Collectors and their collections, whether priceless, quirky or bizarre, have always intrigued me.
It doesn’t matter what they collect. I’ve hung out with and been fascinated by a collector of beer paraphernalia, a woman who collected tins (cookies, candy, nuts, etc.), a man who collected wrenches. Thousands of wrenches, from tiny ones small enough to fix a watch to wrenches big enough repair locomotive wheels.
So I was all ears when Bob Parziale mentioned that he collected panthers.
“Excuse me? It sounded like you said you collected panthers.”
“I do collect panthers.” (The conversation took place in my backyard. Parziale is a professional arborist. I’d hired him to trim some trees.)
“Really? What kind of panthers?”
“All kinds. Ceramic, metal …. I’ve been collecting them for years. I think I might have the largest panther collection in the country.”
That was a year ago, but time did nothing to lessen my curiosity. So on on a recent morning, I went to see Parziale’s panthers.
He may be right that it’s the largest panther collection in the country.
You can buy individual panther figurines online. You can buy small sets of them. You can buy pink panthers, panther mugs, Carolina Panthers gear.
But nothing online is close to what Parziale has been collecting for roughly 30 years.
He has porcelain panthers, papier mache panthers, a gold-plated panther.
He has fuzzy panthers, painted panthers. He has stalking panthers on rocks and tree limbs, panther snow globes, panther clothes brushes.
He has panther planters, panther lamps, panther ash trays, panther clocks, panther perfume bottles and jewelry, panther coffee mugs. Panther toys, urns, bookends, Christmas ornaments …
He has panthers from the U.S., England, Russia, South America. Altogether, he has over a hundred, no two of which are alike. The smallest would fit in the palm of your hand; the largest would dominate a coffee table.
He has dollar-store panthers and limited-edition panthers. Some cost a few dollars, some a few hundred.
What makes people go to such lengths to collect things in which most people have little or no interest?
“I think collectors are predisposed for collecting,” he said. “Maybe it’s some hereditary chromosome or gene. There are minimalists and there are people who enjoy getting things and have trouble letting go of them.”
The “panther room,” formerly a bedroom of their South Boise home, has become a bit of a sticking point with his wife, who, as you might expect, does not fully share his panther passion. More on that later.
Parziale traces the origin of the collection to a gift during his childhood:
“I was maybe eight or 10, and my baby sitter gave a panther to my folks. I thought it was really cool. It was so sleek and powerful looking. It all started with that.”
He grew up in the Boston area but has lived in lots of places. Wherever he went, he looked for panthers. He shopped for them on eBay, in antique shops, pawn shops and secondhand stores, at flea markets and yard sales.
“Every vacation we went on, we had to find an antique store or something and let me look for panthers. My wife was on board for quite some time. It was a huge part of our lives. On any vacation or camping trip, we’d pass an antique store or pawn shop and I had to stop and see if there was a panther in there for me.
“… When I’ve got panthers on my mind and there’s a panther somewhere, I’ll find it. It’s a passion. If you’re a collector, whether it’s panthers or oil cans or whatever, you can go to a store or a flea market and when you walk around with that one thing in mind you’ll spot it no matter where it is.”
His favorite piece in his collection is a mother panther attached to her kittens with tiny chains.
“It was buried in a display case in Billings, Mont – barely visible, dusty … Anybody else would have walked by it. It’s one of my most awesome finds. It’s very rare. I don’t think there are many others like it on this planet.”
His fondness for artificial panthers led to an interest in real panthers.
“They’re actually melanistic leopards,” he said.
A term used for big cats with darkened skin pigment. It’s the opposite of albinism. Asian and African panthers are black leopards; panthers in the Americas are black jaguars. None is entirely black; they have the same markings as other leopards and jaguars, but they’re obscured by the dark pigment.
Parziale is yet to find another collector as besotted by panthers as he is.
“Nobody’s as crazy as I am,” he jokes. “I’ve seen blogs and know people who have a few, but I don’t know if anybody has them to the extent I do. I haven’t found an organization for panther collectors or been able to connect with anybody on blogs or collection sites. If I had to guess, I’d say there might be a dozen or so people around the country who are as passionate about it as I am and are getting crap from their wives.”
Kelly Parziale has mixed feelings, and a sense of humor, about the collection.
“It would be nice to have that room back,” she said. “ On the other hand, midcentury modern is coming back into style.”
She said her husband has actually thinned his collection.
“At my urging,” she says, laughing. “He used to have about 400. He’s gotten rid of the panther coloring books and fuzzy slippers and that kind of stuff.”
They’ve moved the collection whenever they’ve moved and don’t want to move it again. Parziale would like to give some stuffed-animal panthers to firemen to give to traumatized children and a more substantial panther to a school with a panther mascot. He wants to give a panther or two to his 12-year-old son, Robbie, and keep the mother with kittens himself.
The rest may be needing a new home soon.
“We need to paint the panther room,” he said. “After it’s painted, I won’t be allowed to bring them back in there.
“I want them to stay together, though. I’d never list them individually on eBay. I’d love to connect with the Carolina Panthers football team and see if they’re interested. They’d last a long time there. That would be a good home for them.”
He says he’d be sad to see them go, but is pretty sure he’d move on to something else: “Maybe I’d collect relationships or knowledge.”
But wouldn’t that be contrary to the nature of collecting? Collectors tend to want more tangible things.
Questioned further, he revealed that he has a pressed penny collection and that he and Robbie have a hockey puck collection.
“But nothing could ever top my cool panther collection,” he said.
Then, after thinking about it, “I do like old fishing gear, though. And antique hockey equipment and chainsaws. If I get rid of the panthers, maybe I could collect those.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears monthly. Know someone with an interesting story for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.