Gerald Roy bought his first quilt 52 years ago. He was a Worcester kid who had headed west to study art in Oakland, Calif., fallen in love — with Paul Pilgrim, another art school student — and found himself drawn to the endless patterns found at craft fairs, in closets, and on clotheslines. Over the years, the couple’s hobby turned into a profession. They collected more than 1,200 quilts, helped design the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky., and co-curated exhibits throughout the country. Pilgrim died of cancer in 1996, but their collection lives on. On April 6, the Museum of Fine Arts opens a show featuring 58 pieces from the collection. The show runs through July 27 in the Gund Gallery. Roy, 74, spoke with the Globe recently while walking through “Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection.”
Q. Why quilts?
A. Why not? They were made as utility, they were made to provide warmth. They were made by poor people. But they were also made by rich people. There is nothing you can pinpoint as to who made quilts. They celebrated every single milestone in a person’s life. You could be conceived under a quilt, be born under a quilt, die under a quilt.
Q. They’re also art.
A. People walked into the door yesterday. And every face said, ‘This is not what I had in mind.’ There was a man who approached me and said, ‘I was not prepared for this. My whole attitude and history and knowledge of quilts is not what’s on these walls.’ I said, ‘I know that. I know that because there are quilts and then there are these.’
Q. When you started, did you imagine building a collection?
A. The first time we saw an Amish quilt hanging on a clothes line in Pennsylvania, we asked, ‘What is a Josef Albers doing hanging on a clothes line?’ We started thinking, we can’t afford Albers paintings as much as we’d like to, but we can afford to buy an Albers quilt.
Q. How much did those first quilts cost?
A. We were paying $350 for a quilt in 1969. Remember, for $25,000, you could get a pretty nice house back then. In the ’90s, the market boomed and became terribly inflated. And it just dropped instantly. The only thing that has made a significant difference is not only has the market dropped, but the opportunity to buy quilts I’m interested in happens very seldom nowadays.
Q. What are those?
A. We’re not interested in quilts after, say, 1940. Quilts became big business and professional designers began making quilting patterns and making them easy. Everything started looking the same. The only difference between a quilt that comes from a kit is the degree of difficulty or degree of craftsmanship. Other than that, 10 paces away, they all look the same. . . . Most of the good quilts are in major collections, and the only way they come back on the market is when collectors die.
Q. Tell me an interesting story about one of these quilts.
A. There’s one time we bought a quilt at an outdoor fair or market, the woman leaned over and said to her husband, ‘I just sold the Edsel.’ Another time, a woman in Iowa got in touch with me. I had just written an article on orange and how we found orange such a wonderful color to work with. She called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in buying an orange quilt from us. I can guarantee you it’s never been used.’ The quilt came, we negotiated the price, we purchased it. She said, ‘It’s called the ‘ugly quilt.’ No one ever wanted it. Therefore no one ever used it.’ It’s not ugly, is it? Look at it right there on the museum wall. But it’s ugly if you have a prejudice of orange.
Q. How much did the orange one cost?
A. Well, we negotiated a price. She actually threw out a price to me and I said, ‘It’s worth much more than that.’ And I paid her more than it was worth.
A. I know if she comes across something like this again, I’m the first person she’s going to call. To buy it for that, I would have felt I was a thief. I don’t particularly care about paying somebody what it’s worth. I don’t want to have the reputation of stealing things from people.
Q. So how much was it?
A. I’m not going to say that.
Q. How about just a ballpark? It’s such a great story.
A. Let’s just say she wanted less than $5,000 and more than $500. I’ve never heard of a collector who gets a deal — an amazing deal — and then says, ‘That’s too good of a deal for me, let me give you a little more.’ I want people to respect me, and I also don’t want them to say, gee, you know I just found out that quilt I sold him for $500 is worth $5,000.
Q. This is such a beautiful collection. What will happen to it?
A. Museums have suddenly realized how popular quilt exhibitions are. So between gift and purchase, these things need to go somewhere. I’m going to die someday. Museums go on.