Our attachment to objects

By Caitlin Kelly

Silly, perhaps, but I get such pleasure from using my red leather Filofax!

Why do we form our attachment to certain objects?

Whether something inherited from a beloved ancestor or a gift from a friend or our partner or spouse or something we buy that we’ve always wanted or have saved hard for.

I was listening to the terrific NPR radio show Radiolab as I drove into Manhattan recently to attend the Winter Antiques Show, arguably the best show in that city each year, and probably one of the world’s best places to look at — and buy –museum-quality objects of every possible material, design and period.


Radiolab’s episode was all about why and why we become emotionally attached to certain objects or why some of them fill us with awe.

One of my favorite travel moments was finally seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, Normandy, France. As someone passionate about early textiles, I had long wanted to see it in person, and so we did. Amazing! It’s actually embroidered on linen, 230 feet long, created in 1070.

Another object, also red, that I enjoy. I found this little robot in the window of a children’s clothing shop in the 7th arrondissement in Paris

I grew up in a home filled with interesting art and objects, from Japanese prints and Eskimo sculpture, (now called Inuit), to a Picasso lithograph to my father’s own handiwork in oil, silver, lithography and etching.

I’ve also been lucky enough along the way to be able to buy some art and photographs and antiques, so our apartment is filled with reference books on art and design and a variety of decorative objects we enjoy using or looking at.

So attending the Winter Antiques Show was a special treat. Admission is $25 and it’s held at the Park Avenue Armory, an enormous red brick building on Park at 67th. It accepted 75 dealers from all over the world, from Geneva to London to California, some of whom wait for years to be allowed into the show.

And what a show!


Imagine being let loose in a great museum, able to touch, hold and examine closely the most exquisite objects — whether a fragment of an Egyptian sarcophagus or a 16th century atlas or a piece of porcelain made in 1740.

You can wander about with a glass of white wine or champagne, coming face to face with a boy’s sword from 1300, ($20,000), or an astrolabe made in 1540 for the Spanish king ($1.3 million). I assumed I wouldn’t be able to afford a thing, and many prices were four, five and six figures.

But, despite my worries, it never felt snooty.

Sure, there were women wearing furs and quite large diamonds and lots of cashmere; I wandered about in my black Gap cotton Tshirt and black leggings. I’ve studied antiques at several institutions and bought and sold them at auction, so I know what I’m looking at when it comes to several categories.

For me, it was absolute heaven, and most dealers were surprisingly kind and welcoming,  making time to explain their objects’ design and histories, like a $55,000 blue enamel pendant made by a famous British architect as a birthday gift.

It was originally found at a flea market!

Having bought some good things for low prices at auction and flea markets, I’m also always curious to find out their current market value and learn more about them. Dealers are de facto always passionate about their area of specialty, so no one seemed to mind my curiosity.

I even bought a photograph.

That was a huge surprise, and I hadn’t bought art in ages. But I discovered a Finnish photographer whose black and white work mesmerized me and the price was manageable — less than the cost of three months’ groceries.

Here’s a link to his work, and the gallery I bought it from.

One reason I so enjoy flea markets, auctions and antiques is making my own design choices. My maternal grandmother owned some very good things — but she never bothered to pay tax on her inherited fortune, so when she died almost all of it was sold to pay off those debts.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

I never saw a thing from either grandfather or my paternal grandmother and almost all my mother’s belongings were also sold quickly when she suddenly had to go into a nursing home.

Jose’s parents left him a few belongings, but we’re not a family buried in heirlooms.

Almost everything lovely in our home, then, is something we’ve bought, and an expression of our aesthetic and taste. My husband is a career photographer, (here’s his blog), so we have a growing collection of images, from one you might know (of JF Kennedy standing at the window of the Oval Office) to an early Steichen.


These 3 pendants were given to me by my mother, a friend and my late grandmother. They have sentimental value to me as a result.

My favorite objects include:

my Canadian passport, a stuffed Steiff bear the length of my thumb, another small stuffed bear, a few good photographs, two silk Hermes scarves, a photo of my paternal grandfather, who I never met.

What — if any — objects do you treasure and why?


17 thoughts on “Our attachment to objects

  1. I treasure my collection of Jane Austen novels — editions that were printed in the 1920s, found in an antiquarian bookstore. My mother bought them for me as a gift when I was 15.

    I also have a collection of beautiful hardback children’s books by Elsa Beskow, known as the Swedish Beatrix Potter. As a child, I loved reading them and having them read to me. The illustrations are wonderful. I don’t know if I’ll have children, and I certainly don’t plan on it anytime soon (so many things I want to do!), but I’m keeping those books as they have sentimental value.

    Oh, and there’s my piano… I used to practice faithfully, but my playing has become rusty. I’d like to get back in the habit!

  2. In an effort to be more minimalist I gave away the content of most of my cabinets but I have a 19thC tig I’m rather fond of and a very small piece of art deco Royal Dux.Now I look round and the place seems to have filled with little keepsakes again.
    xxx Hugs Hugs xxx

  3. I have a wedding photograph of my great-grand mother and great-grand father hanging in our hall. The photo is in an ornate hand made frame. It lay in an attic for many years and was discovered by the new owners of the house. They took a chance a sent the framed photo to my aunt. She has passed on now and the picture is mine now. It is something about ones roots that makes it precious.

    1. Oh…how nice that you have it! I have friends who have many such photos hanging on their walls and it does give them a real sense of belonging.

      Thanks for this!

      I have now visited my great-grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse where he taught, in Rathmullan, Ireland twice. That was fantastic.

  4. Great topic! Growing up as a military brat, every couple of years we’d gear up for a move which meant (due to bulk and weight restrictions) the whole family would go through everything we own and conduct a thorough winnowing of what was valued and what was just stuff. The latter would be sold, gifted, donated, or chucked. As a result, I’ve got a weird relationship with possessions. I like them, I certainly like nice things, but the idea of losing most of them doesn’t cause a huge amount of angst.

    That being said, there are exceptions! For me it’s a teddy bear given to me the day I was born which was the constant companion of my childhood (and which, to this day when moving I will NOT risk packing in a suitcase, she comes along in the carry on. Almost 30, don’t care), my engagement ring, and my passport. If the flat burned down, those would be the first things I’d think to save.

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

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