Collecting the unusual: A look at the Curiosity Collectors’ Club

Photo: CTK

Collecting as a hobby is popular in the Czech Republic as it is throughout the world: the country has no shortage of those who collect prints, coins, stamps, and works of art. But the country also boasts a high number of collectors focussed on more unusual items: from pocket diaries to fruit & vegetable labels, from historic puppets to paper tissues. The country’s Curiosity Collectors’ Club, based in Prague, was founded more than 40 years ago, and now has 1,000 members. Recently, I caught up with the group’s chairman Ladislav Likler to learn more about the art of collecting – specifically collecting the “unusual”.

“Collecting behind the Iron Curtain in former Czechoslovakia really rose in popularity in the 1960s and our club was founded in 1965. At the time it was difficult to travel abroad, so many collected things instead – to learn more about the world. Popular items in those days included matches, post cards, pins, and labels. Those were quite non-traditional items in collecting at the time, hence the name and focus of the club. But those items have become a bit more mainstream since.”

Photo: CTK
According to Ladislav Likler, Czech collectors boast some of the grandest collections in the world, for example, of chocolate bar or chewing gum wrappers! He himself has put together a famous collection of historic as well as contemporary cheese labels from all over. How many? An incredible 168,000, a collection which took decades to complete. That said, Likler, an agrobiologist by profession, makes clear that collectors of curious items are well aware that what they find worth saving is rarely valued by the broader public.

“These are items which don’t have any value for anyone other than collectors. But for us they are interesting and bring a lot of satisfaction.”

He adds that collections such as his own do have significant historic resonance, capturing an era, printing techniques of the period, painterly motifs, methods of presentation and more.

“One of things about our club is more than just about collecting but it is about knowledge and information. A number of our members have published articles or texts relating items in a historical context to specific professional fields. We have experts who also cooperate with businesses and are considered the very best.”

One person whose collection is regularly visited by TV crews and print reporters is Rudolf Kocourek, a specialist in die-cast and plastic model cars. His collection features hundreds of miniatures – from police cars and ambulances to Formula 1 – organised and carefully labelled behind glass, year by year. Enough to make any collector envious!

“I collect Fiats and brands which belong to Fiat such as Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati nowadays, dated year by year, from 1898 up to the present day. In my collection I have 2,800 Italian cars! I’ve owned several real Fiats as well which I enjoyed driving and I love Italy! The sun, the food, the sea, so maybe that’s part of the reason!”

Photo: CTK
For him, it all began 45 years ago when he was just ten years old. Rudolf Kocourek got his first Matchbox car for Christmas. All such cars were known as “angličáky” then, the collector explains:

“Angličák means a little English car. They were only Matchbox brand cars in those days. Later they moved manufacture to Thailand, and to Macau, China, Bulgaria. But first they were made in England.”

As his collection grew he had to decide what form it would take, not only in terms of focus but also in terms of scale:

Photo: CTK
“I focused on one scale, 43:1 which is about 10 centimetres long and is a very common scale in Europe. Such models aren’t difficult to store and you can see many details there. This scale is very common in Europe, although not in the US. Many producers make models in this scale. Also, given the level of the detail, there are many things you can do yourself. As a collector it was my aim to show the history of the brand through models. That means, if there’s a model which isn’t available, I can build it myself.”

Not surprisingly putting together complete collections requires certain ingenuity and last but not least a fair amount of disposable income.

“You cannot count – if you collect something – you cannot count money. It’s a not an investment, it’s an expense. You’ll never get it back!”

But collecting, says Kocourek, is worth it.

“Filling a blank space in your collection – that is the best feeling! Also, finding something new! “If I am looking for something very special which I know was produced years ago, first I try and find out if it was re-made. Was it redone in better condition. Or must I look for it? If not, then I have to go and try and find it, including Ebay or searching in the Czech Republic of course.”

Discovery, agrees Curiosity Collectors’ Club head Ladislav Likler, is a huge part of the process.

“You might be with someone showing you a collection, turning pages, and suddenly you spot something you’d heard about but never actually seen. You feel a familiar shiver down your spine but you have to keep a poker face, so the person doesn’t know how badly you want the item! But of course you do! It happened to me years ago when I got several labels from a cheese production facility which had belonged to the Archduke Ferdinand, labels which had his coat-of-arms. Nobody else has them. That’s something which then helps you through leaner years when you dig up nothing.”

Photo: CTK
Says Ladislav Likler, everyone of us has a bit of the collector within, but most never act on the impulse to take collecting further.

“Everyone has a spark for collecting but not everyone becomes a collector. As children we begin gathering things which we like. But that alone isn’t enough: to take it to the next step, it requires patience and tenacity. Not everybody has that.”

Photo: CTK
If you are thinking about starting your own collection remember it’s important to keep things realistic. No collection is ever really “complete”. Rudolf Kocourek adds that it is important to outline a clear goal or focus early on.

“From the beginning you should focus on a theme! A brand, historical period, racing cars, Formula 1 or Le mans or only Le mans winners, or police cars and ambulances, whatever, but you have to focus on what to collect! Or, you can choose a fantastic theme I call ‘What I like!’. I have seen a collection like this: ‘what I like’. 300 or 400 pieces later, it all makes sense! Because collecting is about dreams.”

Kocourek makes clear, his collection belongs to his whole family although not for taking out and playing with on the floor. Not now, not ever!

“My youngest son, now 15, promised me he will continue in my collection. But who knows? But I imagine that he will. But of course, nowadays he can not ‘touch it’! It is a collection. It’s a collection!”