Why We Collect

MARCH 16, 2016
Shirley Mueller, MD
There are many reasons collectors, whether wealthy or not, collect. But there is one common underlying motivation for all—pleasure.
Giacometti Sculpture 
A sculpture by Giacometti though not the one Cohen purchased.
Last year, Steven Cohen, the legendary hedge fund manager, purchased a Giacometti sculpture for $101 million. Whether he did this for love or money is not clear. On one hand, Cohen may have adored the piece. On the other, he might have thought he was getting a bargain as he was the only bidder and thereby he anticipated he could re-sell it later for a profit.

Either way, his purchase makes a point. Super-wealthy people, like others, buy art. Some use it to adorn their homes and make them and their families happy; others have an eye to a future re-sale.

Whatever the case, immediate happiness prevails. This is because the anticipation of buying special pieces fuels the primitive pleasure center in the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Whether it is a Giacometti sculpture, a Ming (1368–1644) Chinese porcelain, an old master painting, a rare stamp, or an unusual fluorescent rock, the nucleus accumbens is sparked on fire when anticipating its purchase.
And, that is why collectors collect. Unless, of course, there are inhibiting factors that throw a wet blanket on the fire. For example, if the price is too high, the primitive insula is activated and feeds back to the nucleus accumbens, squelching its vigor. The sale may be disrupted. This same process can also happen with the primitive fear center, the amygdala. If it is stimulated should the buyer feel she is being deceived, its activity counteracts that of the nucleus accumbens. Again, a purchase may not be made.

 Giacometti Sculpture
The Limbic System, which is part of the primitive brain, is shown above in red. It is composed of the nucleus accumbens, the insula, and the amygdala, among other components. These structures lie deep within the brain. Their basic urges are modulated by the posterior medial frontal cortex in the modern brain located anteriorly on its surface.
It is the modern posterior medial cortex on the surface of the brain that modulates these competing factors and others. Depending on the strength of these factors, an object is purchased or not.
Since Steven Cohen has few price constrains (his personal net worth is in the billions), his insula may be quiet much of the time when he buys an object. This could apply to his amygdala as well because he has comparatively less to lose than the rest of us if he makes a mistake. Still, all those who collect, including Steven Cohen, do it for the same reason. It gives them pleasure.*
*Other secondary motivators include pride, “bragging rights,” a sense of history and creating a legacy, as well as intellectual stimulation, social rewards, and crafting a sense of order.
The Fine Line between Collecting and Hoarding
Why People Buy What They Know They Won't Use
Valuable Collectibles Need Special Insurance
Art and Lots of Money: What to know
Freeze Lifted on SEC Case against Hedge Fund Billionaire Steven Cohen


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