The Collector (III)

Candida Höfer, Libraries, Kupferstichkabinett Dresden

Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden (from Candida Höfer, Libraries).

When Koçu realised that he would not live to finish the Encyclopaedia, he told Semavi Eyice that he was going to take his entire collection, a lifetime of scavenging, and burn it in his garden. Only a true collector would consider such a gesture, which calls to mind the novelist Bruce Chatwin, who for part of his life worked at Sotheby’s, and whose hero, Utz, destroys his own porcelain collection in a moment of rage. Koçu did not, in the end, let anger get the better of him […] Unable to synthesise the sad story of the past into a text or enshrine it in a museum, Koçu spent his last years in an apartment piled high with mountains of paper.

He was powerless because – just like those pure collectors who rate things not according to market value but rather subjective value – he was sentimentally attached to the stories he spent so many years digging out of newspapers, libraries and Ottoman documents. A happy collector (usually this is a ‘Western’ gentleman) is someone who – regardless of the origins of his quest – is able to bring order to his assembled objects, to classify them in such a way that the relationship between different objects is clear and the logic of his system transparent. But in Koçu’s Istanbul there was no museum comprising a single collection. Koçu’s Istanbul Encyclopaedia is not so much a museum as one of those curiosity chests that were so popular amongst European princes and artists between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. To turn the pages of the Istanbul Encyclopaedia is like looking into the window of one of those cabinets: even as you marvel at the seashells, animal bones and mineral samples, you can’t help smiling at its quaintness.

From Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul, chapter 18 (Reşat Ekrem Koçu’s Collection of Facts and Curiosities: The Istanbul Encyclopaedia).

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