Published: March 6, 2012
Bob and Anne Levine get up every morning at 4:45. Knowing that is enough for most people to ask “Why?,” while others might just question the sanity of it all. Those are the people who do not know the Levines very well, or most likely not at all, a couple so full of energy, work ethic, and interests that in order to fit it all into a day they probably should get up at 3 am. In any case, most every day begins with a six- to ten-mile walk on the beach in Westport, “A peaceful time for us that allows us to talk and watch the sun rise,” Bob says.
But years ago there was never time for a walk on the beach. Brooklyn-born Bob spent his undergraduate years at Columbia and SUNY Downstate Medical School. He trained in neurology at Albert Einstein and for the past 43 years has been in private practice in Norwalk, a short drive from home. For the past few years he has threatened to retire, and actually made the move this year at the end of January. In years past, he also served as an associate clinical professor of medicine at Yale University and as chief of neurology at Norwalk Hospital.
Years ago, before being bitten by the collecting bug, his main interest outside the medical field was writing. “I dabbled,” he says, and then started getting serious about ten years ago. He published a book related to medicine called Aging With Attitude and Defying Dementia , followed by a book on health care reform titled Shock Therapy for the American Health Care System .
Ever since Bob’s years at Columbia, he has been a political junkie, which is reflected in both his collection and his writing. As recently as last October he published Resurrecting Democracy †A Citizen’s Call for a Centrist Third Party . That book speaks to his belief that American democracy is in deep trouble and a major change is needed. “I’m convinced the only way adequate change will occur is with a third party,” he said.
Bob has filled his life with change, finding new things to do, such as owning an Italian restaurant in adjoining Fairfield called Anacapri, developing medical and nonmedical devices for which he owns four patents, running in marathons and taking daily “jaunts” on his walking machine while watching the evening news on television.
Another big change in his life happened in 1987 when he married Anne Lestrange Fitzpatrick, a graduate of UConn, who worked for twenty years as the business manager at a large architectural firm in Southport, Conn. She retired just over five years ago and now spends most of her time as a volunteer at the Westport Historical Society and Norwalk Hospital. “We invited lots of our friends to a backyard party at our house one day and surprised them all when we got married right there,” Bob said.
The newlyweds agreed it was time to seek some new interests, and early in 1988 they came upon a show of American folk art at the nearby Westport Arts Center, an event promoted by the New York City dealers Ricco/Maresca. “I like wood and had done some carving myself, so it was a natural to attend,” Bob said. As it turned out, many of the things were too primitive for their taste, but the foundation for their collecting was set and the next Saturday they decided to become collectors.
They followed a pattern familiar to many collectors: up at dawn or before, into the car, and off for a day of antiquing. “We would leave at 4 in the morning on Saturdays and visit all of the shows and shops we could locate, traveling routes that took us throughout all of New England, Pennsylvania and Ohio. We even flew out to Iowa, where we found some things, and then flew back,” Bob said. Some of the shows they enjoyed the most were those in Antiques Week in New Hampshire, Nashville and the tailgates, Rhinebeck and Brimfield. There never seemed to be a time when they would return home empty-handed, but generally loaded to and on the roof. “One time we bought a larger-than-life wood carving of a swami that had to be wedged into the car,” Anne remembers.
Mixed in with shows and sales were visits to various museums, including Shelburne Museum with its impressive selection of wood carvings. They studied objects, developed a feeling for what things were worth, got over the fear factor and gained confidence in their buying.
As a result, the collection grew not only in leaps and bounds, but in refinement, causing a great shortage at home of wall and shelf space, and finally reaching the point in the late 1990s that it became necessary to become dealers and do a few shows. “We did mostly regional shows, such as Ridgefield, Brimfield, Madison-Bouckville, and even one right here in Westport,” Bob said, “and we found out that dealing was not an easy job. There is a measure of craziness to it.” And while they never bought with the idea of selling an object, thinning out was the perfect move, for it made them center on a direction they wanted their collection to go, and also refined the collection as a whole.
At first it was just American history, a childhood favorite, with the collection centering around carvings of presidents and great moments in the growth of America. “We have carvings of all but about twelve of the presidents of the United States, as well as a detailed carving of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Civil War scenes and colonial soldiers,” he said.
Probably the most fascinating piece in the collection, and certainly the largest, measuring 60 inches wide and 36 inches high, is a hooded carving of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet, eleven figures including FDR, all seated at a long, curved table, each with documents and a pen in an inkwell. A curved back wall, with two recessed, draped windows, one holding a bust of George Washington, the other a bust of Abraham Lincoln, is decorated with hanging flags and lights on the sides. A chandelier gives more light to this beautifully carved setting of our government at work during Roosevelt’s term as president. It was done by a French Canadian immigrant, Moises/Polvin, who settled in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
“We were told by a dealer about this piece coming up at Christie’s, went to view it, and there was no question that it should be in our collection,” Bob said. He added that “there was little competition for the work, as we felt most dealers saw it as a fragile thing and maybe a nuisance to take to shows to try and sell.”
As time went on, politicians and popular heroes began to find their way into the collection, making room for the likes of Bob Hope, Eugene O’Neill, Laurel & Hardy, Generals Eisenhower and Patton, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, Joe Lewis and Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump worked his way into the businessmen grouping, sideling up to a group of politicians. And finally glamour girls, several with their skirts blowing in the wind a la Marilyn Monroe, joined the collection and have their own part of the house to show off their attire and figures.
“At one stage of our collecting we focused on whirligigs, amassing close to fifty, but we sold off some and now have only about thirty-nine,” Bob said. Several dealers were instrumental in building the whirligig collection, namely Marna Anderson, Tim Hill, Allan Katz and Loy Harrell. The ones that did not go to market are displayed on a special wall of shelves that run from a chair rail to the tall ceiling of a room that was once the attached garage. “This is a Sears Roebuck-plan house and has been very easy to convert rooms to serve different needs, as well as add on to,” Bob said. The house does ramble, and it is easy to see how it grew right along with the ever-expanding collection.
“Not only have we found things by going from shop to shop and some auctions, but we have one case where we were very lucky on eBay,” Bob noted. He referred to a good-size piece of sculpture, wood carved, depicting John Smith and Pocahontas, polychromed and in the original condition. “We bought it on a whim, traveled to New Jersey to meet this man who was selling it, and loaded it into our trunk in the dark, not really sure of what we had bought,” he remembers. When they got home and saw the carving in good light, “We were shocked by the beauty of it, the wonderful untouched condition, and the historical significance of the piece. Today we consider it one of the stars of our collection.”
Research provided little information on the piece and they figure it dates circa 1850‱870 and is the work of a tobacco trade figure carver and possibly was used to decorate the side of a circus wagon.
Then there was William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States. The Levines first saw this carving at an auction, but did not get it. The next sighting of the figure was during Antiques Week in New Hampshire at Mid-Week in Manchester. “We decided not to buy it there, but changed our minds later in the day and went back, only to find that it had been sold,” Anne said. About two-and-a-half years later it showed up at Garth’s auction in Ohio and “this time it did not get away,” Bob said with a smile. It was carved by A.W. Jimbi of McAdoo, Penn., with a pocket knife, then painted, circa 1898.
Telling that tale reminded Bob of the time they went to the Wilton Antiques Show and bought a carved dog from a dealer who was selling it on consignment for some lady. “He asked us $1,300 for it and we gladly paid it,” Bob said. “Later that evening we heard a knock on the door and there stood the dealer, asking us if we would give back the dog.” He had mistakenly sold it for $1,300, instead of the $13,000 the lady really wanted. “We gave it back.”
“I retired yesterday,” Bob said by phone on January 31, “and already I have had a busy day.” Changing careers was heavy on his mind as he confessed, “Now I can do more writing.” He plans to increase his usual schedule of four to six hours per day of writing to full time, turning out a political blog twice a week, a memoir is in the wings, and several ideas for new books are swirling about in his head. And there will always be time to search out some new carving to crowd into an already-crowded house, including one they have commissioned to mark the events of 9/11. “It is being done by a man in Charlton, Massachusetts, Gil Russell, who is losing his eyesight and this may be his last work,” Bob said.
“I guess, over the years, we have owned about 1,500 objects and some have been sold. But we love every piece we have and they represent a wonderful slice of life from the late Seventeenth Century to the present,” Bob said. As to the future, the Levines agree that some day they would like to see the historical collection go to a museum where it can go on public display. And they have even hinted that, at some point, some of the other pieces might come on the market.
One can easily ask if Bob and Anne, real collectors at heart, would ever be content in an empty house. Don’t believe it, for really it would present a perfect excuse to hit the road again, and soon the walls would be filled, the shelves overflowing, and a happy couple would be walking from room to room enjoying the company of many new faces.
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