‘Understanding the collector’ after living with one for five years

By Jesse Robitaille

Once upon a time, Calgarian Lisa Dare worked with a woman whose husband was a coin collector.

As many collectors do, this man shared his hobby with friends, including fellow Calgarian and long-time numismatist James Williston.

Eventually, Dare’s colleague encouraged her to go on a so-called “blind date” with her husband’s coin-collecting friend – and little did she know, it would change the rest of her life.

“She said, ‘He’s a really great guy, he has a great job, a stable income and – oh, he’s a coin collector.’ She just kind of slid that in there.”

With experience working in the pharmaceutical industry, Dare likened the sly statement to some commonly seen advertising techniques.

“You know the commercials that talk about all the wonderful things they can do but then tells you about all the deadly side-effects at the end? And they’re spoken really quickly so you can’t really hear them? It was kind of the same thing.”

Despite his “nerd” label, Williston – a former president and honorary life member of the Calgary Numismatic Society – locked down a date with his future wife.

The two decided to meet at River Cafe in Calgary’s downtown Prince Island’s Park, where they enjoy their first date, during which time Williston mentioned only “a little bit” about numismatics.

“It was unusual; you actually didn’t overwhelm the conversation to talk about coins,” Dare said this July, during her presentation at the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) Convention, in a comment directed at her husband.

“There was a great deal of restraint.”

As things moved along, “lovely conversations” progressed into a proposal, and an Australian coin played a prominent role.

“That was the ‘proposal coin,’” Dare said, adding the wedding was held in 2014, during the fateful “Snowtember” snowstorm in Calgary.

Dare (right) speaks to attendees of the RCNA Educational Symposium this July.


Sharing her perspective as the wife of Williston, Dare offered lighthearted insights she has gleaned over many conversations with her husband’s hobby friends.

“I’m extremely surprised and overwhelmed by the response to this topic because I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received because I know how serious all of you are as collectors,” said Dare, who was one of eight speakers at this year’s RCNA Educational Symposium.

She was also interviewed on the same topic – “A Spouse’s Guide to Understanding and Living With a Collector” – by CBC Radio’s Calgary Eyeopener program during the convention.

“One of the things most of us realize when we meet somebody and we decide we want to marry them – or start a serious relationship with them – is it’s not just that person we bring into our lives,” said Dare.

“We also bring their family into our lives; we marry that family as well.”

In Williston’s case, because his extended family includes many numismatic kin, it was important for Dare to understand why people collect – and perhaps gain a better understanding of her husband while she was at it.


Scott Douglas, past RCNA education chair and organizer of the annual educational symposium can ‘attest to the fact’ there’s a significant connection to his various collections.

When asked during her CBC interview if she initially attempted to resist numismatics in any way, Dare said she viewed that idea through the eyes of the Borg, the Star Trek series’ alien antagonists.

“Resistance is futile, so you have to learn how you’re going to move through this,” Dare said, adding she had to first “understand the collector.”

“The galaxy is vast, and there are all kinds of components that make it up,” she said, adding long-time numismatist, research and author Chris Faulkner told her it’s “hard to define” the nebulous topic of the collector.

Charged with a background in science, Dare began her quest with “qualitative research” by asking collectors how they started with their hobby. The top three reasons included inheriting a collection; having an interest in history; and simply “needing” a hobby.

“This is all empirical data – it’s based on me asking people questions about how they got started – but then I thought, ‘I am a person of science, and I should do a little more digging into this.’ So I went to my most trusted assistant, Google, because the Internet never lies.”

She soon learned another “interesting” reason to collect is to add a decorative space to one’s home.

“But what is the definition of a decorative space? Binders are not the most attractive decorative feature, nor is Rubbermaid a decorative feature.”

Collectors are also driven by the challenge – and reward – in finding rare or unique items.

“I’m generalizing, but I get the sense that you boys really like the thrill of the hunt,” she said. “You’re like little treasure hunters, and I thought that was interesting so I started to dig into it a little more.”

She began researching the history of collecting, which she previously considered a “very close cousin to hoarding.”

“Collecting as sort of an activity – or I suppose, a hobby – actually started about 10,000 years ago when man began to end its nomadic lifestyle. All of a sudden, there was an ability to collect because people were no longer nomadic.”

Fast forward to the 19th century and collecting became popular as a status symbol among the aristocracy, who collected art, fossils, books, zoological specimens and just about anything else (much like today).

The Victorian-era “cabinet of curiosities” – originally used to display people’s collections – eventually led to the establishment of modern museums.

“In the present day, we now have a vast array of people who collector for a number of different reasons,” she said, adding she also explored “the why” of collecting.

“There was early research that actually suggested people usually collected because they felt an emotional connection to the subject matter.”

Scott Douglas, past RCNA education chair and organizer of the annual educational symposium, previously believed he had no emotional attachment to his collections; however, he can now “attest to the fact” there’s a significant connection to his personal cabinet of curiosities.

“As I’ve started to sell off a few things, I realize how hard it is to actually let go of some of these items. I can’t necessarily explain it, but while I’m doing it, I’m saying, ‘No, no, this is for the better and it will go to someone who can appreciate it more.’ But then the little devil is saying, ‘You appreciate it. What are you doing?’ And you realize you’re a little bit more attached than you think.”

Newer research, however, suggests people end up assembling comprehensive collections because “they are too embarrassed to let go of them once they get one or two,” Dare said.

“It becomes superfluous, but because you already have several of them, you decide to keep going.”

Despite this latest research, long-time collector and CCN columnist Jeff Fournier echoed Douglas’ comments, adding the hobby has become a piece of his “collective history.”

“Those inanimate objects are actually a part of me in a sense, and I really don’t care about the money part of it,” said Fournier, who added he usually remembers how he acquired a piece and the story behind them.

“I’ve become attached to them because I’ve actually developed a lot of relationships because of them. You look at your collection and you recall a lot of your friendships.” 

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