Number 91 ® ® ® A Journal of Tool Collecting published by CRAFTS of New Jersey ® ® ® April 1996
By Alan Bates
Doctor: "And when did you first realize you had contracted this incurable but seldom fatal disease referred to by the psychiatric profession as Chronic Collect!mania? "
Patient: "Not until after many years of acquiring objects. I always just thought it was a fun thing to do. Then it dawned on me that when one type of object was no longer a challenge, either because the ones I didn't have were just not available or I had lost interest, I then was compelled to find another area. I had to have my "flea market fix". The fun was in the hunt. Once I found a new item, the flush of success soon faded and I needed the next "find."
Until the light dawned you really didn't understand what was happening to you?
I guess I was in — what do you shrinks call it — a "state of denial?" Collectimania is truly an addiction I've concluded. But even now that I have accepted this, I find it's a most pleasant affliction. I'm not even sure why I asked you to analyze me.
Don't worry, my friend. I know what's best for you. Just leave everything to me — but I'll need your cooperation. Let's go back to the beginning. Can you recall how it all started?
OK, Doc. If you can help me, fine. But I just hope the treatment is not worse than the condition. Let's see. I guess it began when I inherited a small collection of coins from my grandfather. They weren't anything great — some proof sets from the 1880s, a bunch of the big copper pennies, and the like. Soon I found myself looking through handfuls of change and picking out older pennies and nickels. My parents humored me by giving me a set of coin holders and I eagerly started filling in the holes.
The thrill of this waned and I started buying large cents from dealers to augment those I got from Grandpa. But that proved to be more than I could afford. So I sold that collection and began to buy English coins after seeing some coppers at a coin dealer's for prices I couldn't refuse. At the peak I had an example of at least one coin from almost every English king who ruled Britain over the last 1000 years. Yes, the collection started with William the conquerer and went through Elizabeth II — pennies, shillings, crowns, you name it.
By now I was a grown man and probably should have known better. But as if English coins weren't enough I also built a nice collection of German coins, from pfennigs to 5-mark pieces.
That must have been quite a challenge. How long did it go on and what happened to the coin collections?
I guess I collected English and German coins for 10 years, buying mainly from dealers by mail. But just when I had most of the pieces I wanted (and could afford) I discovered an entirely new area — the awesome arena of antique tools. This fed my collecting urges for nearly the next quarter century.
Excuse me, I must have misunderstood. I thought you said you switched from coins to antique tools.
You heard right. I know it sounds hard to believe that anyone would take an interest in old hand tools, which run the gamut from adzes to zaxes. But I loved their look and workmanship and soon discovered there are many thousands of tool collectors around the world. So I joined associations who cater to their needs.
In the early days I was so naïve I thought I could collect an example of every type of tool used by craftsmen in the last couple of centuries. I went to country auctions, flea markets, got catalogs from specialist dealers and soon accumulated a hodge podge of implements which had no common link. Of course, I had to justify to a long-suffering spouse the burgeoning shelves of tools by claiming they were an "investment opportunity" of a lifetime. I was in on the "ground floor of something big."
I'd like to leave the answer to that for a little later in the story, if you don't mind. Anyway, I soon concluded I should specialize and, as most tool collectors have, I focused on tools for working wood. The first area that caught my fancy was coopering (barrel-making to you. Doctor) tools. So I filled a peg-boarded wall with crozes, howels, sun planes, chivs, shaves, scorps, braces, axes...until I ran out my string. It was time to move on. But just when I consigned this collection to a tool auction, the bottom fell out of coopering tools and my "investment" was a big loser.
Did this discourage you from collecting tools?
Far from it. By then I had embarked on a much more fascinating and, I was sure, more lucrative area — PLANES!
You mean model planes from World War II? I used to make those from kits when I was a kid.
No, dummy. Planes that smooth and shape wood. There are hundreds of different types and thousands of styles and tens of thousands of professional planemakers who marked them over the last three centuries or more. What field could be more challenging? And it was just catching on. Books and articles about planes were being written and I caught the fever. From about 1975 onward I zeroed in on planes. Back then, my work (I did have to support my habit) took me to England four or five times a year and I discovered a whole new world — English planes. To shorten this already long story, over the next 18-20 years I built collections of English chamfer planes (which cut a bevel on the edge of a board), spill planes (where the product is not the shape but the shaving), throating planes, miniature planes and...
I have to interrupt you here. You did all this while going to England on business a few times a year? How was that possible?
Well, I usually allowed a couple of days for myself on each trip to visit antique markets and shops. And I got a know some of the key dealers in England. Some of them put out catalogs and I bought a lot by mail. But I was going to tell you, before I was so rudely interrupted, about my chief goal in collecting English planes. I wanted an example of a plane by every documented maker who worked before 1800. By the time I decided to sell the collection last year, I was well down the path toward that goal. I didn't have every maker, but the few I lacked were mostly one-of-a-kind in museums or other collections.
Did you stay away from American planes during all this?
Far from it. All during the twenty years or so of building the English collection I was embarked on a parallel mission. Living near Pennsylvania, I wanted to assemble as complete as possible a collection of planes by makers in Philadelphia and Lancaster County. Almost every summer Sunday I would scour the antique flea markets. During the "good old days" of 1975 - 85, it was a rare day when I failed to come home with less than a half a dozen interesting planes. The crowning event was a chance trip to a farm auction in Maryland. There, among three dozen wooden planes, was one by the rarest of the earlyPhiladelphia makers - Benjamin Armitage. I was the only one at the sale who knew the significance of this rare maker, so he was mine for $10.
Is that your prize acquisition from your searches for Philadelphia planes?
Not quite. For "white-knuckle" experiences, the main heart stopper was the Israel White 3-arm plow plane. I won't go into details, but in 1833 a planemaker named Israel White patented and started selling a very fancy type of adjustable plane. Israel couldn't have made many since he only lived another six years and his widow carried on a few years longer. Only a few of these 3-arm plows are now known and each one is different. They are made of exotic woods plus brass and ivory. Anyway, the best known example came up for auction in 1991. I was determined to have it and walked away with it for quite a lot less than I was prepared to pay, but more than any single plane had sold for at a U.S. auction to that time. That was the high point for me and since then I've not had much luck in adding to my Philadelphia planemaker collection.
I'm getting a little tired of hearing about planes, especially now that I know they can't fly. Just so I can fully understand your condition, did you ever collect anything besides coins and tools?
Good heavens, yes. I can't believe you think I could be that parochial. I have a small collection of early musical instruments — mostly clarinets, since I play the clarinet. The earliest of these dates to about 1800 and is made of boxwood with ivory trim. Doesn't that excite you? The early flutes didn't quite fit and are on consignment as we speak. Though my wife is not a true collector, the two of us became interested in Eskimo soapstone carvings when I worked in Canada for a few years. Now we have a nice group of arctic animals carved by Inuits. Oh, I nearly forgot. A friend has a small collection of ice skates which I found fascinating. As I foraged the flea markets, I began to pick up many different makes and models and still have several dozen. Did you know that toolmakers like Winchester, Marples and Marsden also made skates? More important, do you know anyone looking for a collection of antique skates? Anyway, these collections are minor compared to my tools.
Well, I've dealt with similar addictions, but never one as intractable as yours. Do you think you will move on to another major area now that you can't find Philadelphia planemakers?
You really don't understand, do you doctor? After hearing all this you should have realized I would need to fill the void with something. Anyway, four years ago I started collecting harmonicas and now have well over 1,000, as well as related items — catalogs, display pieces, music, early records. To me the variety of different harmonica models made in the last 100 years beats tools a mile.
You mentioned earlier you justified your move into old tools as a big investment opportunity. Did it work out that way?
I was hoping you might have forgotten. The answer is no in one sense and emphatically yes in another. My detailed buy and sell records, all on computer, show I have not quite broken even over the years, looking just at the income vs. outgo. But in hindsight I can rationalize the loss of interest I might have earned on the money "invested" as being more than offset by the interest I've had in the tools and the wonderful friends I've made and places I've been. After all, if you're into boating or golf or scuba diving you never even get your money back. So I think I'll be seeking harmonicas for years to come.
OK. That's it. Tomorrow morning I'm committing you to the Center to Rehabilitate Acquisitive People, generally known by its familiar acronym. After you've gone through withdrawal there, I suggest you join Collector's Anonymous for a lifetime program of avoiding flea markets.
Doc, I'd rather die.
Ed: Chronic Collectomania is warranted to be 100% factual. Author Al Bates, even with over 1000 harmonicas, will never forsake tools. Al was EAIA President 1987-89, the first Executive Director 1989-92 and still handles advertising for the Directory. As VP of Imperial Chemical Industries, he was able to combine business trips and tool collecting in Great Britain and Europe for many years: He has organized six EAIA-sponsored trips to visit tool collections, museums, auctions, etc. in those favorite haunts. You can see his Israel White 3-arm plow plane on page 72 of Roger K. Smith's P-TAMPIA I. For neat harmonicas check the fall 1995 issues of Smithsonian. See Al's photo on page 11 of this ToolShed.