Citizen Kane: the `Antiques Roadshow' years

The revelation that there is now a collectors market in McDonald's ephemera is one of those facts that manages to combine shock and inevitability. You can't be serious . . . well, of course. Because the truth is that the collecting virus has only ever had a coincidental connection with discrimination or taste; it doesn't require beauty to thrive, just a minimal durability and relative scarcity. In Darwinian terms it is beautifully adapted as a parasite; each addition to the collection consolidate s its grip on the host organism, becomes a further reason to collect some more.

If the sufferer has enough money, naturally, you are likely to end up with something worthwhile. True connoisseurs work like fly fishermen, waiting patiently, applying their knowledge to the water, coaxing the objects towards them. William Randolph Hearst, on the other hand, simply dumped a trawler into the trout stream of culture and winched everything in wholesale - from Egyptian beads to a complete Cistercian monastery, dismantled in Segovia and shipped across the Atlantic in crates. The catalog ue to his collection ran to 125 volumes and he owned many objects that he had never seen and stood little chance of ever seeing.

The bizarre tale was told in The Sale of the Century (BBC 2), an intriguing account of the dispersal of a portion of Hearst's collection. When he ran into hard times in 1937, his bankers leaned on him to raise some capital fast by selling his assets, in particular his art treasures. But, as Hugh Scully pointed out, doing it through the auction houses was like trying to empty a lake using an eggcup. Instead Hearst took over Gimballs department store in New York and laid on the mother of all garage sales.He filled the store with paintings, porcelain, armour, tapestry and books - and still had enough left over to pack a warehouse. This was a little humiliating for Hearst, who had to contend at around the same time with Orson Welles' unflattering portraitof him in Citizen Kane. But it was good news for the buyers; most objects went for a fraction of their purchase price. Not everybody got a bargain, even so. As the Antiques Roadshow coda to Alan Lewen's film revealed, Hearst had bought quite a lot of high-class bric-a-brac along with the genuine treasures. The man who snapped up George Washington's waistcoat for a few hundred dollars had done very well on his investment, but far more found they had ended up with decidedly m odest objects - the sprats and whitebait from that extraordinary fishing expedition.

Sometimes, though, curiosities have their own special value. There was a good example over on Channel 4, which had devoted its schedules to Elvis for the entire evening. The King Meets the President, a seductive little film about Elvis's brief encounter with Richard Nixon, wasn't a masterpiece exactly but it told its story well and had turbid depths to it - swirls of ideas about celebrity and political innocence. It was about collecting too, in a way, since it was Elvis's obsession with accumulating lawenforcement badges that first prompted him to offer his services to the White House in the war against drugs.

"I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse," he wrote, in a letter delivered by hand to the White House door. The President's men were sceptical at first but once they had been convinced ("not just any two-bit king . . . the King") and had persuaded Elvis to surrender his weapon at the door, the strange audience took place - Elvis showed baby pictures to the President and then pulled his buddies in on the act, like a little boy who had got lucky and didn't want his friends to miss out. Nixon wasn't entirely comfortable with the meeting ("President-hugging was not a commonplace in the Oval Office," observed an aide drily) but the collector got his badge.

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