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In the latest in ATG's series of Collector Interviews, we speak to American-French Paul Spencer Sochaczewski. 

Having worked in advertising and communications for global firms while also writing articles and books he is currently based in Switzerland where he is a full-time writer. He has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including over 20 years in south-east Asia.

Spencer Sochaczewski started collecting Ganesha statues while in Asia and this led him to write his latest book (out now) which is “a personal travel adventure” called Searching for Ganesha: Collecting images of the sweet-loving, elephant-headed Hindu deity everybody admires.

ATG: How did you get the collecting bug?

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski: When I was a boy I spent my allowance on Roman coins. I’ve always been a magpie collector, attracted to various items that have meaning to me or that are just intriguing. Sometimes I envy people who have gone zen, retaining few possessions.

Why Ganesha statues?

I was living in south-east Asia, and visiting south Asia regularly, when I became intrigued by the idea of Ganesha. That led naturally to collecting a few unusual statues.

I should stress that Searching for Ganesha has zero religious intent. I am an Agnostic Animist and don’t believe in organised religion.

Ganesha is a creation of man, as are all gods, and I’m intrigued how an obstacle-creating rural elephant goblin was manipulated into one of the world’s most important gods by 5th century Hindu public relations experts.

These religious marketing geniuses reversed the persona of a mean-spirited elephant spirit and made him a remover of obstacles.

In order for that repositioning to get traction, they retrofitted Ganesha with a superb pedigree and adopted symbols from nature to help him appeal to a wide audience.

Voilà, a star was born. Since I’ve always been involved in advertising and perception-influencing, I was intrigued by the skill of religious marketeers to promote their cause.

Can you remember your first item?

Yes, a gift from my friend Partha Sarathy, a colleague at WWF.

What do you look for when making a purchase?

I prefer tribal, rustic, unusual Ganeshas with a quirky beauty. I’m not interested in mass-produced glitzy pieces, I want statues and images with a story, with a soul, pieces that reveal the artist’s personality and fervour.

And even if I could afford museum-quality pieces, such as old Indian stone reliefs, I wouldn’t buy them; I think genuine pieces of cultural heritage should stay in the country where they were made, and I don’t want to contribute to the global trade in illegal antiques.

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A 19th century Indonesia bronze four-armed Ganesha standing in samabhanga posture on a lotus-shaped base. Probably made during the Dutch colonial period, based on a Majapahit model. Spencer Sochaczewski bought it from Syamsil, an antiques dealer and friend in Surabaya, Indonesia.

Where do you find items to buy?

I love to visit dusty antiques shops throughout Asia, and amulet markets in Thailand. I feel like an imposter when I venture into high-class antiques shops on Madison Avenue or Pall Mall; they rarely sell the kind of rustic pieces I appreciate.

What’s the most you have ever spent on an item?

That’s $200 for the India bronze of Ganesha subduing a demon with trident.

How large is your collection?

Some 150 pieces, with about 80 described in the book. Several dozen of these are hang-around-your-neck-sized amulets, bought for a few dollars each from sidewalk dealers in Thailand. When I lived in Thailand I learned about the country by visiting amulet fairs throughout the kingdom. I was generally the only non-Thai in attendance.

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A late 19th century Indonesia two-armed walking Ganesha holding an animal. Spencer Sochaczewski purchased it in the central Java city of Solo (Surakarta).

How do you display the items?

In one cabinet in the living room, and about a dozen scattered around my study. I don’t want the house to become a Ganesha museum. I wouldn’t want people to think Ganesha has taken over my life.

Have you considered selling any items from the collection?

I often wonder what will happen to the collection when I die. This is a question I address in Chapter 17: Where do Gods (and Collections) Go When They Die? It’s a situation many of my friends face as well. So yes, I’ll sell the collection if someone is interested.

How long did it take to write your current book?

I’ve written 15 books. They focus on south-east Asian culture and unusual travel adventures. Searching for Ganesha came quickly, about a year from start to finish. I had just finished my novel EarthLove and was thinking about a new project. My friend suggested I should write about my Ganesha collection. I thought it would be a booklet-sized essay with a few pictures and just take me a few weeks. But it got out of hand.

How do you find out what the statues are and their age?

I have learned that you can’t always trust an expert. Many auction houses get it wrong when describing Ganeshas (maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on them since their general valuers have to deal with a wide range of objects). And so-called experts have sent me up some dead-end alleys. I wanted to sound like a wise Inspector Poirot but wound up like a confused Inspector Clouseau, stumbling in this direction after one explanation, then changing course when another email from a different learned academic arrived.

After countless emails and phone calls, in some cases I emerged like Sherlock Holmes with an analysis that might be right. That’s the fun of collecting. And I’m very willing for people to prove me wrong.

What else have you learned?

When I was a Ganesha virgin I thought of him as a fat elephant-headed equivalent of the so-called Happy Buddha. But I was fascinated by his popularity, and how artists are free to take liberties with his depiction.

My infatuation with Ganesha confirmed my realisation that religious marketing folks are geniuses, the way they create myths, often based on natural events (volcanoes, regeneration of nature, fire, thunder, sun, fertility, sex) in order to prop up a belief system to manage people and create a tribal “we’re right, they’re wrong,” belief system. I find the religious promise of a happy, Covid-free, peace-and-love afterlife a masterful concept.

My wife recently completed her PhD at SOAS in London by studying a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Bhutan, and her knowledge helped greatly – it’s impressive how Hindu beliefs morph into Buddhist iconography and mythology.

sochaczewski.com