THE BLOG

The Politics of Collecting

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET

I have a confession to make. I recently bid on a bronze bust of Lavrenti Beria on eBay. He was Joseph Stalin's last secret police chief. Alas, someone outbid me.

But at a Chelsea flea market in New York City last weekend I did purchase a World War I German military cigarette case.

Despite what you might think, I'm really not a communist-sympathizer. Nor a fan of the Kaiser. Just a collector. Collecting might be a form of mental illness, but it's not the same as endorsing mass murder.

I'm thinking a bit more about my collecting these days after the controversy that erupted over Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, who collects World War II German militaria. It is the most popular military genre, but Garlasco was attacked as a Nazi-sympathizer by people who don't like his analytical work critical of Israel.

Garlasco--whom I have never met--seems to have survived the kerfuffle, but the controversy demonstrated not only Washington's tendency toward the ad hominem but also a more general failure to understand collectors. Collectors collect. The doing often is as important as the what. Few collectors collect because they identify with the politics behind the items they are accumulating. In fact, many can't even explain why they like what they like.

I blame my collecting on genetics. In high school my Air Force father was stationed in Great Britain. I traveled with my parents all over the British isle hitting antique shops. Virtually all of my limited income went into my collections. I mostly bought antique bladed weapons. But there were a few chess sets, some old guns, a World War I trench periscope, a couple of African clubs and shields, and even a cuff band for a foreign Waffen SS unit. Don't worry, however--I never wore the latter.

Back in the U.S. I merely dabbled, watching the want ads for chess sets and picking up occasional sets while playing tourist abroad. But then I met someone whose outward appearance as a deputy fire chief hid a seriously demented collector within. He tended to cycle through collections and I met him when he was selling off chess sets. Since his girlfriend did not share his passion, unless the item somehow related to Michael Jordan, then playing for the Chicago Bulls, I started visiting flea markets and antique shops with him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The problem with "hitting the shops" was that it multiplied temptation. Until then I hadn't realized that I was an antiques addict without the slightest iota of self-control. In high school my funds were limited. Back in the U.S. I saw few collectibles through work or play. But now I was visiting antique shops with an adult income, ready credit, and no one at home to say nyet.

My interests slowly multiplied. There were chess sets. Most are non-controversial, but I do have a commie propaganda capitalists versus communists set. The capitalist queen is a representative of death with a cornucopia of gold. But really, I'm not a closet Red.

I've also gotten into eagles and hawks. That doesn't mean I have a brutal, atavistic core, however. I just like the way they look. I have a few icons. I appreciate the religious imagery, but I'm not Orthodox, despite what some people might think.

I also collect military art and propaganda. I don't have any Nazi posters, but I do own some communist Soviet and Chinese posters. I've been picking up a multitude of commie tchotchke, especially cheap plastic deskware with pictures of Lenin and Stalin, the hammer and cycle, Red Army symbols, images of war memorials, and more. Then there was the Beria bust.

Despite appearances, I really do not admire one of Stalin's chief henchman, a person responsible for the murder and imprisonment of millions of people. Rather, I'm fascinated with what amounts to a celebration of the banality of evil. A bust of this unprepossessing figure, bald head highlighted by pince-nez glasses, actually sat on someone's desk a half century ago (he was arrested and shot shortly after Stalin's death in 1953).

I have other politically incorrect collectibles. Some cigarette cases and smoking paraphernalia (even though I don't smoke) with Soviet political and military symbols; German beer steins decorated for Marxists before World War II; propaganda books by the Soviet and Nazi regimes; and German military stuff, mostly World War I.

For obvious reasons, Germany has, sadly, generated a wealth of military material. Garlasco was attacked for wearing a sweatshirt with an Iron Cross, the basic German military award which had nothing to do with Nazism--it was first awarded in 1813. Unfortunately, to collect German militaria from 1933 to 1945 likely means accumulating--different from "collecting"--items with Nazi imagery.

There was no more hideous movement than Nazism, which sought to eradicate an entire people. Nazi imagery understandably creates a very strong emotional reaction. But collecting items with Nazi images does not make one a Nazi-sympathizer, any more than collecting communist imagery suggests communist sympathies. Undoubtedly there are neo-Nazis who collect Third Reich material because they are neo-Nazis, but most collectors with Third Reich material detest that regime and everything it stood for.

Indeed, there is a curious disconnect between the way people react to Nazi and communist collectibles. I wouldn't buy Nazi curios like my communist acquisitions because the former would generate a hostile and uncomprehending reaction. Yet in principle, what is the difference between displaying a bust of Heinrich Himmler and one of Lavrenti Beria? Both were unfeeling human monsters who participated in mass murder. There is something uniquely horrific about attempted genocide, but there is no real moral difference between Nazism and communism.

Also unsettling to some people was the passion evidenced by a Garlasco internet comment: "That is so cool. The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!" I can't speak for Garlasco, but, again, for most collectors the passion is for collecting, not the political meaning behind the items being collected.

When I've gathered with fellow collectors talk always turns to our favorite acquisitions. Saying a prized item was "cool" is a very moderate reaction. I don't know if I've ever publicly admitted that my blood ran cold on seeing a particular item, but when I found a particularly nice London-made chess set some years ago--well, my blood ran cold.

A prominent Civil War historian friend once suggested that I visit so we could "fondle books" together. Trust me: no kinky sex was involved. Another friend lovingly cleans silver steins after he buys them. He then sends out before and after pictures of his new acquisitions. I can't say for sure that he likes collecting more than sex, but I have my suspicions.

And it's not unusual for crazy collectors to identify with their collections. Garlasco's license plate and web identity are Flak88--for the famed 88mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun used by his grandfather, who was conscripted into the air defense service. I do the same with "chessset"--for the chess sets which I collect. Weird, perhaps. Evidence of totalitarian tendencies, I don't think so.

Alas, it's apparently impossible to strip politics out of even the most innocent activities, like collecting. But for most collectors, there is no politics in their acquisitions. So if another bust of Lavrenti comes up again, I'll be back bidding. And not because I'm a com-symp.