Jewelry Journey Podcast

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Shirley Mueller. Shirley is an M.D., a professor and also has experience as a financial advisor. In addition, she’s an avid and longtime collector of Chinese export porcelain. She is the author of a fascinating book, Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play. Today, she’ll talk about what is inside our heads, which can often confound and puzzle us, and about her own journey as a collector. Shirley, welcome to the program. 

Shirley: Thank you. It is lovely to be here. I’m so excited, because we have something relevant in the news to talk about today, which is auction bidding. Two professors just won the Nobel Prize for their studies on auctions. I speak about this in my book. Interestingly enough, those collectors who bid at auctions don’t bid to win, as we have always thought, but they bid not to lose. We dislike losing, and it affects us more than if we actually win.

Sharon: Does that go along with the part of the book where you talk about the fact that even if you don’t get the piece you want, you may end up bidding on something else?

Shirley: Exactly right. Essentially, after spending so much time and effort, one wants to get paid for that time and effort. Taking a second choice, so to speak, rather than what I was really interested in obtaining makes us feel slightly better, even though it’ s not necessarily a good choice to get something you didn’t want to begin with. But it puts a band-aid on the wound, so to speak, the wound being the loss of the object.

Sharon: That’s interesting. I saw a ring in a show once, and I went back the next day and it was gone, so I ended up choosing something else from the same artist, even though I didn’t like it as much. Is that the same?

Shirley: Yeah, that would be very similar. In terms of behavioral economics, which is the way we make decisions in terms of our social needs, this is parallel to something called sunk cost, which is that when we take time and effort with an activity, we want to get something from it. You went to the art show and found this piece of art you liked, but you didn’t buy it immediately. You went back the next day, and I hope you got something you liked, but many people would choose something else just to have a substitute for what they lost.

Sharon: Well, I didn’t like it as much, but it was sort of, “O.K., that’s gone. I’ll just choose something I like, but not as much.”

Shirley: Right. I give this example in my book having to do with a teapot that I really wanted, the Chinese export teapot, but I couldn’t get it because the price was so high. So, a few lots later, I bid on something I didn’t want at all, and now that I made it public, I probably will never be able to sell it again. It wasn’t armorial like the teapot I wanted. It was from a family that had no cachet so to speak. No one has really heard of them. Since we always go for something with a good provenance, if a family is well-known, that makes it all the better. Instead of looking out, I did the reverse. I may have hurt myself.

Sharon: Why couldn’t I have said, “O.K., the ring is gone. I missed that one, on to the next one”? Maybe it was something different with me, but why couldn’t a collector say, “All right, it’s gone. I don’t like the second choice that much. I’m going to walk away”?

Shirley: A good point, and that would be the logical thing to do. I think the more we know about neuroeconomics and behavioral economics, the more likely we are able to do that, because we can use our knowledge rather than emotion. I can say to a certain degree we use emotion in virtually all the decisions we make, up to 98 or 99 percent of them. If we want to tone that down, being aware of the process by which we make decisions will help us make overall better decisions.

Sharon: I’m sure that’s true, but I have to say to everybody listening that in the heat of seeing something you like and you missed, that knowledge goes out the window very quickly.

Shirley: Exactly. That almost happened to me the other day in the heat of the moment, so to speak. I saw on the internet a Chinese screen. It was so beautiful; it was red lacquer with black lacquer. The last thing we need in our house is a Chinese screen. We currently have one that is authentic. This was a knock-off, essentially, but in the heat of the moment, I thought, “I’m going to buy this.” I showed it to my husband, and he said, “It’s beautiful. It’s fine.” Thank goodness, I waited 10 minutes and then I didn’t want to buy it anymore.

Sharon: Yeah, it’s usually that little bit of time. I waited until the next day because I wanted to think about that ring. Tell us what Chinese export porcelain is, exactly.

Shirley: Chinese export porcelain is porcelain that is made in China and exported to the West, therefore the export part. This has been going on since the 1500s. There’s a long history of Chinese porcelain being exported, first to Europe, and even before that to India and the east coast of Africa. Then it went to Europe, first to Spain and Portugal and then to Holland after that, and finally the English were involved. After the European countries, the Americans became traders with China directly. We actually couldn’t do that until after 1776, because England insisted that we get all our porcelain through England, which meant they controlled the trade until that time. 

Sharon: How did you become interested in this?

Shirley: That’s such a good question. It seems that for some reason, perhaps almost magical, it relaxes me. The reason I found that is because when I was in high school, I watched a movie, “The Inn of the Seventh Happiness” with Ingrid Bergman. I might be off by a digit; it might be “The Sixth Happiness,” but it’s definitely sixth or seventh. She was a missionary in China and she helped Chinese orphans. Of course, I wanted to do the same thing; it seemed very generous and almost glamorous. I went through medical school, and I found that I probably wouldn’t be going to China for a variety of reasons. One is that it was closed to Americans by and large, and secondly, by that time, I was married and had a child. It seemed as though becoming interested in Chinese export porcelain was a way to drift into that area, Chinese culture, without actually being in China. That really is what it has done. I have been able to learn a great deal about China and the people in China, the history of China, the culture of China. I’ve been invited to speak in China by the Chinese government twice. It’s been an expansion of my life, essentially. It’s made my life better. Getting back to what I said initially, when I was so busy as a physician, reading about it, for some magical reason, just made me relax as though I had taken a hot bath and had no cares.

Sharon: I think for a lot of collectors it’s that you can lose yourself in it. I have a whole library of jewelry books, many of which I’ve never cracked the cover, but sometimes you see something and it’s like, “It’s a lot cheaper than a piece of jewelry, so I’ll get a book.”

Shirley: Right, and collecting isn’t like work. You go to work and you have certain hours and you have to comply with certain rules. Collecting is something you can do on your own time, using however much money you see fit and traveling—at least when it isn’t Covid—however much you want, depending on your budget. It isn’t obligatory like a job. It truly is a pleasure.

Sharon: That’s so interesting. At the very beginning of your book, you talk about the benefits of collecting. I think of all the travel I’ve done because of it, the people I’ve gotten to know, the pleasure it brings. If I hadn’t done that, I’m sure I would have found something else to fill that void, but it has enriched my life. That’s a good way to say it. 

Shirley: Exactly. It’s what makes life worth living. It’s extra. It’s like the frosting on the cake. It’s so much more than a job, and it’s so much more than a hobby; it’s a passion. That is truly what makes life worth living.

Sharon: So, it relaxed you, but what is it that attracted you? You say it’s a passion. What was the draw to Chinese export porcelain? Do you know what it was?

Shirley: I think it related to my high school experience, where I saw Ingrid Bergman playing the missionary and how I aspired to be like her. I think that was the draw with China, and the porcelain was a perfect segue into that. Who hasn’t admired Ingrid Bergman? But more than that, the China, like Ingrid Bergman, is beautiful. When I first started collecting it and reading about it, I didn’t realize that other people thought other kinds of porcelain were better and done more discreetly than Chinese porcelain. I’ve since learned that Meissen might be considered to be done in a more delicate way than Chinese porcelain, but it didn’t dent my passion at all. Once I got into Chinese porcelain, it’s like I had a child, I had a baby that was growing up to be an adult. Those that had Meissen or whatever else, they had their own child they were grooming, but mine was Chinese porcelain. Today, when I see beautiful pieces—let’s say I saw a Meissen piece—I might like it and I might want to buy it, but I know I can’t because what I know is Chinese porcelain. It’s as though I had a child and I know my own child, but I don’t know other people’s children as well.

Sharon: Can you tell us about the first piece you bought, or where you saw your first piece or how it started?

Shirley: Sure. That was in London, and it was at a modest market. My husband is very kind; he goes with me abroad, and that has been a real perk, that I always have a companion. We went into a store that was full of Chinese porcelain displayed in the most beautiful way, and how could I not buy several pieces? That started the whole thing. In fact, I still have those several pieces up on a high shelf. Even though they aren’t my best pieces, they started the whole thing. As I changed throughout collecting, as most collectors change, we become more sophisticated. We want not only what we like, but we want something unique and rare, so we have something special that others don’t. People do this within the limitations of their pocketbook, of course, but from my point of view, a person who collects lunch boxes, let’s say, is exactly the same as me, because we both do all of this research. I know the best Chinese porcelain to get; that person knows the lunch box to get, and it serves a purpose in life, looking for that special piece. 

There are collectors’ clubs that reinforce this when we belong to organizations. Other people are also interested in the same thing, and this makes a companion of others. It gives us social possibilities. In fact, as an example, over the last several days I have communicated primarily with people involved in Chinese export porcelain, asking opinions, receiving opinions and trying to increase my knowledge, just as they are theirs. Sharon, it is so wonderful, because right now, there are many Zooms having to do with Chinese export porcelain. Just yesterday there was one from Holland that was done so well. It was an exhibit in The Hague about Delft; not Chinese porcelain, but Delft is related to Chinese porcelain. It was like floating away on a cloud. I didn’t have to go to Holland; I could do it on Zoom. That’s of course because of Covid, one of the benefits of Covid, but the social aspect came out; the intellectual aspect came out; the beauty came out, because the display was fabulous. 

Sharon: Yeah, that is one of the benefits. This weekend there were two jewelry conferences that I could have gone to in New York, and I live in Los Angeles. I’m one of the few nuts that will go that far, but I could sit in my living room and watch them, which was great. They were virtual this time.

Shirley: That is great. Do they offer opportunities to buy? I’m curious.

Sharon: These were more educational, but there was a social aspect. People were getting on saying, “This is fabulous,” and I saw people I had wanted to talk to but hadn’t. Even last night, I was emailing some of them and saying, “Hey, I saw you on the conference,” and “How are you?” and that sort of thing. There are plenty of opportunities to buy on Instagram, but I do miss the shows. 

Shirley: I do, too, because I learn at them and the dealers become friends.

Sharon: Yes, they do. People have been skeptical of that because when I say a friend is coming over, they’ll say, “Oh, you mean a dealer.” Well, they are friends, too.

Shirley: Right.

Sharon: I like to think they’re after more than just my money.

Shirley: We all do. That’s human. 

Sharon: First of all, I want to say to everybody listening, if you get a chance to buy or locate Shirley’s book, Inside the Head of a Collector, it is so fascinating. It sounds like a heavy book because it says Neuropsychological Forces at Play, but it’s so well done. It’s broken up into a lot of chunks that are digestible. When you hear the title, you think “Oh, this is going to be a heavy academic tome,” but it’s not at all. It’s very well done. It’s very contemporary, in the sense of all the scientific blurbs and pictures. Is that something you wanted? Did you have a vision when you started writing this?

Shirley: Yes, to make it user-friendly. Each chapter has a small neuropsychological section. It can be a page or two pages, and it’s clearly demarcated. If someone wants to read the book and just look at the photographs, he or she can do it, but if someone wants to delve into the neuropsychology, it is there as well. I think the chatty part of the book is what makes it interesting and introduces neuropsychology. I myself have had so much experience buying and a little bit selling, because occasionally, like most collectors, I get an opportunity to sell something, especially if I have seconds. I will consider that, but I wanted to make it easy and fun to read and digestible.

Sharon: It is all of that. Because you use your experience and real-life examples, it makes it very relatable.

Shirley: Thank you. I’ve gotten good reviews, which has pleased me a great deal, and by people who are considered well-based in the field, so that’s been a wonderful experience. It covers such things as—in part one, “The Thrill of the Chase”—novelty and discovery and social benefits. That is part of the positive of collecting. There are many more, but this is a book, so I had to limit it to some degree. The pain of collecting is also covered, such as fakes, which all of us will buy from time to time, damage and loss and collecting without knowing why, which means hoarding. The damage and loss section under the pain section is interesting. I actually had several pieces that were being sent to me from Holland, and they were in two boxes. One box arrived on time and the other box, for reasons that are unclear, was diverted to Denmark, which is hardly a direct way to send something to someone in the United States from Holland. Nevertheless, it got diverted to Denmark. It was quite expensive, and I wouldn’t have felt good about losing it. First of all, I hate to damage anything, and these things are so precious to me. But when the person I bought it from called the powers that be in Denmark, he was told, “Oh, we’re so sorry. We know where the package is, but we can’t get it out because it’s already gone through customs here. We will send it, but we can’t send it right now because we don’t have enough planes to go to the United States.” So, it stayed there for six weeks. Finally, they had a plane that evidently was able to bring it, but these are the funny and silly things that one faces occasionally. I must say it’s frustrating, too, when collecting. One never knows what will happen, as in life.

Sharon: That’s very true. Talk to us about the thrill of the chase. 

Shirley: For me, the thrill of the chase is finding something that is very special in a place where you don’t expect it. Of course, it can involve perusing auction catalogues online these days, and many people do that. I’m trying to think of the most special things I’ve found. I just happened on them accidentally in person, going into a shop and realizing that something was special. The shop owner doesn’t always realize it, and sometimes I’m willing to take a chance because I’m not sure either, but I buy the piece anyway if it doesn’t cost too much money. This has resulted in my obtaining several pieces that are unique. There are only a few in the world, and I’ve been lucky enough to get them.

Sharon: Wow! That is so compelling, when you find out there are only three in the world and you have one. That’s exciting. I don’t know why. It’s not like everybody’s knocking down the door to get it, but it’s exciting.

Shirley: Do you know this old statement, “hope springs eternal”? Of course, that’s really what keeps us going. We always hope for something better for ourselves. We always want to be happy and be in comfortable circumstances, and justifiably so. With collecting, hope springs eternal applies even more so, because the anticipation of obtaining something we want stimulates our pleasure center even more than when we get it. Anticipation pumps us up. Then, if we get what we want, our pleasure center quiets down, and to stimulate again, we have to anticipate getting the next thing we deem to be valuable. So, collectors generally continue collecting forever. In fact, many collectors buy a piece the day they die because they’re going right to the end. 

Sharon: I don’t know if I’ll be doing that, but that’s interesting. I can see that. An essential question to me is, are our brains built differently than other people who do not collect or aren’t interested in collecting?

Shirley: That’s a very good question. What contributes to our collecting has to do with genetics, environment, culture, experience and a variety of other areas we know about. We are probably different, in that for some reason, collecting and acquiring satisfies a need in us. For other people, it might be skill at baseball, for example, but in us, we have that need to gather objects in a certain area. Beyond what I just said, I don’t think we can pinpoint it any more specifically because we don’t know yet, but one day, I anticipate we will. Sharon, one thing that I find very difficult—and since I wrote the book, this has come up several times by quite a few people—is when one person collects and the other doesn’t. It can actually present a stress in the marriage, and what to do about that is something I hope to either study or write about or both. It can be a situation where even if the collector only spends modest amounts that the couple can afford, the other spouse still feels she or he doesn’t get enough attention because the collector spouse is collecting. They can also make a big issue of even a modest amount spent on collecting. This is, I would say, a downside of collecting when we have people who are married and they aren’t both collectors. That’s something that could be looked into in the future, and there will be an answer to make the relationship more harmonious. I can envision when there are psychiatrists who specialize in collectors and their spouses.

Sharon: Definitely, I can see that. I’m fortunate that my husband looks the other way, but I think he’s smart enough to do that. It’s like when somebody becomes much more religious than the other person.

Shirley: Like you said about your husband, he is indeed a smart man to look the other way. My husband has been involved in that he goes with me. For him, it’s more than just going with me, because he meets a lot of people and he’s social. He enjoys it.

Sharon: That’s very nice. All of us would really like that. My husband will travel with me and he’s indulgent in terms of, “O.K., if you want to go into that shop, fine,” but he’s not that interested in what I collect. You talk about collectors versus hoarders. Can you talk a little about that?

Shirley: Just in a few sentences, collectors enjoy their collection and hoarders do not.  Hoarders collect items that are less valuable than collectors. Collectors generally collect high-end items, or at least items that have a theme. For example, let’s say a nurse collects lunch boxes. She has a theme, where a hoarder might collect anything she or he sees, for example string, money they see on the sidewalk, pails, anything, and fill their house with all of this detritus, more or less. As they do this, the family can become quite disturbed, because eventually there’s nowhere to walk, and this makes a hoarder feel not good. One of the things that might be involved with hoarding is not only a psychological diagnosis, like obsessive-compulsive, but there might actually be, in some of them, a brain abnormality. We do know that people who have had brain tumors can show hoarding activity, which means there’s something in their brain that’s affected by the tumor that makes them collect. It’s a complicated process, and it’s probably difficult for someone looking in to be sympathetic to a hoarder, but I think we have to keep in mind that it’s a disease just like other problems, like diabetes or high blood pressure and so on.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s interesting. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. I’ve never personally met a hoarder, but I don’t get the sense they’re happy about it.

Shirley: Right, exactly. In fact, they’re distressed about it. There have been cases where they have hoarded by putting items to the ceiling, and as they get old and crotchety and can’t move around very well anymore, what they have hoarded has fallen on top of them. They can’t get up and they die in their own homes by their own hoarding, which is horrible to think of.

Sharon: Yes.

Shirley: In terms of incident, one-third to 40 percent of the population collects—maybe 107 million of the United States population—but only 3 to 6 percent of the population are hoarders. That means something like 3 to 15 million, so many, many fewer. I like to concentrate on the collectors who are clearly the happy ones most of the time. Of those who hoard, it has been found my studies that 50 percent have some kind of depressive disorder.

Sharon: That wouldn’t surprise me. Can you tell us more about the Nobel Prize winners with the auction? I just saw the headline about the economist receiving the Nobel Economics Prize but I didn’t read all the details. Can you tell us about that?

Shirley: I wish I could tell you more. At this point, I don’t even know their names, but I am extremely happy that not only did they win the prize for studying auction behavior, but also that they are being given kudos for studying something that has surely helped not only collectors, but also evidently the government, because the government is involved in auctions periodically. That’s obviously pretty exciting. I think it was two men who won the prize. There were, as everyone knows, two women who won the Nobel Prize together as well recently, but that is about all I can say related to it.

Sharon: We can all read the news stories, then. Why did you write the book? Did you see a need in the marketplace ?

Shirley: As I was writing the Physician’s Money Digest for over 10 years when I was a financial advisor, I found that what I was writing about applied so directly to collecting. When I began to use my knowledge myself, I realized it helped me, at least to a certain degree, to understand what was going on. I thought, “If I can apply this, if I can put thoughts to pen and paper, then perhaps other people would not only be interested, but it might benefit them as well.” That was my intent of sharing it in the form of a book and lectures that I’ve given. In fact, I’m giving a grand rounds in London in December to physicians. There’s a new trend in medicine to combine the humanities with medicine, and my lecture would be part of that effort. 

Sharon: That’s really interesting, the fact that you can do that in December. 

Shirley: Oh, it’ll be a Zoom.

Sharon: O.K.

Shirley: It’ll have to be a Zoom. I don’t know that we can even get into the U.K.

Sharon: I guess a lot of us thought by the end year we could get back on planes, but I guess that’s not going to happen, or it looks less likely. We talked about collectors maturing and becoming more sophisticated. The popular word now is curating. A friend of mine who’s also a collector said, “I have been curating my collection.” You buy everything in sight when you first start and then you say, “O.K., now I understand more about what gives something value or how it’s made or its provenance.” Can you talk more about that, about how collectors mature?

Shirley: Yes. Curating is a wonderful word because all collectors do that. We all display our treasures in a specific way, and as we get older with our collecting or as our collecting matures, we see things differently. We see what we originally selected is not as important to us as what we collect later, which generally tells more of a story. I think a lot of collectors, myself included, started out more with pretty, so to speak, and after that, it had to fit into a certain timeline, and after that, it had to fit into unique and special. Finally at the end, it has to be not only all of those things, but also cost-effective, because many of our budgets don’t allow us to buy what we would like to buy. Someone asked me recently what I would like to buy. In all honesty, what I would like to buy would cost too much money for most people to buy. I know I can never buy it. On the other hand, I can still appreciate it and allow it to make me feel good, even though I don’t own it, because I understand where it fits into the whole scheme. 

Sharon: That’s interesting. How much of collecting do you think is the actual owning?

Shirley: That’s very interesting, because we can collect experiences and we don’t have to own it. We just have to go through a process. Let’s say we want a river trip down the Grand Canyon. That’s an experience and it’s valuable. The way I look at collecting is that we have experiences as we collect. We’re gathering experiences all the time, but in the end, we have something to show for it. Whereas with a trip down the Grand Canyon, you don’t have a tangible item at the end to show. Collecting involves not only experiences, but also an object. You remember the object that was sent from Holland but had a vacation in Denmark?

Sharon: Yes.

Shirley: That particular object, for example, involved an experience that I will never forget. It’s part of me now. There are so many experiences I could tell you. Every object has a story. If someone is willing to listen, I will be happy to tell them, but I don’t think many people have that much patience. 

Sharon: I’m sure they’re very interesting stories. Do you have another book? Have you been considering writing another book? What would be the topic for your next one?

Shirley: I will do an update on this book. In the meantime, I feel I have to write a different sort of book. I happen to have a set of Chinese export plaques which show porcelain production. They are late, the last half of the 19th century or early 20th century, and they are so unique that they deserve a small book. Anything that shows the arts of China is generally valued by collectors of Chinese art. For example, that would be silk production, porcelain production, Chi, this sort of thing. A set of anything showing porcelain production that late is rare, if anyone could find it at all. So, I feel the need to do this, to make it available to the world. Granted, there will only be maybe 400 to 1,000 people in the world who will be interested, but that’s enough because they’re my group. They’re my tribe. We collectors have our group.

Sharon: It’s true. You can say you collect whatever it is, and we all have our tribes. Shirley, thank you so much for being here today. Everybody, if you want an interesting book, Inside the Head of the Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play is very digestible. It’s a book you can pick up and flip through, and you don’t have to read the whole thing. The whole thing is very interesting, but you’ll find the different sidebars and illustrations will catch your eye. It’s very well done. Shirley, thank you so much for being with us today. To everybody listening, that’s it for today’s Jewelry Journey. Please join us next time when our guest will be another professional who can illuminate our own jewelry journeys. You can find this podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Thank you so much listening and we’ll see you next time.