Episode 183 Part 2: 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 second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com. 

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: Neurological Forces at Play.” She’s also been our guest on the podcast before. Welcome back. 

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. [REPEAT OF END OF PART ONE.]

Sharon: Is there a difference between the two?

Shirley: Yes, curating a collection, for me, is just what you did. It’s selecting what is not as high-end as it could be and selling it. A lot of people use that money to buy something better. Or, as one ages, it’s just to get rid of pieces. It’s selecting out. I’d be curious to know where you sold these pieces. Was that a struggle to find an auction house?

Sharon: We’re talking about a different level. I don’t have pieces in the Met, so it doesn’t matter. First of all, I couldn’t, because even though I might not use it or wear it, what’s the difference if it’s in the bottom of my box or not? It doesn’t matter. 

I have a friend who’s a collector and a dealer. When she gets a piece, she thinks about how she can make a profit selling it, even though she loves the piece too. I never think about that. I just think, “Do I love it or not?”

Shirley: Right, but she’s a dealer and you’re not. She’s a dealer/collector.

Sharon: Yes. I think it takes a certain chutzpah to be a dealer, and I just don’t have it. I’d rather know that somebody has something, or I have it, and not have to ask for the money.

Shirley: I think I have not always had a high respect for dealers, especially some dealers, but recently I’ve been involved with a dealer in New York who is taking some of my things and will try to sell them for me. When I see the work he has to put into his shop and into selling, and he has to acquire a high degree of knowledge about the pieces in order to help people understand what they are and how they might fit according to their desire, I have a much higher respect for dealers. They work hard. Not all of them are as good as this dealer I’ve been working with in New York City, but I think many of them are.

Sharon: I think you said it, in that you have to know your dealer and trust that whatever they say is the right thing, and then you can go from there. I have respect for dealers because I’d rather somebody else goes out and looks for it and researches it and knows the history as opposed to me. They do work very, very hard, and then they have the business. 

Have you deaccessioned some pieces besides giving it to the Met or to your granddaughter? Have you deaccessioned some of your pieces besides that?

Shirley: I’m selling at Christie’s, and I think I will do what you just talked about with some of the lower end pieces. I think I will sell them. I’m going to have to sell them, not at Christie’s New York or Bonhams New York. They’re probably going to have to be sold locally. It definitely scares me to sell them locally, but if I want to have more space in my house, I’m going to have to do that. We currently, Sharon, have most of our closets filled with porcelain. While other people would have linens or coats in their closets, we don’t; we have porcelain in our closets, and we need more room.

Sharon: Aren’t you afraid it’s going to break if you have it in your closet?

Shirley: No, the closets have shelves. If they didn’t have shelves, they do now.

Sharon: I guess my first thought was you don’t live in California. With the earthquakes, you get nervous.

Shirley: Right.

Sharon: What have you seen when it comes to letting go of prize possessions? You said some have gone to a museum. Let’s say a person like me is not going to have a piece in a museum, but it’s a prize to me and I think it’s worth a certain amount of money. What if I thought I’d never get what it’s worth? 

Shirley: Then you have to make a decision. 

Sharon: Yeah, I guess I do.

Shirley: Right. You have to make the decision whether you’ll take less or not. If you take less, then you have the money and can do with it whatever you want. Alternatively, if someone else sells it for you, they’ll take whatever they got, probably even less than what you would get because they don’t have any bargaining power or knowledge.

Sharon: That’s true, but I have seen collectors who have turned over the collection to a museum who, within a few years, have as much or more than they did before.

Shirley: You mean they keep buying?

Sharon: Yes, so I guess I don’t know why. I feel like, “Why don’t I just hoard the whole thing?”

Shirley: Right. Is it their second collection after they give their first collection to a museum? Is their second collection the same or something different?

Sharon: It’s the same. It’s a higher end. I think they still buy with the idea of a museum. When it comes to collecting, do you ever talk to museums and say, “Are you missing something from this that I should keep my eyes open for?”

Shirley: No, but that is commonly done, what you just spoke about. In terms of my relationships with museums, many curators have visited our home, and I pretty much know what they’re interested in. Subtly they’ve let me know what they’re interested in. It doesn’t mean I’m going to give the piece to them just because they’re interested in it. It means I have to have a relationship with that curator and like that curator.

Sharon: If somebody was going to let their collection go to somebody else, and the curator came and said, “I heard you’re going to let them go,” and really developed a relationship very quickly and ended up with the collection, could that happen?

Shirley: It could happen, yes.

Sharon: It could happen?

Shirley: Museums buy for the most choice collections. Often it is the director of a museum or the curator from the museum that establishes a relationship. After that, a deal has to be had, and it’s during this dealmaking that sometimes the museum and the collector break up because the deal is not suitable to the collector. 

Some collectors will disburse their choice collection among like 12 museums in the United States. That’s actually been done. They have some of their collection, let’s say, in Palm Beach, some of their collection in Minneapolis, some of their collection at Winterthur. It’s because one museum didn’t make enough of an offer that they liked, so the whole collection didn’t go to one place. They just made arrangements with different institutions.

Sharon: When you say deal, you mean a deal that’s made just with a handshake, without money, without anything. I’m not talking about money, but it’s a deal relationship.

Shirley: Right, like these pieces that we received from you will be on display for 25 years or in perpetuity—that hardly ever happens; it probably never happens anymore—or basically as long as the person is alive and their relatives are alive, they’ll be on display, and the museum won’t sell any of them, because museums deaccess too, just like collectors do. There was almost a scandal about deaccessing a few years ago with Covid. I guess museums had more time on their hands because there weren’t so many visitors, so a lot of museums did deaccess. Also, I think it was in line with museums’ standards for a year so the museums could gain money by deaccessioning, since they weren’t making any money through visitors coming to the museum. 

I know a number of people at our museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, now called Newfields, that were offended because the objects they had given were deaccessed. Presumably the person who gave the object is called and notified about it, but that didn’t always happen. That makes hard feelings of the donor towards the museum, and the museum doesn’t likely get anything from that particular person again.

Sharon: I have heard of deaccessioning your own collection and it sat in the back. They never made a deal, and it was kept behind the scenes.

Shirley: Exactly. It’s in storage forever, and then at some point, probably, they just sell it. So, part of the negotiation has to include in writing that whatever is given to the museum will be shown for so many years. 

Sharon: How about a reserve with an auction? Do you have to put a certain floor?

Shirley: Right. Generally, the specialist at the auction house will recommend a floor. That floor may or may not be suitable to the collector, but the person at the auction house doesn’t want to make the floor too high because they rightly think if a floor is too high, people will be discouraged right at the beginning. What the people at the auction house likes to do is make the floor low to get the bidding started. Then it’s more likely that people will bid it up. 

However, there’s a nuance here, too, because people bid it up more when it’s a live auction in the room and people are bidding against each other and can see each other. When it’s an online auction, it’s much more remote and isolated. People don’t get that hot adrenaline going, saying, “I want this piece and I’ll bid against the other person.” It’s cooler when it’s online.

Sharon: When you were in the room, you said you were anxious to see these pieces you prize so much. How did you feel if some of them didn’t sell? Did you feel like, “Oh well, next time”?

Shirley: Not good, and seeing them come back was also a not-good feeling because you have to pay to have them shipped out, and then you have to pay to have the ones that didn’t sell shipped back. 

Sharon: As we get older, I think deaccessioning is such a big topic of conversation. Whether it’s jewelry or whatever it is, I see a lot of times when somebody has passed on, the collection is now at retail or wherever. All of this is the formal collection of ABC, as opposed to somebody else. I think this is something you really have to think about.

When you say you’re the definition of a collector, don’t we all have that area in our brain that lights up?

Shirley: We do. We all have the nucleus accumbens, our pleasure center, but what makes a collector is nature/nurture experiences. The collector has a special drive, and it manifests itself in the pleasure center lighting up when the collector finds the unique piece that he or she is looking for.

Sharon: Don’t we all have a special drive? I don’t like sports cars, for instance, but do we not have a special drive for those if that’s what lights up your pleasure center?

Shirley: Yes. Did you say you do or do not—

Sharon: I don’t, which is just as well I suppose. Besides a budget, I don’t have anywhere to keep a sports car collection.

Shirley: Some people like ballet; some people like—what else? There are so many other things: plays, Shakespeare, but every person is unique. What stimulates your pleasure center is different than what stimulates my pleasure center. Each of us does need the requirements of life. We need food, water, shelter, the basics of life. After that, we have the first-world luxury of being able to use our leisure time to do what we want, which could be collecting or going to ballets or watching Netflix. 

Sharon: Could there be a hierarchy? Like yours is export porcelain, and then maybe ballets and then Netflix?

Shirley: Right. Yes, I do like all those things. 

Sharon: O.K. People say I collect. I would not call myself a collector of certain things. I have more of those things than somebody else might have, but it’s still a hierarchy, I guess. I like your definition. This is totally switching the subject, but people have said a collector is a steward of something. 

Shirley: Yes. We are just taking care of these objects until someone else can take care of them. Agreed, stewardship. 

Sharon: It’s almost time to end my collection, but if you looked at what I have, I don’t have 20 by this designer and 20 by that designer. Would I still be a collector? Let’s say I have 20 different bracelets, but not even two by the same person. 

Shirley: That’s fine. If you have a passion for the bracelets and they demonstrate something to you and you have a story behind each of them, that’s your collection.

Sharon: I guess that’s a collection. Well, thank you very much. I will look for your book on deaccessioning as we all go through that agonizing process, the different ways to deaccess a collection. Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate it.

Shirley: I’m so glad you’re bringing this to the attention of people because deaccessioning is a part of collecting. It’s a painful part, so people feel uncomfortable about it, so I think bringing attention to it is very positive. You’re very welcome, Sharon.

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

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman