x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

For keeping's sake: eccentric collections on display

The Collectors exhibition, part of the Dubai Summer Surprises programme, has often tended towards the eccentric and its fifth year is no exception...

An assortment of Kinder Surprise toys on display at the fifth 'The Collectors' exhibition in BurJuman Mall.
An assortment of Kinder Surprise toys on display at the fifth 'The Collectors' exhibition in BurJuman Mall.

Hassan Ali al Naimi loves money, but not for the reasons you'd expect. "Look at that," he says, holding up a crisp £50 note. "How beautiful it looks." We're standing in the middle of the BurJuman Centre in Dubai, and a few shoppers have stopped to watch al Naimi brandish his bill. "It's solid, strong," he says, holding the money before him with two hands. "Do you see?" After a few seconds of silence and blank stares, he jabs his finger at the bottom right-hand corner of the bill. "Six-six-six-six-six-six-six-six," he says. "See?" An immigration official from Doha, al Naimi, 37, has been collecting banknotes with unlikely serial numbers for 16 years. He has tens of thousands of bills in his collection, he says, representing every numerical permutation imaginable. "This is my challenge to the world: ask me for a number, and I'll have it."

Nearby is a line of display cases, each bearing neat rows of paper money. Al Naimi also has a black briefcase with him, that he opens frequently. "This one, this one, this one," he says, producing bills marked 11111, 12345 and 00001. "People know me because of this. They ask me about this Hassan from Qatar, and I say, 'This is me'." In some circles, he adds, he is known as "King of the Numbers". This month, al Naimi's public profile will become even more prominent. His banknotes are part of the Collectors exhibition, a Dubai Summer Surprises-sponsored event featuring the collections of two dozen people from across the Gulf.

Now in its fifth year, the exhibit has often tended toward the eccentric, and this one is no exception. Alongside the classic cars and cultural artefacts, there are swizzle sticks and phone cards. One young woman, a Dubai government employee named Wafa Khalid, has come to showcase her extensive collection of sugar sachets. "People usually tear sugar packets open without looking at them," Khalid says, explaining why she likes these things. She adds: "Not everyone will get this." Packaging aficionados have indeed been rather thin on the ground at BurJuman - Khalid has seen little in the way of camera-toting mobs, jostling to get a glimpse of her Starbucks Brown. "People who go to exhibitions expect to see valuable things," she says with a thin smile. "Well, these are valuable to me."

Khalid has "hundreds and hundreds" of these sachets, she says, sealed away in airtight containers, catalogued by age and country of origin. She has sugar from Tokyo, Porto, Sydney and Milan, but also from the McDonald's on Beach Road. "To me, they mean something. I know the story. I know where I got them. They remind me of people and places." In general, the items on display at Collectors are less interesting than what they tell us about their owners, and about the hoarding gene we all seem to carry. People collect things, and they always have. You can see this propensity in the amulets and idols unearthed by archaeologists, and in the porcelain animals arrayed on pensioners' shelves. Combined, these things form a kind of record, reminding us of who we are and where we've been - as societies, of course, but also as individuals.

When asked how long he's been a currency collector, al Naimi takes a step back and holds up his palms, apparently affronted. "To collect currency is normal, anyone can do this," he says. "I came out with a new idea." He also insists that his enthusiasm has little to do with the monetary value of his collection - which is considerable. "It's the thrill of the chase," he says. "Finding these things is like looking for a needle in the ocean."

For Suhail al Zarooni, meanwhile, collecting appears to be less about the getting than the having. A prominent Dubai businessman, al Zarooni owns 80 or so luxury automobiles (he's not sure of the exact number), which he keeps in a very large garage in Jumeirah. These vehicles - a handful of which are on display at BurJuman - seem to say a couple of straightforward things about their owner: he likes cars and he can afford to collect them

"I cannot explain," al Zarooni says when asked to describe the appeal of his collection. "They give me a special feeling." This is true not only of his large, inordinately expensive vehicles, however. Al Zarooni is also the proud owner of 9,000 model cars, which he has been collecting since he was a child, and which have since earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. (He's also trying to break the record for most coffee mugs, of which he has 4,000.)

Speak to al Zarooni for long enough, and it becomes clear that he is not merely interested in amassing the trappings of wealth. "I collect everything," he says. "Caps, Swatch watches, coins, stamps, rare newspapers, Cartier sunglasses, I don't know, matchboxes, antiques." He adds: "I saw a bottle of Masafi the other day. I liked the label, so I removed it and put it in a drawer. Now I will collect these." He smiles and leans back in his chair, clearly pleased with this prospect.

At the other end of the scale from al Zarooni, perhaps, is Marie-Capucine Akilian, a 22-year-old, French-born marketing executive in Dubai. "I'm not really the collector type," she says, standing beside her collection of Evian water bottles. "It's just something I started to do with my mum. We bought one, then another. Once we had three, we said, 'We might as well start collecting them.'" Akilian is quick to point out that these are not any old bottles - they are highly stylised, limited edition objets d'art. The pride of her collection is a large, doll-shaped bottle that Evian put out in 2008. Designed by Christian Lacroix, the item is one of only a hundred in circulation and is extremely valuable. "One sold at auction in Saudi Arabia for $33,000," Akilian says. "It was the most expensive bottle of water ever sold."

When asked if she'd consider selling hers, Akilian responds with mock horror. "No!" she yells, adding that she has been tempted to drink its contents on occasion. "I keep it on a shelf in my living room," she says, "which makes it a thrill when I'm dusting." Akilian, while possibly not the collector type, belongs to a Facebook group devoted to Evian's bottles. Right now, the group is abuzz with rumours that a new edition is about to be unveiled. "I've been trying to find out more, but it's top secret," she says. "That's OK. It keeps you excited." She is a little concerned that the new bottle may be out of her price range, but she has an idea."The Lacroix was given to me by my mum when I graduated from college. So maybe I'll go to grad school."

Not all collectors, however, need trouble themselves with affordability issues. Fathia al Qassab, a Dubai housewife, is a collector of Kinder Surprises - the plastic toys that, since 1972, have been enclosed within Kinder chocolate eggs. She started out buying them for her children, back in the early 1990s, and has since amassed around 1,500 toys - which might make her the most prolific Kinder collector in the region. "Maybe someone has more," she says, "but I haven't found them."

While the items on display at BurJuman represent only a fraction of her collection, al Qassab believes they make up a nice cross section. "This one I bought yesterday," she says, pointing at a hippopotamus wearing a tutu. Next, she moves on to a couple of tiny brown bears, the first Kinder toys she ever bought. "These are my favourites," she says of the bears. Then, gesturing at a little cluster of Smurfs, she changes her mind. "These are my favourites," she says.

When asked what, exactly, could make an adult woman become so devoted to a bunch of plastic novelties, al Qassab doesn't miss a beat. "They make me happy," she says. "When I feel sad or angry, I go to the room where I keep them and get them out, and they always make me smile." She makes a sweeping gesture over one of the cases, which is cluttered with elves and penguins and cars and cavemen. "How could you look at these and not smile?"

Collectors runs until SaturdayJuly 24 at BurJuman Centre; call 600 545 555.