In his famous collection of children’s poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends, late author Shel Silverstein writes of a fellow who collects bits of string, dolls with broken heads, copper keys that fit no locks, airplane models and broken bottles. Hector the Collector “loved these things with all his soul… loved them more than glistenin’ gold.” But when Hector invites people to share his treasure, “all the silly sightless people came and looked… and called it junk.”
One man’s trash, right?
What is this thing we have about things? According to archaeologists, the earliest stone tools date back 3.3 million years, to apelike beings in Africa. But those were items of pure utility – not so different from the rocks chimps use to break open nuts or build nests, then unsentimentally ditch come morning. The real question: Why did people start filling their lives with redundant objects that serve no apparent purpose? Give us a space, they say, and we will fill it – from a homeless person’s shopping cart to the Palace of Versailles.
The act of collecting things is highly individualistic. In his book The System of Objects, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard theorized that “what you really collect is always yourself.” A collection, he says, is a way to define who we are in a chaotic world. Real estate moguls collect skyscrapers. Chefs collect copper pots. Grandma collects Precious Moments figurines. “Any collection comprises a succession of items,” writes Baudrillard, “but the last in the set is the person of the collector.”
Rowlan Hill, owner of Phoenix-based Blue Leaf Estate Auctions, says in his 32 years as an auctioneer, he’s come across numerous curious collections. “There was one guy who had about 200 guns,” Hill recalls. “Of course, this is Arizona.” Once, he found a dusty box shoved in the back of a closet filled with Nazi memorabilia. “It had German postage stamps, an arm band with a swastika… currency with Hitler’s image,” he says. It’s now collecting more dust in Hill’s garage. “There are some things we won’t sell.”
More often than not, Hill says most people do not care to inherit the collections of their dearly departed, choosing to sell off the stuff instead. “I sat there one day and I thought, ‘Why do we keep so many things? Why do we collect things?’” he says. “This person thought so much of their button collection, and here I am tearing it apart.”
But for every person who doesn’t want a particular doodad, there is someone else out there who does. “There are people out there licking their chops... to find the [golden] nuggets,” says Hill. “There’s pleasure in finding something that’s rare.”
PHOENIX has rounded up several collectors from around the Valley who have amassed impressive collections over the years, from the extravagant to the kitschy, and asks what motivates them to keep going. It’s our own collection of sorts.
THE SCHOLAR OF SIGNAGE
From the street, the Michael A. Pollack Real Estate Investments headquarters in west Mesa looks like any of the 60 or so innocuous stucco strip malls Pollack owns across the East Valley. But inside are three museums built to house Pollack’s various collections – sprawling, well-lit and well-dusted rooms off a maze of black-and-white tiled passageways with columns and frescos à la Caesars Palace (Vegas, not Rome). “It’s slowed down,” Pollack says of his efforts to add more items to his shelves. “I’m simply running out of room.”
There are the vintage slot machines, including about 42 carved by Phoenix cowboy artist Frank Polk, out of 92 in the world, featuring full-size cowboys and Indians. Pollack also has a room for vintage upright slot machines – gorgeous, heavy, carved wood antiques from the turn of the century.
And then there’s the coup de grâce – the largest assemblage of 3-D advertising on the globe, officially certified by Guinness World Records in September. The collection comprises nearly 9,000 items of advertising ephemera, such as the electric-powered Hamm’s bears once used to sell beer in supermarkets and a massive Bob’s Big Boy statue. “My wife calls it insanity, I call it passion… and restoring history,” Pollack says. He likes the creativity and whimsy, not to mention the craftsmanship of old-school advertising not seen in the cheap plastics of today.
The commercial real estate baron – whose 11 million square feet of strip malls could register as a fourth collection – displays an uncanny ability to recount the story behind nearly every piece in the room. This miniature statue of a slender woman doling out perfume for old department stores was found in a French antique dealer’s attic; this display for Napoleon Cognac required its own plane ticket from France to avoid damage. “I do everything I can to get the stories and the histories of all the machines I buy,” he says.
Pollack says his interest in 3-D ads started in his pre-teen days when he’d buy old neon beer signs at flea markets in his native San Jose, California, restore them, then sell them for a profit. His collection really began in earnest at age 21, he says, when he bought a warehouse’s worth of decommissioned pieces a defunct manufacturing group was trying to sell off piece by piece.
Among the masses in his Mesa showroom are about 150 mechanical displays for store windows made by the Baranger Company of Pasadena from the 1920s to 1959. The small displays – no more than two feet wide – were rented to jewelry stores to advertise diamond engagement rings. Some are cute, e.g. a bride and groom blasting to the moon in a rocket ship since the diamonds for sale were, the creator seems to be implying, out of this world. Others are side-eye-worthy, e.g. a caveman bashing his bride over the head with a club so she says “yes.” “It’s not mine to decide what was advertised [back then] or not, it’s my job to display history,” Pollack says.
As for an exit strategy, Pollack says he doesn’t have one. His son doesn’t seem to be interested in inheriting his collections, so perhaps they’ll be donated to a museum one day. But still, “death isn’t on my radar,” he insists. “While I’m here on this earth, I get to be the curator of this incredible amount of history.”
Guinness hasn’t yet certified Vic Clinco’s claim of owning the world’s largest hot sauce collection, but with 8,000 bottles taking up precious real estate in his Glendale living room, he’s clearly a strong candidate.
“I give a lot of props to my wife, because no one else’s wife would let them do this,” Clinco says, gesturing to his floor-to-ceiling sauce shelves, a pepper tattoo emblazoned on his forearm. A true chile head, Clinco really loves the stuff, though his collection isn’t for consuming. Instead, he maintains a cabinet in his kitchen with about 200 rotating sauces for cooking, and always carries a few vials of chile powders and syrups in his pocket to kick up meals while eating out. He travels around the country to hot sauce conventions and has competed in what more milquetoast tongues would call an insane number of pepper-eating competitions.
Trophies around the room variously declare Clinco the winner of an “atomic” chicken-wing-eating contest in Texas, a spicy burger competition in Albuquerque and a hot-lollipop-sucking tournament. The pop was rated somewhere between 1 million to 2 million on the Scoville Heat Scale (0 is a bell pepper, upward of 5 million is standard pepper spray). “You have to dissolve it by sucking it the fastest... it becomes shards, just shreds your tongue and the roof of your mouth, then the capsaicin [the burning element in peppers] gets in the cuts,” he says with pride, some sort of primal competitive itch scratched. “I’ve entered nine times and won eight.”
Clinco says his collection started in earnest when he found The Great Hot Sauce Book, featuring about 130 sauces from around the world. “I don’t know, it just ignited something in me,” he says of his quest to find the listed sauces and check them off. “I had no idea there was so much flavor out there. It’s become a treasure hunt.”
Twenty years later, Clinco no longer needs to scour the Earth for rare bottles of sauce; instead, manufacturers and small-scale makers from across the globe send them free of charge. The most valuable, he thinks, are a few limited-edition bottles from Blair’s Caldera Reserve out of Key West – hand-dipped in wax, some with 24-karat gold skulls, containing hellish sludge that can get up to 13 million Scoville units. “I’ve seen someone asking $799 for a bottle on eBay,” Clinco says.
As the seasoned capsaicin junkie gets older, his tolerance for super spice has waned. “One day I might donate [my collection] to a museum,” Clinco says of his stash. “What’s stopped me is I like having it here with me… The mailman comes, the FedEx guy comes and says, ‘What’s that?!’ Halloween is really fun. We do tours every Halloween night, and I give hot sauce packets out to the adults.”
THE “WING” NUTS
Mike Krueger’s sunny game room in Glendale is Marie Kondo’s nightmare. Model airplanes hang from the ceiling. Miniature metal airplanes crowd shelves strewn about the room. Baltimore Orioles memorabilia clutter the walls, while a life-size cardboard cutout of Cal Ripken greets guests at the door.
“There’s a lot of time and effort in [this room],” says Krueger, a 57-year-old Phoenix native who owns Victory Lane Sports Park in Glendale. “When I was a kid, I built plastic models… and was always collecting those kits.” Now, about 700 unbuilt kits are spilling out of the closet.
He also has more than a thousand miniature metal die-cast airplanes – referring to a method of pouring molten lead or zinc alloy into a mold to produce a particular shape. Most of Krueger’s planes are commercial airlines. He’s even built a replica airport, complete with light-up terminals made of jewelry boxes and runway landscaping of sandpaper, to display some of his models (this page, right). “I’ve always loved aviation and planes,” he says. “I go to the airport and watch them, and when we travel, I go check out airports… When I retire, I’m going to Sky Harbor and will be on the runway loading bags.”
One day, Krueger says he’d like to see the planes go to an aviation school or museum. His Orioles souvenirs, on the other hand, he thinks he could sell for a decent price… once he gets around to cataloguing them all, of course. His daughter Carli thinks that task will likely fall to her. “I’m the only one sentimental enough to deal with it,” the Heard Museum graphic designer says with a laugh.
Unlike her mother and brother, the 25-year-old has caught her dad’s collecting bug, adding to her anthology of vintage books, typewriters and cameras. “When [Dad] traveled, he’d always bring something back for me,” such as enamel pins to fill up her jean jackets or, like many young millennials, Pokémon trading cards. It became a hobby father and daughter could do together, mining garage sales on weekends or antiques shops near their family’s cabin in Prescott.
Though Carli (above, with her dad) says she doesn’t share her father’s almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the worth of collectibles, he assures her: “You’re young. You have time to get crazy like me.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Craig Jackson – the chairman and CEO of Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auctions – is that he once drove a 1977 van across the country and camped in it. This is a man who has a personalized $2 million Bugatti Veyron on a turntable controlled by his smartphone in the middle of his circular customized garage on his beautiful property on the side of a mountain in Paradise Valley.
He inherited the extremely successful auto auction company from his father, Russ, who started it in Scottsdale in the late 1960s. “I had always wanted to build houses,” Jackson says of growing up. “But I’ve always been good at restoring cars.”
Perhaps that’s what sets Jackson apart from many of his clients – wealthy collectors who splurge on mind-bogglingly expensive cars at the flagship annual auction at WestWorld. He finds rusty classic and antique cars and restores them to their pristine original states. Take his first car – a 1966 Pontiac LeMans gifted to him by his grandmother in 1976. A sophomore in high school, Jackson didn’t have his driver’s license yet, so he spent the summer sprucing it up, painting it, installing a GTO hood and rebuilding the engine.
In 1989, he bought his first collector car, a 1969 Camaro ZL1. There’s a photo of a young, shorts-clad Jackson beaming next to the car, painted black and emblazoned with sponsors’ logos for racing, at a dealership in Winchester, Indiana. The photo has been scanned onto a touchscreen TV, one of which appears next to each of the 12 cars parked in the round and contains digitized historical documents, photos and stats on each vehicle. The ZL1 is now fully restored – shiny, silver and, oh, so sexy.
“Fifty-six [cars],” Jackson says. “I guess that’s where we’re at now.” His personal collection – mainly sports and muscle cars, many rare, such as a 1968 Shelby “Green Hornet” Mustang valued at $2 million – is spread between his home and Scottsdale offices. “One car goes out, one car comes home – that’s how I exercise them,” he says. As for choosing what to drive for the day, he shrugs. “Whatever fits the occasion.”
THE CARD SHARK
“Part of the fun of postcard collecting is all of the detective work it sometimes takes to figure out what’s in the photograph,” writes Mark Hughes in a journal entry about a particular 1920s-era card titled “The ‘Frolic.’ Phoenix, Arizona.” The amateur history sleuth and former journalist and City of Phoenix communications director found the answer in a book from Phoenician Bert Smith, who describes going on a dance at the Frolic – “a big barn of a place” off First and Van Buren streets – while a sophomore at Phoenix Union High School in 1926.
“I want to find out what this town looked like before I got here,” Hughes says of his vintage Phoenix postcard collection. He estimates he has about 2,800 cards, which are expertly categorized in neat shoeboxes and organized by tabs like “resorts,” “politicians” and “agriculture.” There’s a technicolor photo of a citrus tree grove that once occupied his Arcadia neighborhood. Another shows two swimmers about to take a dip in the Arizona Canal in the 1920s, at least 20 years before the first residential pools were dug. From 1993 to 2009, Hughes wrote about his cards in a monthly column for Phoenix Downtown Magazine before it folded.
Hughes says his collection “just kind of happened,” but perhaps his obsession was set in motion when he appeared on a photo card himself as a 5-year-old walking with his father in Downtown Phoenix. “They used to have street photographers that snapped your photo when you were least expecting it, then hand you a card and tell you to come back the next day to pick it up,” he recalls. “People used to send postcards of their photos to family.”
An added bonus for a former reporter (in addition to the magazine, Hughes once wrote for the Arizona Republic). Hughes says, is “you get to read other people’s mail, which is fun.” One hand-colored card of the Adams Hotel dated May 17, 1920 reads: “Dear Jim, the Hotel Adams burned to the ground this morning. I lost all my things but saved my life.” (Read The Adams Family in PHOENIX November 2017, for more on the hotel.)
“There’s a million stories in this desert town,” Hughes says. “I like discovering stories.”
MOVERS OF SHAKERS
The No. 1 rule of collecting salt and pepper shakers is you never, ever, put salt in them. Salt warps the shakers, say Surprise couple Pat and Barry Yedlin, who head up the Grand Canyon chapter of the Novelty Salt & Pepper Shakers Club, which hosts national conventions every year.
“We started collecting in ’89,” Barry explains. “Pat wanted a pepper grinder for Christmas and we were collecting Steiff [as in German teddy bear inventor Richard Steiff] Teddy bears at the time, so I brought home some teddy bear shakers that went on a shelf in the kitchen, and then they started multiplying.” Today, the pair have nearly 2,500 sets of (empty) shakers displayed in custom wood and glass panel shelves built by Barry.
There are plenty of dogs, as well as a nearly complete collection of Arcadia minis – impossibly tiny (2 inches, tops) novelty shakers from the 1950s and 1960s featuring mundane pairings like a piece of pie and a cup of coffee or a broom and a dustpan. But most are bears, grouped together by loose theme: polar bears and grizzly bears; bears dressed in cowboy costumes or nuns’ habits; Smokey the Bears and kissing pandas; a whole cabinet for Christmas-themed bears. “We have koala bears, even though they’re not really bears,” Pat says.
“We’d find them at street fairs or antiques shows – it was something fun to do on weekends,” she says of getting started. “Then eBay came around, and that really affected things – prices plummeted.” A good set of Paddington Bear shakers, for example, could once net you $325, she says. Now they’re about $10. The Internet has taken a lot of the hunt out of the game.
But at least there are the annual shaker conventions. “It’s still fun to get together with people that like to collect,” Pat says of the conventions, which attract hundreds and are held in different locales across the country. Before retirement, the Yedlins would plan vacations around the gatherings, where sellers arrange hundreds of shakers atop their hotel beds and buyers scrounge for missing sets.
“It becomes like a family reunion, you see friends from all over once a year,” Pat says. “We can look at [the shakers] and have good memories of a trip or good friends who gave them to us.”
The Yedlins don’t have children, so when they pass on, the shakers will likely go to a nephew. “We realize they don’t really have value in the overall estate,” Pat says, “but hopefully he’ll contact someone in the [Shakers] club.”
Barry takes a more philosophical stance: “We figure our nephew will dispose of ‘em. We won’t be around, though, so who cares?”
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