Life in 5 Inches: Pacific Palisades Woman Spends 57 Years Collecting 4300 Figurines
"The Joyful Collector" Maxine Wolf opens up to the Observer
July 12, 2019
Maxine Wolf is meticulous. Her Pacific Palisades home is warm and inviting. She greets you at the door, welcoming you enthusiastically in to see her extensive glass figurine collection. Her lovely, California Design-inspired living room and dining room walls are lined with custom-made mahogany cabinets, filled with translucent or opaque-colored glass animals and figurines -- all carefully organized and categorized.
A tour into a converted second bedroom reveals a museum-quality collection with 16 large cases (approximately 70 inches tall) surrounding the room. The collection includes every animal imaginable. Wolf explains that she has been collecting since she was 10 years old. It began as special gifts her father would bring home from New York or Europe to her in Los Angeles, after his world travels. Maxine's father traveled to Europe often during her childhood, and tried to bring her back glass figurines after each trip, including something unique that she didn't already have. "It was a special ritual we shared together," says Maxine, remembering her father fondly.
Currently, Wolf has a collection 57 years in the making that features 4,300 animals/figurines from around the world. They are displayed in 21 cases with a total of 191 shelves, and range in size from 1/8 of an inch to 5 ½ inches tall. Incredibly delicate, the figurines are organized by theme such as Africa, the forest, the garden, sea life, dogs, birds, animal musicians and orchestras, cartoon characters, etc. The figurines are organized by the country the animals were produced in, including: Venice, Italy; Lauscha, Germany; St. Petersburg, Russia; the Ukraine, England, Mexico, Japan, China, the United States, and more. Wolf is especially proud of a series of ants that are true to size, and have their head, thorax, abdomen, six legs and antennae -- all amazingly anatomically correct.
According to Wolf, when she first began collecting, there were very few places she could find these glass animal figurines. The main place was Venice, Italy, where her father would travel. There was also a shop in Rockefeller Center in New York City, which had some glass animals from Lauscha, Germany, which were Wolf's favorites. Disneyland in Anaheim, California, also had a shop in Sleeping Beauty's Castle that carried some glass figurines.
In her 40s, Wolf made her own trips to Venice, Italy, and brought home over 70 glass animals on each trip. "I hand-carried them onto the plane," she recalls, laughing. "I still wonder what the security people thought! I had them all wrapped up in cotton and tissue paper in Tupperware in my bags."
Wolf details how her collection grew. In 1999, she had just 275 glass animals. Then, in 2000, at the age of 48, she discovered the Internet and eBay. She collected off and on throughout 2016, and then had 1,500 animals. Technology and the Internet enabled Wolf to shop whenever she wanted to, and she developed a system for buying and curating. In Summer 2016, Wolf discovered the German and U.K. eBay's. She searches eBay many times each day. Today, her collection is still growing. She was waiting for a few shipments from Europe on the day of our interview.
Wolf has even commissioned pieces, based on famous cartoon characters, from an artist in the Ukraine, and has a love for collecting animals and figurines made by Pirelli Glass in England, which produced animal and glass figurines from the 1940s until the 1980s. She has also discovered a unique artist in Germany. According to Wolf, each country has their own glass resources and a unique formula for creating glass. She has learned how to be incredibly discerning with her collection, and shrewd in her bidding online. "I set my price limit, and stick by that," she says. Wolf has never spent more than $50 on a piece and the average is $8-$10. Sometimes, shipping is a 1/3 of the cost she spends.
Wolf studied Art History and Sociology at UCLA. She taught Art at Brentwood Art Center. from its inception for many years and then at St. Augustine's By-the-Sea in Santa Monica. After 14 years of teaching Art, today, Wolf is a professional organizer and has several private clients on Los Angeles' Westside. This, she says, has helped her tremendously with her collection. "There is a skill to organizing," she notes. "It has allowed me to have many figurines, yet have them all organized, so that they don't overwhelm my small home."
Wolf's advice to anyone wanting to start a collection is to find the item to collect that brings him or her joy. "When I was a child, I loved the fountain where Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards meet in Beverly Hills," she recalls. "I remember how the light played on the water. It brought me so much joy. And that is what the glass animals and figurines remind me of -- the joy I felt as a child with my father." If art is defined as the "expression or application of human creative skill and imagination," for Wolf, her collection is as inspiring as a large painting or mural.
Always eager to learn, Wolf has categorized her collection as meticulously as a museum curator. "I wanted to learn Excel [software program], so I created a spreadsheet for the collection," she explains, proudly. Over 100 pages, each animal is listed with its height, width, country of origin, purchase location, year purchased, cost, glass characteristics, and a detailed description.
Wolf only knows two other people world-wide, both based in Canada, who collect glass animals and figurines. Since those other two collectors are international, she would love to meet or communicate with anyone else who collects glass animals or figurines, or perhaps has some in their homes or in storage. "I have boxes of extra animals to share, since often times, when I want one figurine, I have to buy a whole group. I end up with duplicates."
When asked about celebrity organizer Marie Kondo and her very popular book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" (2011), Wolf is philosophical. "With her methods, she is putting her way of organizing onto someone else," she says. "I prefer to work with someone and find what method works for them, so that they can sustain it." Similar to teaching her young students art, and letting them lead the way, Wolf applies that same process to her organizing clients.
Truly a lifelong passion, for now, Wolf is happy to house the collection in her home. But when asked about the future of the collection, Wolf becomes contemplative. "If I lived in the Midwest, I would buy a little house to showcase the collection," she explains. "I contacted the Corning Museum of Glass [located in the Finger Lakes Wine Country region of New York State], but they would only want particular pieces from the collection. I want to keep it together. So right now, I don't know. I'll have to think about that."
For anyone who collects or is interested in collecting glass animals and figurines, Wolf would like to communicate and network. For anyone interested in having a private viewing of her collection in Pacific Palisades, please contact Maxine Wolf at [email protected]