To Have and to Hold


to have and to holdAn Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting

Overlook TP, 2004
ISBN-10 158567561X
ISBN-13 978 1585675616
Paperback, 345 pages

From amassing sacred relics to collecting celebrity memorabilia, the impulse to hoard has gripped humankind throughout the centuries. But what is it that drives people to possess objects that have no conceivable use? To Have and To Hold is a captivating tour of collectors and their treasures from medieval times to the present, from a cabinet containing unicorn horns and a Tsar’s collection of teeth to the macabre art of embalmer Dr. Frederick Ruysch, the fabled castle of William Randolph Hearst, and the truly preoccupied men who stockpile food wrappers and plastic cups. Blom’s gripping narration and bizarre cast of eccentrics, visionaries, and fanatics provide a fascinating glimpse into how a pastime becomes an all consuming passion and an engrossing story of the collector as bridegroom, deliriously, obsessively happy, wed to his possessions, till death do us part.



(A) densely written, wry history (…..) Blom’s formidable research is an example of the collector’s art in itself.”

A beautifully written, fascinating, amusing, astonishing account, which illuminates the strangeness of the human mind and the wonder of the world

Blom’s literary cabinet is full of pungent biographies, as astonishing as the dragons and unicorn horns themselves.

The mania of collecting, a pastime usually reserved for the most wealthy of individuals, has a long history, says German-born journalist Blom. For many collectors, “money is no object, and objects are everything.” Blom begins his formal, idiosyncratic chronicle in the 16th century, when the Renaissance-fueled explosion of scientific inquiry led to a boom in what the Dutch referred to as cabinets of curiosities. Typically stocked with small antiques and remains of strange animals and men (fake and real), they were popular among the rich and bourgeois across Europe through the next few centuries. Blom follows the tradition into the dark castles of crazed aristocrats and obsessed collectors (such as the 18th-century German doctor who had a collection of skulls taken from the local gallows and asylum) who thought to compile small, neurotically labeled and catalogued worlds, which countered the chaotic one outside their walls. Although Blom’s book sticks mainly to highbrow collecting-e.g., old master drawings, snuffboxes, architectural models, human skulls, books-and does not come to any conclusions on what drives people to collect, it is an admirable attempt to chart the history of an obsession. 53 b&w illus. and photos.

Taking as its inspiration Walter Benjamin’s dictum that a collector’s passion borders on “the chaos of memory,” this curiously moving history argues that collecting is driven by the desire to control that chaos. Blom traces the development of collections since the Renaissance through lively portraits of famous collectors, like the Englishman Sir Thomas Phillips, who believed that he was meant to own one copy of every book in the world; the Austrian Franz Joseph Gall, who lined his walls with row upon row of skulls; and the American Alex Shear, who has amassed more than a hundred thousand relics of nineteen-fifties America. Blom shows that there is no limit to what can be collected, or to the intensity of the pursuit. Ultimately, he suggests, “the shadow looming over every cabinet” is a kind of willful, if unacknowledged, futility. To collect is to freeze the world in its tracks and hold it still. But if this succeeded what would be left to collect?

It does take one to known one. Journalist Blom waxes lyrical about the art and craft of collecting–and the results of collectors’ labors. His own interest started with his grandfather’s “The Yellow Finch” shop in Amsterdam, and here he relates stories of some of the oddest hobbies-of-passion known to history. Prince Rudolf of Habsburg, later Holy Roman Emperor, amassed amazing things of nature-a musk pouch, Seychelles nut, a bezoar (a poison antidote), among other “miracles,” housed in a huge rococo chest. Czar Peter the Great was obsessed with dwarfs and freaks, so much so that he bought the entire collection of a Dutch doctor and moved it to St. Petersburg. Then, the business moguls, including J. Pierpont Morgan and William Randolph Hearst, had their arts and oddities, too. Throughout these well-documented stories, Blom probes the heart and soul of collecting’s appeal, whether it be for the beauty of the superficial (a book’s hand-wrought leather binding, for example) or the beauty of the content inside. An intellectual journey worth taking.
Barbara Jacobs, BOOKLIST 

Blom peppers his historical account with well-chosen stories …To Have and To Hold is an impressive, wide-ranging book.
Christopher Tayler, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

Provocative, stimulating and entertaining … Huge questions are thrown up…on every page of the book, but it is also full of jokes, unusual and very welcome in a work of such impressive scholarship and elegance of style…a sparkling, discursive, and eclectic book.


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