Home: Collector’s Corner: Collective Soul

As the youngest child of seven, Gibbs Connors didn’t have a lot of clout during playtime. Whenever his brothers decided it was time for a fiery collision, it was always Gibbs’s Matchbox car that met its end. In hindsight, the now 42-year-old Philadelphia resident thinks this might be why he started collecting Matchbox cars about 15 years ago. “Maybe I was trying to get them back,” he says.

It’s often difficult for a collector to pinpoint why a particular object is appealing. “It talks to you,” says Connors. “You just know you want it, and you’re not shocked when you find out what the price is.” An object might catch someone’s eye for any number of reasons — nostalgia, aesthetic appeal, an affinity for the time period that produced the item. Some experts suggest that building a collection is like writing an autobiography. The objects you choose broadcast a message: This is who I am.

Walking through the house Connors shares with his wife, Morgen, is like walking through a museum of Gibbs, with the curator on hand to explain each of his many collections. The first stop is his clay-red dining room, in front of a wall of built-in bookshelves that hold highly collectible vintage ceramic bowls and vases made by Ohio potteries Watt and McCoy. Connors recalls being waylaid by a display of yellowware bowls on a trip up to Renningers Antique and Farmers Market in Adamstown to look for vintage toys.

“I was like, ‘Bowls, whoa. Bowls. That’s really cool,’” he says. Something sparked. His focus switched from toys to ceramics. “The whole experience of collecting these ceramics is far greater than the 30 or 40 bowls that are here,” he says. “The memories of looking for them, finding them, buying them, wrapping them in newspaper, throwing them in my car — it’s so much more vast than what you see here.” Unfortunately, Martha Stewart helped bring Connors’s ceramics streak to an end when her magazine ran an article about McCoy pottery, and prices shot sky-high.

But there was plenty left at the flea markets and auctions to catch Connors’s eye. He began to appreciate geometric hooked rugs, then Mission furniture and Adirondack-style decorative arts. All the while Connors collected the work of Pennsylvania artists, including Benton Spruance and Morris Blackburn. His longest obsession is with vintage Volkswagen microbuses, some of which are parked in his driveway. And with the exception of the Matchbox cars, which are in a box in the basement, every collection Connors ever started is out and on display.


Lately everyone seems to be a collector. The growth of the trend is often chalked up to Antiques Roadshow, but Dr. Lori Verderame, a certified appraiser and art historian based in Bucks County, says that collecting always peaks at the turn of the century. “This happened in the 1800s and the 1900s,” she says. “We become more interested in antiques and what is old, because history is ever-changing.”

Verderame appraises about 25,000 objects a year. In her experience, there are two kinds of collectors: the eclectic ones, like Connors, and those who take a straighter path, collecting within a category. That’s how Norman and Arlene Silvers collect. The couple has been buying glass — contemporary art glass and some production glass — for 40 years. This focused approach often produces the most valuable collections, says Verderame. But the Silvers don’t collect with money in mind. “We do it because we’re both very attracted to it,” says Arlene. “We like the art form.”

They bought their first pieces in the early 1960s to beautify the drab student apartment they shared in West Virginia, picking up some brightly colored pieces for less than a dollar each from a local firm called Blenko Glass Company. Now glass has become so much a part of their life that when Arlene retired a few years ago, she took on a full-time volunteer position at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, organizing glass-
centered events.

Last August, the couple gave a tour of their home to a group of collectors who were in Philadelphia for the museum’s annual glass auction. The museum group followed Norman to his home office, where he lifted a small sculpture from his desk and held it up to the light. The piece was made by Czech artist Jaroslava Brychtová and her husband and collaborator, Stanislav Libenský, in the 1960s.

Two larger pieces that were made in the 1970s and 1990s by Libenský are displayed on pedestals in front of a floor-to-ceiling window.

“The red piece moves me more than any other,” Norman says. “The play of light and darkness, it’s like an Impressionist painting in glass. Its maker wanted to force you to think.”


Neurology researchers think we share a biological drive to collect with most mammals. Around 70 species of animals hoard stuff, mostly food, for survival. Of course, humans collect on a higher emotional plane — after all, art glass doesn’t do very much to keep us warm and fed.

Neither do figurines, but when Alicia Freile, a Philadelphia artist, saw a Mexican Day of the Dead figure seven years ago at a store in Cape May, she was hooked — and a collection was born. She now owns a carefully chosen dozen of the figures, 2- to 3-inch-tall papier-mâché or plaster skeletons crafted to memorialize the deceased in Mexican tradition. The figures’ painted-on clothes show who they were when they were alive — there’s a farmer, a bride and groom, a mariachi band. Freile traveled to Oaxaca, the seat of Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition, to find the bulk of her collection.

Collectors often travel far to get their fix. Connors has flown to Europe to buy a vintage VW bus, and every year he attends the VW Classic car show in southern California. The Silvers traveled to Australia last year to see some artists’ work. And Freile wants to return to Oaxaca for one piece that caught her eye — figures arranged in what she calls a “mini-diorama” that shows a scene of a man cheating on his wife. His mistress is hiding under the bed, and there’s a message painted on the base that warns against adulterous behavior. “That one was so interesting,” Freile says. “It’s not something you would find up here.”

Most collectors can point to the one (or more) that got away, but thinking of that piece just motivates them to keep collecting, and to avoid making the same mistake twice.

“The best stuff is the stuff you bought because you love it,” says Connors, “not the stuff you got for a bargain.” Maybe the intensity of this starting place between a collector and an object is what makes letting go of earlier pieces, even ones that have little market value, out of the question.

Freile, for one, seems surprised at the suggestion that she’d ever part with her Mexican folk-art figures. “I’ll never sell them,” she says, simply. “I love them.”