Why We Collect

Mar 17, 2016    |    My Money MD   |   Shirley Mueller, MD

There are many reasons collectors, whether wealthy or not, collect. But there is one common underlying motivation for all—pleasure.

    A sculpture by Giacometti though not the one Cohen purchased.

 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.

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