Episode 183 Part 1: The Neuroscience Behind Deaccessioning: Dr. Shirley Mueller’s Tips for Letting Go

Episode 183

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How Chinese export porcelain differs from other types of porcelain
  • Why a true collector is different from a dealer
  • Why deaccessioning is an important process for collectors, even if it’s painful
  • How the endowment effect can make it difficult for collectors to sell their items
  • What factors to consider when donating a collection to a museum

About Shirley Mueller

Shirley M. Mueller, MD is an internationally known collector and scholar of Chinese export porcelain, as well as a physician board-certified in Neurology and Psychiatry. This latter expertise led her to explore her own intentions while collecting art, which, she discovered, are applicable to all collectors. This new understanding is the motivation for this book. Mueller not only lectures and publishes about the neuropsychology of the collector; she also was guest curator for Elegance from the East: New Insights into Old Porcelain at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (now Newfields) in 2017. In this unique exhibit, she combined export porcelain with concepts from neuroscience to make historical objects personally relevant to visitors.

Additional Resources:


Cover of the book: Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play


When you’re a collector, determining what will happen to your collection in the future is a difficult but necessary process. Whether that means selling, donating or auctioning off your pieces, it’s hard to let go of beloved possessions. As a neuroscientist who studies how collecting impacts the brain (and as an avid collector of Chinese export porcelain herself), Dr. Shirley Mueller knows all too well how bittersweet it is to deaccession a collection. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her experience auctioning off some of her pieces; why collectors are different from dealers; and what to consider when passing on your collection. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to The Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week.

Today, my guest is Dr. Shirley Mueller. She is an M.D., Ph.D., professor and neuroscientist. She’s also an internationally known collector and scholar of Chinese export porcelain. She’s the author of “Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play.” She’s also been our guest on the podcast before.

She’s interested in something I have heard a lot of talk about lately, which is deaccessioning a collection. She has done research in this area and has published her research articles in Fine Art Connoisseur and Psychology Today. Today, she’ll talk to us about her own collecting experience, what makes a collector different from others and what she has found out about deaccessioning a collection. Shirley, welcome to the program.

Shirley: Thank you, Sharon. It’s great to be here.

Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. What was your collecting journey like with export porcelain, which is different than a lot of us? What is export porcelain?

Shirley: It was a long journey, not a short journey. I started really in the 1980s, and I have been collecting since then. I think my largest time in terms of spending the most money and devoting the most time was probably the 1990s and early 2000s. After that time I became more selective, so I probably purchased fewer things, but of higher quality. I think most of the pieces I have I purchased early, and then as every collector knows, as we develop, we want more and more choice things.

Sharon: Right, yes.

Shirley: Which are harder and harder to find.

Sharon: And cost more money.

Shirley: Exactly.

Sharon: Were you young or older when you discovered that you’re a collector?

Shirley: I was not a young person. I was in my mid to late 30s. I found that collecting relaxed me, and that reading about this particular area, Chinese export porcelain—that is China which was made in China and exported to the west—gave me a different perspective on life. I was a physician practicing up to 80 hours a week. I couldn’t stop thinking about my patients, which is really unhealthy because one wants to be more objective about one’s patients. It’s also good to relax once in a while so you can have a fresh perspective on your patients, but that seemed to be difficult for me. When I’d go home at night, I’d be thinking about them. Quite accidentally, I picked up a book about Chinese porcelain and found that I was totally absorbed, that the world was outside of me, and I was inside my special area with this book reading about something that interested me a great deal.

Sharon: Export porcelain, is that different than regular porcelain?

Shirley: There’s Chinese porcelain. When we talk about Chinese porcelain, we’re talking about a whole array of porcelain including early porcelain, which would have been made as early as the 14th and 15th centuries. When we talk about export porcelain, we talk about porcelain made specifically for the western market, that is for the European market. Early on, it was made for a market that was more local to China, which would be Malaysia, Japan, India. Those trading routes were the water routes that China had discovered. It wasn’t until later that a ship could sail to America, and so we finally became part of the trade then. Before that, of course, a Portuguese ship was enroute around the Cape of Good Hope to go to China. All of these routes were established in time, but early on, the specific export route for Europeans was not available until after 1492.

Sharon: That’s when it became the export, because they were then sending things around in a different way.

Shirley: Yes, right. At first it was the Silk Road, some water routes. Later, in order for Europeans to join in in any major way, they had to use a water route around the Cape of Good Hope.

Sharon: What’s your definition of a collector?

Shirley: A collector is someone who has a special interest in an area that fascinates them and as a result, they want to gather objects in that area. Now, what they gather can be as simple as fruit jars. It could be the tags that say “Do Not Disturb” on your hotel room door; there’s even a collector who collects that sort of memorabilia. Or it can be high-end art that costs thousands or millions of dollars. So, the range is from very little money to a great deal of money, but all these collectors are equally passionate, except the ones that collect to make a profit only. They may have someone actually select the art for them, and then the idea is that in 10 years, they can sell it for more. The collectors that are only interested in making a profit lack the passion that the collectors who collect for love have for their objects. Those who collect to make money are dispassionate about the objects, but passionate about the money they might make. I don’t even consider them collectors.

Sharon: They’re dealers, right?

Shirley: Right. In a way, yes. Some of them will select objects themselves and others will have a third person, another person, pick for them. They even keep them in storage sometimes. They don’t even see or use the objects. But 80% of collectors collect for love, and it enriches the collector’s life. The whole idea of collecting is to make your life better. I mean, Sharon, think of going to work every day, maybe at a job you don’t especially like, eight to five, eight to six, and coming home. You may have children and family, but what else is there? There has to be something else.

For us collectors, it’s what we collect; it’s our passion. We have a collection, but the collection always requires love, care and filling in the gaps where we don’t have a specific object. The collector knows what the collector needs. It isn’t a want; it’s a need because you have to have the spread. If you collect something between 1800 and 1900 and you have a 10-year gap between 1840 and 1850, oh boy, you have to keep looking. You have to fill it.

Sharon: So, it doesn’t matter where the money is. It doesn’t matter if the money is there or not. You mentioned hotel hangtags. You have to pay the money to go to a hotel.

Shirley: Right, it can be so minor. It can be a little thing, but it has organization and there’s some thought about what to do with it. There was an exhibit in Zurich recently called “Collectomania.” They had the objects from about 20 different collectors, and one of the collectors actually did collect those doorknob hangers from hotels.

Sharon: That would be an interesting collection. Don’t we all collect? Is the brain any different for a collector?

Shirley: That’s a good question, and I wish I could answer that fully. All I can say is that for a collector, what he or she collects stimulates his or her pleasure center. When I see a piece of high-end Chinese porcelain that I don’t have in my collection and I know I’d like to have it, my pleasure center can just go wild when I see it. You could see the same object and it would mean nothing to you. You might say it’s pretty, but I don’t think—

Sharon: Yeah, I would probably not even notice it. I’d say, “Shirley, it’s nice.”

Shirley: I think what leads to this is genetics, essentially nurture, nature and experiences that lead us into a particular area that lights our fire, lights up our brain, stimulates our pleasure center. I think on one of the last programs I explained that I thought my love for Chinese porcelain came from a movie I saw in high school, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” with Ingrid Bergman. She was the equivalent of a missionary in China helping all these Chinese children when the Japanese were invading, and I thought, “I want to be like that person. That’s what I want to do when I graduate from medical school.” When I graduated from medical school, I had a husband and a daughter, a small child, and I couldn’t go to China because I had other responsibilities. Mao Zedong might have stood in my way a bit too.

At any rate, I think when I picked up that book about China, it’s like it was a circular pattern. I realized I can do more with China. I can learn about it; I can buy objects from it; I can associate with like-minded people who also are interested in the arts of China. There are avenues open to me to supplant my previous plan. So, that’s what happened. Since then, I’ve been to China five times, two with the invitation of the government, and probably will be going again. Now I do interact with a lot of Chinese people, and I would say to a certain degree, my original purpose has been fulfilled.

Sharon: Wow! When it comes to deaccessioning, can you let go of them?

Shirley: It’s a problem. All that love, attention, money, care, organization. I exhibit what is called the endowment effect, according to neuroeconomics. That means that what belongs to me, because of everything I’ve put into it, means so much to me, and thereby if I were to put a price on it, it would be higher than the price the market would probably put on it. I would think every piece I have would be worth thousands of dollars, and someone else might think they’d be worth hundreds of dollars.

Sharon: Can you deaccession something that has sentimentality?

Shirley: Exactly. The sentiment is there. I think that’s why people keep their family possessions even though they may not be worth a great deal. The sentiment is worth a great deal. You don’t want to throw away your family possessions like the quilt my mother made. I don’t want to ever throw it away; I want to keep it. You’re absolutely right about that.

I had an experience recently when I did sell at Christie’s in New York City, and it was so painful for me. It wasn’t just because I was selling some of my best objects, but it also was because early in the sale, nobody bid on my objects. I was a nervous wreck because my objects reflected me and my very being, my very self. If nobody was bidding on them, what did that say about me? Maybe I didn’t choose wisely. Maybe I’m not the person I think I am. Maybe I’m not as good at selecting Chinese porcelain as I thought I was. I wrote in the article in Fine Arts Connoisseur that I ended up even having to take sleeping pills for a few nights because I was so bent out of shape. I was very stressed about it. I think I may not have been as pleasant to my representative at Christie’s as I could have been, and I think that may lead to my never selling at Christie’s again.

Sharon: That’s putting yourself on the line, though.

Shirley: It is. Finally, I just had to accept that things did not sell at the high price I thought they should. I wrote in my column that what brought me peace was that I knew, in time, inflation would make the prices of all of them higher. Because porcelain is breakable, there will be fewer pieces as time goes by, and when there are fewer pieces, that will increase the price as well. I finally felt O.K. because I had to. If I didn’t accept it, I would continue to be miserable.

Sharon: Do you think all of us should think about deaccessioning before we die, before the time comes when we have to let it go and it doesn’t mean anything anymore?

Shirley: Absolutely. It is so much better if we collectors direct deaccession instead of our families. The whole estate is just given to an auction house and they take care of it. We still know the value of our pieces better than anyone else, we know where they could be sold better than anyone else, and we know what museum might want them better than anyone else. We know what family members might like them. I personally think it’s always a nice gesture to leave some things to the family that they might have even picked out. I can give them a choice of five pieces, and they could pick out whichever one they liked. It’s a lovely gesture to do that, to give part of yourself through your piece to someone else when you are reaching a certain age.

Sharon: What if you think you have time, but you don’t? Let’s say your car goes off a cliff and you can’t direct anything.

Shirley: If it’s a very costly collection, the family will fight over it. If it’s a less costly collection, they’ll just give it to an auction house that suits it. If it’s high-end, it’ll be Christie’s or Sotheby’s or Bonhams, and if it’s lower-end, it’ll be a local auction house. The sentiment will be gone. If the relatives aren’t involved any more, there’s no knowledge of the person and his or her relationship to these objects. I think you have jewelry, so you know every object has a story. Every object has an experience associated with it which makes it meaningful, not only to the person who had it, but to some family members as well.

Sharon: I’m thinking about a pin that I doubt I’ll ever wear, but it was my mother’s, the first piece of jewelry she had. I just can’t give it up. It’s just too hard to give up. What if your family doesn’t want the silver? They don’t want anything of their parents’, not because they don’t have a good relationship, but they just aren’t interested. They want experiences. What do you do then?

Shirley: If a museum won’t take it, they have to sell it, and they’re likely to get a better price than any relative who sells it. Then there will be more in the estate for the family who doesn’t want the actual collection. The other thing that can be done these days, and which is a wonderful alternative, is to put your collection on the internet so there are pictures of the collection and a record of what is in your collection. Other people who are interested in the same things then would go to your site and would be able to appreciate what you had as a collection. It would require some work. You’d have to hire a website designer and have professional pictures taken, but it is a way to document a collection without actually having to sell it. Of course, the relatives might be interested in the collector selling it because it would increase the estate assets.

Sharon: It seems like there’s a lot of fighting over collections that families have if they’re not told in advance which piece should go to which person. It can cause a lot of problems. What are your thoughts, or what actions are you taking with your collection? You said you sold at Christie’s a few years ago, but do you keep collecting?

Shirley: I have stopped collecting now that I’m writing about it so much with the book and other articles in Psychology Today. I have four pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and there will be more there. It’s possible that there will be an exhibit there that will be almost exclusively porcelain from my collection. If this exhibit takes place, there are a lot of pieces, maybe 150 at least. That means that part of my collection, which was originally 600 and now is down to 500 or so, that would bring it down to like 450.

Then I would give people I know choices about what they might like to take. In fact, my granddaughter has already expressed what she wants. It actually is in my will that she will get that piece. It’s very important to me that she gets what she specifically indicated she liked. This is exactly what she said, Sharon. She looked at the piece one day and said, “Grandma, do you think I’ll ever be able to afford anything like that for my home?” You have it. It’s yours, but I didn’t say anything.

Sharon: I’ve heard of relatives who’ve come through and said, not to me, but to other people, “Can have this when you die? After you pass away, can have this ring?” I don’t know what you do.

Shirley: When a kid does it, it’s O.K. She didn’t even say, “I want it when you die.” She just said, “Do you think I’ll ever have anything like it?”

Sharon: No, that’s different. That’s a nice way of hinting.

Shirley: But this bald-faced saying, “May I have that when you die,” that’s too much.

Sharon: Is there a difference between collecting or deaccessioning and curating? I have let go of a lot of the lower-end pieces I might have wanted when I was 20, but do I want it when I’m older?

Shirley: I would say good for you for curating your collection.

Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to the JewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Sharon Berman