Quietly, creatively, and very efficiently, Bob and Anne Levine built one of the world’s most extensive collections of American folk art.
Through flea markets, antique shows, auctions and eBay, they amassed over 600 wood carvings — of everyone from Pocahontas and Knute Rockne to Charles Lindbergh and Hillary Clinton.
Remarkably, it was stored not in a museum, but in their Westport home. Every room — and 2 former garages — overflowed with American historical figures, events and icons.
It was was their own personal museum.
Now — fittingly — they’ve donated their collection to an actual museum.
And not just any one. It’s Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, known for its collection of works by self-taught artists.
Anne and Bob married in 1987. She’s a 1964 Staples graduate; he’s a Brooklyn native who’s lived here since 1969.
A month after their wedding, they went to a Westport Arts Center exhibit on folk art. They knew nothing about the subject. But Bob — who in addition to being a neurologist, Yale professor, author, former owner of Anacapri restaurant and marathon runner, was a woodcarver in his youth — and his wife were intrigued.
They bought a couple of inexpensive pieces. Then they added a few more items. Soon — without even realizing it – they had a world-class collection.
Now, Bob says, “We’re old.” (He’s 81 — and as active as ever.) “If one of us dies, the other would have a major task getting rid of this.”
Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum would be a natural choice. But even though Bob and Anne were giving their collection away, the oldest continually operating public art museum in the US could not afford the insurance and transportation. A friend of a friend introduced them to The High.
The museum will keep 114 pieces. They’ll sell the rest — and use the proceeds to build up the rest of the collection.
The couple is keeping 15 or so pieces (including 3 whirligigs) for their children to inherit. Regretfully, one of those works is not the fantastically detailed diorama of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, bought at a Christie’s auction. Each member is individually carved. An electric chandelier shines overhead.
It takes up one entire room in the Levines’ house.
“Auctioneers and other people we bought from have never seen anything like this collection,” Bob says. “It’s all wood. And it’s all dedicated to American history.”
As the couple scoured the country for items — learning plenty along the way — Bob says, “we got a lot of bargains. And we paid excessively for others.”
It was a wonderful experience, made better by sharing it together. Now, they’re sharing it with the High Museum — and the world.
But that’s not all the Levines’ news. After cutting down on his medical practice, Bob began writing. He just published his 6th book.
“The Uninformed Voter” examines how that cohort is responsible for the decline of American democracy. Bob also offers suggestions for improvement (for instance, ranked-choice voting and the revamping of primaries).
It’s earned great reviews, including Kirkus, Booklife and Sybil Steinberg, the former Publishers Weekly book review editor whose reading list is followed avidly by Westport Library patrons.
Bob is hardly slowing down. He’s finishing his next book — “An Epidemic of Privilege” — and then begins work on another (on “the joy and heartbreak of collecting”).
Previous books include “Aging With Attitude: Growing Older With Dignity and Vitality” and “Aging Wisely: Strategies for Baby Boomers and Seniors.”
So how is Bob Levine aging?
During COVID, he stopped working with Americares. He no longer runs marathons (he’s done 9). His “jump shot is not what it used to be.”
But besides writing and overseeing the donation of his and his wife’s collection, he still sculpts wood. He’s always lookin for new projects.
“You can’t sit around waiting to die,” he says. “That kind of life is not much fun.”