WHAT MOTIVATES the passionate collector? Experts say it may be a kind of soul-sickness that springs from loss -- at least that was the suggestion of the panel that convened recently at the Walters Art Gallery to consider the topic "Art Collectors, Forgers and Thieves: What Makes Them Tick?"
It was a fascinating discussion made more resonant by the thousands of rare and beautiful objects that shared space with the assembly among the building's grand spaces.
One of the panelists was a Walters administrator, another an FBI agent specializing in recovering stolen art.The other two were mental-health professionals, who offered case histories to illustrate their contention that collecting, forging and stealing art works are related, in that all three are forms of compulsive behavior aimed at compensating for past loss or trauma. The panelists acknowledged that people collect art for many reasons. But all agreed that the serious collector almost always is motivated by powerful unconscious drives as well as by conscious desires.
People may say, for example, that they collect beautiful things because they admire the artist or because the objects make them feel good. Yet unconsciously, the acquisitions also satisfy more basic needs -- a craving for approval, a need to repair some childhood loss or trauma, an outlet for competitive impulses and the lust for power and control.
Given this psychoanalytic perspective -- and the setting -- it seemed odd that none of the panelists addressed the obvious question: how to explain the staggering enthusiasm of the museum's own namesakes -- railroad tycoon William Walters and his son, Henry -- whose careers as obsessive collectors, taken together over the span of three-quarters of a century, appear in retrospect as truly monumental archetypes?
The Walterses, between them, amassed a collection of more than 22,000 objects over a 70-year period of nearly continuous buying. William Walters (1819-1894) personally bought more than 3,000 items, including some 2,000 Chinese porcelains, between 300 and 400 oil paintings, and about 400 watercolors by European and American masters.
Walters' son Henry (1848-1931) vastly expanded his father's collection, often buying artworks literally in bulk. On a trip to Europe in 1902 he bought an entire collection of Renaissance paintings and Greek sculpture that was so large he had to charter a ship to bring it all back.
By the turn of the century Henry already had settled on the goal of creating a comprehensive collection of European, Asian and North American art that would represent every period from prehistoric times to the present. At his death, crates of artwork remained unopened in the gallery basement. It took curators more than three years to catalog all the pieces Henry bought. In the last decade of his life, he had spent $1 million a year on art.
We can only speculate about the biographical sources of these men's overriding passion. But it appears that both may have collected as a way of healing grievous loss.
Little is known of the elder Walters' early life aside from the fact that he was born into modest circumstance in Liverpool, Pa., left home at 18 to work in the coal mines there and eventually turned up in Baltimore some time during his early 20s. There he got involved first in the wholesale liquor business, then began investing in railroads. His fortune seems to have been substantially made by the mid-1850s.
Apparently he was a born collector. It was said that in 1841, "the first five dollars he earned was spent on a picture," and that "part of the first's years' profit was spent on the best pictures he could find." In this task he was greatly assisted and encouraged by his wife, the former Ellen Harper.
As a self-made man, William Walters represented the new financial class that would have been at odds with the older landed gentry of Baltimore. Though fabulously wealthy, he almost certainly was regarded as an interloper by the social elite of that era. Acquiring art may have represented for him a way of compensating for his lack of formal education and refined pedigree.
Henry Walters was born with the advantages of wealth but suffered a grievous psychological blow at 14 when his mother died soon after his parents fled to Europe at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was enlisted in his father's collecting, which seemed to redouble after his mother's death.
Henry and his mother had been exceptionally close, and her passing seemed to affect him profoundly. For the rest of his life Henry's relationships with women were deeply troubled. He did not marry until he was 72, when he wed the widow of a lifelong friend with whom he had visited as a sort of permanent house guest for the better part of the previous half century.
As a collector, Henry was even more driven than his father. Was this perhaps a way of memorializing his mother? In any case, it was Henry who built the Italian-style palazzo on Centre Street (started in 1904 and completed in 1909) to house his growing collection. In the family tradition, he opened it to the public several days each month.
Henry may well have believed that collecting was a responsibility that he had inherited. But it is also possible he wished to outdo his father; the fact that collecting pictures was linked in his mind to his mother's memory may have sharpened a latent Oedipal conflict.
Henry was also a talented businessman who accumulated wealth almost as rapidly as he accumulated art. He enjoyed sharing his passion for art with other wealthy collectors of the era, including industrialist John Pierpont Morgan. But there was also a competitive element in his collecting activities as well as in his business dealings.
The careers of William and Henry Walters suggest that the psychology of the passionate collector is quite complicated -- a combination of purposes that include noble strivings as well as neurotic drives. Certainly the historical record provides evidence of contradictory motivations.
Perhaps that is why serious collectors often seem to have much in common with those who are obsessed in other ways. The irresistible urge to acquire, the adrenalin-laced excitement of the chase and the palpable release of tension once the coveted object is finally attained are as characteristic of the compulsive gambler, the Don Juan and the crackhead as of the cultivated art collector. Ultimately the differences may lie more in degrees of social acceptability than in the basic patterns of all-too-human behavior.
Yet the Walters Art Gallery is a magnificent Italian Renaissance structure, which Henry Walters bequeathed to the city on his death in 1931. Standing inside the marbled halls of a father and son's enduring monument to the memory of a beloved wife and mother, one is reminded that great public good also may spring from bitter private loss and grief.