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Timeless Treasures: The Nostalgic Quest of Art Collectors

How nostalgia guides collectors.

Key points

  • Nostalgia is a part of collecting, but little is written about it.
  • There is both anecdotal and scientific evidence to support the concept of nostalgia when collecting.
  • Autobiographical events may encourage individuals to seek out objects linked to their memories.
Source: Thomas M. Mueller
Woman in contemplation: Nostalgia?
Source: Thomas M. Mueller

Nostalgia is why I started collecting in the first place. It made me curious. That curiosity led to passion, and that passion led to dedication,” writes Stagecoach in response to the question, "How does nostalgia factor into your collecting experience?" This feeling is not uncommon among collectors.

Kentaro Oba et al. (2016) wrote, “People sometimes experience an emotional state known as ‘nostalgia,’ which involves experiencing predominantly positive emotions while remembering autobiographical events.” Objects that are remembered in association with these memories can be cherished, thereby leading an individual to seek them out. This can result in a collection.

For example, in my own case, my motivation to collect Chinese export porcelain (China made in China and exported to the West) had to do with a movie I saw in high school, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, with Ingrid Bergman. She was a missionary in China, and the story was based on a heroic real-life person, Gladys Aylward. When I saw the movie, at that moment, I aspired to be like Aylward (played by Bergman) and to do good by helping others in China. After medical school, however, I didn’t go to China. Instead, I went to Indianapolis. But, deep in my mind, I still craved that dream lying dormant for so long in my head. That was why, I believe, I picked up a book about Chinese porcelain while working as a physician. Soon after, I started collecting It. My interest in it wasn’t as inadvertent as it seemed but rather had to do with memories from long ago.

Yes, memories from long ago. This connection of memories to what we do in our lives has been examined scientifically. Odo and colleagues (2016), the authors mentioned earlier, determined the relationship between memory-reward co-activation and nostalgia in healthy females. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to neural correlates constituting nostalgia during childhood-related visual stimuli. Their results confirmed that nostalgia-related activity was present in both memory and reward systems, including “the hippocampus (HPC), substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), and ventral striatum (VS).” Factor analyses revealed that both emotional and personal significance underlie nostalgia. The authors suggested, "These findings demonstrate the cooperative activity of memory and reward systems, where each system has a specific role in the construction of the factors that underlie the experience of nostalgia.”

Sotelo-Duarte, M. (2022) elucidated the role of nostalgia in collecting behavior further. He determined its effects in the context of an online collecting community using netnography, a detailed analysis of social interactions and behaviors in digital spaces. He examined 40,000 comments from 9,028 users of a vintage toy online collecting community on YouTube. The data was then studied, codified, and organized to assess the existence of collecting and nostalgia within this group. Nostalgia was found to influence collecting during every stage of the collecting process: at the beginning, while it was ongoing, and at the end. Thus, nostalgia was found to act as a motivator for collecting using netnography in an online community.

In conclusion, nostalgia not only initiates the collecting journey but sustains and enriches it, providing emotional depth and personal significance to the practice. This intersection of memory, emotion, and collecting behavior highlights nostalgia's complex yet intrinsically human nature as a driving force behind the desire to collect.


Kentaro Oba, Madoka Noriuchi, Tomoaki Atomi, Yoshiya Moriguchi, Yoshiaki Kikuchi, (2016) Memory and reward systems coproduce ‘nostalgic’ experiences in the brain, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 11, Issue 7, July, Pages 1069–1077,

Sotelo-Duarte, M. (2022), "Collecting nostalgic pieces of plastic: the journey of toy collectors and the effects of nostalgia", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 319-336.

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