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Searching for a worthy home

A Madrid businessman has spent his life building one of the world's largest collections of pipes. Now he is looking for a deserving heir to leave it to

Carlos Armero is looking for a town, preferably Castilian, with a big building and a relatively bright mayor. He has decided that his pipe collection, one of the world's largest, should be hung in public rather than on the walls of his own home in the Madrid suburb of La Moraleja, where it is currently located.

"When the collector kicks the bucket, so does the collection," says the retired, 70-year-old businessman worriedly, surrounded by the thousand pipes that represent his life-long hobby.

"For me, it's like looking at a photo album," he says of his collection. Memories of Africa and the pygmy who swapped his pipe for a shirt belonging to Armero, or of nerve-racking auctions in the US where bids just kept climbing, but that he always won in the end.

The value of his collection is impossible to calculate. There are 1-euro pipes, 10,000-euro pipes, opium pipes and water pipes, but more than this, the pipe collection represents thousands of hours spent bargaining and thousands of kilometers traveled around the globe.

Carlos' first trip ever was to England. One summer after his first year in law school, he arrived in London at the ripe old age of 18 to learn English and work as a waiter. He was young and he became so charmed by the culture, he wanted to become British, he recalls with a chuckle. His transformation into the perfect English gentleman began when he bought his first pipe, which he soon lost and scrambled to replace. When the first one somehow reappeared, he found he had two, and his collection was born.

After university, Armero was offered a job in London. He only had one question: "Do I get to travel?"

This is how his global pilgrimage began. At the end of the work day, while other businessmen would stay back at the hotel drinking whiskey, Armero fled to the streets — and to the markets.

"I'm like a hunter, I can smell pipes from a mile away," he says. His years abroad allowed Armero to develop a network of contacts, who still call him when a potential treasure has been discovered. Unfortunately, these treasures are increasingly rare as Armero already has most types on his walls, including the world's largest collection of opium pipes.

In his heyday, he would take out an ad in the local newspapers before an upcoming trip. When he arrived at his hotel in the destination city, he would warn the concierge to expect calls and ask him to schedule his appointments half an hour apart. This is how he obtained a World War II pipe in the possession of two elderly gentlemen.

Armero recounts one anecdote after another from the living room of his house in La Moraleja, where the pipes are displayed. He says he comes by his love of collecting naturally. His brother had a collection of political posters that is now housed in the Salamanca Archives. His father collected beer mugs, and his mother antique glasses cases. His wife was not long in catching the bug. Often his travel companion on his trips around the globe, she has hundreds of eggs from all different parts of the world.

Now, says Armero, he is afraid of his collection "dying off," among other reasons, because his children just don't have enough wall space for it. He has had offers from collectors in the US, but he would rather his life's work did not have to cross the Atlantic. Instead, he imagines the future home of his collection as a nice, quiet place — a small village, perhaps, where he can visit from time to time.

* Este artículo apareció en la edición impresa del Viernes, 3 de junio de 2011