One afternoon last September, Noel Levine gestured forlornly toward the empty walls of his New York apartment. "Never have they been gone like this, never," he said. "It’s really strange." Noel and his wife, Harriette, were standing in the living room of their Upper East Side home, which they share with their energetic nine-year-old standard poodle, Chloe. What was missing (but would return in a few months) was the Levines’ collection of photographs. The 117 pictures were on loan to the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem, for "A Rare Gift," an exhibition that opened last summer.
The Jerusalem show was a preview of sorts. Two years ago the Levines promised their entire collection to the Israel Museum. It is a momentous bequest. In the early 1970s, the couple began acquiring works by history’s most significant photographers, among them Robert Adamson, Nadar, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gustave Le Gray, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, William Fox Talbot, Carleton E. Watkins, and Edward Weston. "The Levines’ collection is one of the strongest private holdings in the world of vintage 19th-century and classic modernist photography, well-known worldwide," says museum director James Snyder.
Indeed, the couple had been courted by several institutions, including the Getty, in Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and, in their hometown, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Levines have supported several of these suitors, notably the Met, to which they have contributed $10 million and where a gallery for drawings, prints, and photographs is named in their honor. The Israel Museum, too, has benefited beyond the bequest. In 1994 the pair gave it 80 signed pictures by André Kertész — counting those, their collection there numbers more than 200 works — and in 2005 they donated $12 million to its photo department, which also bears their name.
The Levines are true photography devotees, having created a collection based not merely on aesthetics but on historical importance as well; they own some of the earliest works ever made in the medium. "We were very fussy about quality and authenticity," Harriette says. But instead of keeping the light-sensitive prints in drawers, as many collectors do, they hung them all on their walls under UV glass and kept the curtains drawn and lamps dimmed. "Every photograph we ever bought, we bought because we truly loved it," Noel says.
Faced with deciding what institution should receive the photographs they’d amassed so passionately, the Levines, now in their 80s, consulted their friend Ronald Lauder, who had opened a private museum, the Neue Galerie, in New York in 2001, and who, like them, is involved in Jewish causes. "He said, ‘Harriette, give it to Israel,’" she recalls. Although they considered the Met, they thought their collection would have a greater impact in the Israel Museum, which has a photography collection of more than 55,000 works but is missing some important names. The Met, says Harriette, is "such a fabulous institution, but the trouble is, our gift would get buried [there]."
The Jerusalem show, curated by Nissan Perez, the museum’s longtime photography curator, opened in July to coincide with the completion of the James Carpenter-designed expansion and was supposed to come down this past October. It was extended for another month, however, because of its popularity. "Seeing the collection in our new photography galleries during the inauguration of our renewed campus underscored clearly the scope of the museum’s overall achievement over its short 45-year history," says Snyder. "The gift has identified our museum as an appropriate repository for a gift of such standing."
Harriette, a retired interior decorator, and Noel, president of the real-estate and equities investment company Troon Management, had no idea when they began their collection that it would grow so large. Lifelong New Yorkers, they were inspired by exhibitions like the Met’s 1973 exploration of pictorialism, "The Painterly Photograph." Noel was also an avid amateur shutterbug. "He loved the camera," says Harriette. "Wherever we went, it was locked to him. He thought he saw things much better, and much more, through the camera." Their first purchase, in the early 1970s, was an arresting 1928 photograph of Greta Garbo by Steichen.
Through books and guided by curators like Weston Naef, of the Getty, the couple educated themselves about the history of photography and the arcana of platinum prints, calotypes, and the like. They were hooked after buying a few pictures and meeting the New York dealer Scott Elliott, who helped hone their knowledge of the field. "He had one of the greatest eyes in photography," says Noel. As collectors, they modeled themselves on André Jammes, the French antiquarian-book dealer who, with his wife, Marie-Thérèse, started amassing photographs in 1955, eventually building the world’s most important private holding. Like Jammes, Noel has said, "we have worked backwards, from the Photo-Secession to the early English artists to the French and to the early American artists. From there we also moved forward to Stieglitz and others too numerous to mention."
The Levines began buying regularly at auction in the 1980s. About 20 years ago, Noel remembers, Harriette was ill, and couldn’t attend a sale at Sotheby’s, so Elliott accompanied him. "She must have been sending me telepathic messages, because I bought all the things she wanted," Noel says. "Great things!" she adds. Indeed among the purchases were prints from Stieglitz’s coveted late 1920s-30s "Equivalents" series of nearly abstract images of clouds.
The two didn’t always agree. "We said we would respect each other’s choices," says Harriette. "Sometimes he didn’t like things I bought, and vice versa." She, for instance, hated Paul Outerbridge’s celebrated, and unsettling, circa 1930 picture of himself wearing a mask and top hat, but Noel insisted on acquiring it. "It’s Outerbridge’s best self-portrait," she concedes now.
Although their collection mainly covers the years 1840 to 1940 and is heavy on historical material, the Levines haven’t shied away from contemporary works. There is a Cindy Sherman and an Andy Warhol. As a birthday gift to their father, the couple’s two daughters had William Wegman, famous for his pictures of his Weimaraners, photograph him and the family dog. In 1988, Harriette ventured to Robert Mapplethorpe’s studio, where he made a portrait of her in which she wears a quizzical expression, the result, she recalls, of viewing some of his racier photographs. "I think I was looking at, well, something pornographic."
The couple’s first purchases came well before the art market skyrocketed. At auction the Levines had few competitors, but among them was Howard Gilman. Armed with corporate cash, he was putting together what would become the prodigious collection of the Gilman Paper Company, the family business, of which he was chairman (the holdings were donated, in 2005, to the Met). "If he really wanted a picture, there was no price he wouldn’t pay for it," Noel remembers. The Levines never bought with an eye to investing. And in the 1980s and ’90s, when prices started rising, they didn’t sell a thing, passing up some huge potential profits: In Sotheby’s London’s 1999 sale of the Jammes collection, a Gustave Le Gray seascape, the 1857 "Grande vague, Sète," which was similar to one the Levines had bought in the ’70s for around $5,000, fetched $839,000, then a record for photography.
For decades the photographs in their home remained where Harriette first placed them, each in an ornate gilt-wood frame that she selected. The Israel Museum kept her frames as a stipulation of the gift. "This is not a museum," Harriette stresses. But the two were so impressed with Perez’s hanging of the show in Jerusalem that when the pictures returned, they consulted him on placement.
The Levines have ceased collecting. About 10 years ago Noel looked around and concluded, "We have enough pictures." But they haven’t stopped thinking about photography. "There’s a picture on the cover of a Sotheby’s catalogue I’d give my teeth for," says Harriette. "That’s the way we bought. When we got carried away by a picture, we bought it. It’s the ones we didn’t buy that I regret."
"Following Their Instincts" originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's February 2011 Table of Contents.