First, to define hoarding, I found a good definition through the Mayo Clinic. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) actually has a whole separate section now on hoarding. This recognizes hoarding as a disorder, separate from anxiety disorders where it used to be classified, although still related. There is a very specific set of criteria which must be met to consider the situation as clinical, but some of the items on the list make it clear that collectors really do walk very close to the thin grey line. To very clearly demonstrate how thin, and how grey the line is, let’s take pieces of the definition and look at them. One of the biggest differences as I see it is that hoarders often don’t see their accumulating as a problem. Many of the collectors I know actually worry about how much they have accumulated. They worry that their family will need to deal with their accumulation, and that no one will want to. Or want IT! All possibly true. Certainly we are aware that the Royal Heir will not keep everything that we have collected.

Do you still find pleasure in your items? One of the differences between collectors and hoarders is that hoarders often can not explain why they are keeping things. They only know that the idea of parting with them creates anxiety or distress. The item may hold significance as a reminder of someone or some time that was important. Having an item with significant emotional attachment may occur as a starting point for a collector, or become an issue in parting with a collection, but if a collector stops taking pleasure or loses interest in the items they have collected, they usually will take steps to sell the items.

Collectors tend to keep items that they view as having some value, even if the value is not necessarily large. Most collectors, when offered a fair or higher price for an item will at least consider selling the item. A hoarder has difficulty parting with any item for any price or reason, and may view every item as having at least some future value. In fact, usually a true hoarder will limit access to their dwelling, largely because at some level, they recognize that other people consider their need to acquire and keep things to be abnormal. They, on the other hand find comfort in being surrounded by their things, even if they don’t seem to make sense to others. A hoarder may hold on to stacks of newspapers, junk mail, old coupons, food wrappers and other items that most people would consider trash.

The line grows thinner and greyer when you are dealing with someone who collects items such as bottle caps, beer deckles, matchbooks, newspapers, hat boxes, book marks, store packaging, and other ephemera. By definition, ephemera are items designed for brief lives, then meant to be disposed of. A family member who does not share the love of bottle caps may then view the collection as garbage, leading to tension and concerns of “hoarding”. Usually, a collector will seek a way to organize and display a collection, but in this busy world I am aware of a number of collectors who have whole collections in storage, waiting for that day when they have the time to organize and display the collection.

Many collectors are cautious about showing their collections to others or allowing others to handle items, especially if the items are very valuable.  The more people are aware of a collection,or the more often it is handled, the more opportunity presents for possible loss of some kind, so caution may be wise. A hoarder may be very distressed by someone else touching or asking to borrow their items. Everything occurs in a range of behaviors, and here the difference may be the degree of distress incurred. For example, I may not be comfortable loaning someone else a first edition Huckleberry Finn, but that paperback version I wrote notes in the margins might be just fine to loan out. A true hoarder may not be able to make that distinction.

The most significant difference, and the one really least open to interpretation, is when the acquisition of items literally takes over the space. Many collectors will collect in sufficient quantities that the collection really is too large for the space, but a hoarder will not only overwhelm the space, but may put their safety at risk. When a space can no longer be used for it’s intended purpose there may be a real problem. I’m not talking about the pile that temporarily buries the desk or the dining room table, I’m referring to so much stuff that it fills the tub for example, or makes it impossible to sleep in the bed anymore. In the worst cases, people have made narrow pathways or tunnels through the items, thus becoming at risk for injury or worse. Those are rare cases, but we see enough on television with popular shows like Hoarding:Buried Alive or Hoarders to worry when we start to feel crowded. If the decision to part with items causes considerable distress, or you find yourself frequently unable to find items you are looking for, you may wish to ask for help. Most of us are not to that point though, we’re often just very hard on ourselves.

Ultimately, most of us who collect may be aware that we could carry things too far. It’s difficult to walk by that one more (insert item of choice) for the collection, especially if it’s priced reasonably. But most collectors do reach the point of saying “enough”. We all know that collections made as investment are risky at best, (remember Beanie Babies?) and collecting for the sheer enjoyment of it is better, but what collector doesn’t dream of someday seeing the value of their collection just go through the roof? Then comes the big decision. Do I sell it, or hang on to it for awhile longer….?

What is your opinion? Is an extreme collector hoarding? Let us know in the comment section below. We’d love to keep the conversation going.

TaTa For Now, Her Sparkling Majesty, Michele


Thank you to the following:

Beckett Media LLC, The American Psychiatric Association, The Learning Channel, Arts and Entertainment TV, The National Fire Protection Association and Ty Toys.