In defence of stolen ashtrays

I’m 38 years old and an untold number of vintage European hotel ashtrays litter my New York apartment. A colourful hand-painted dish from the Hotel Astor in Paris, a Richard Ginori porcelain tray from the Italian Ciga Hotel, and an emerald green crest-shaped beauty from the Portuguese Hotel Condestavel are a few of my favourites. The best souvenirs are not bought. They’re not sold. They’re lifted. Some I’ve nicked myself while others I’ve sniped on eBay. All together they make up a proper half-baked collection.

People will always want to collect physical objects, as a way of showing who they are. The impulse is universal. The idea of amassing items just for the enjoyment of it started as far back as 4,000 B.C., when primitive men created collections of non-functional stone tools.

Understanding the nature of collecting tells us something about ourselves as well as about the nature of things. We collect to measure out the passing of our days, to demonstrate our taste, to inject a sense of order, discipline, and control into our lives. Notable collections as a kid included Mark McGwire rookie baseball cards, G.I. Joe action figures, and rocks and gems from the various states we’d vacationed to.

I lack the discipline of a collector’s collector. I have no desire to assemble a comprehensive exhibit of every beautifully designed European hotel ashtray ever made in the 20th century, just the ones that speak to me. Admittedly, I don’t smoke (often…and certainly not inside), but these honestly stolen ashtrays serve as more than just souvenirs of one’s (or someone else’s) travels—fortuitously commemorating Lisbon nights ending with a sunrise, the foot chase of mistaken identity through Bucharest, or the winsome local you shared nothing in common with but a kiss.

These porcelain saucers effortlessly find second lives as trinket trays and soap dishes. In your bedroom, the occasion of donning cufflinks is now gilded by the memory of misadventures abroad. Spare change, rings, house keys, all convene in a now repurposed trinket tray. My crown jewel is a lopsidedly round jade green dish from the Palace Hotel Cæsar Augustus in Rome with Cæsar’s deific profile in low relief. Each time I reach for the soap, I’m graced with clean hands and the naughty memo that the better you dress, the worse you can behave.

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