NEWTON — When it comes to buying paintings, Sam and Sheila Robbins have always followed one simple rule.
“They had to be cheap, dirty, beat-up, and nobody wanted them,” said Sam Robbins, 93, who bought his first painting on layaway after returning from military service overseas during World War II. Oh, and another thing: “They had to be a masterpiece.”
Those principles have guided them throughout their 60-year marriage, as the couple, under-the-radar collectors who eschew traditional art-world haunts, have rummaged through basements, clambered into attics, and poked around old horse stalls in search of the lost works of obscure masters.
“It just grew like dandelions,” Sheila Robbins said of their collection. “It wasn’t something we set out to do. Instead of spending a lot of money going out to eat, we would buy a painting.”
Six decades later, they have a vast trove of 19th- and early 20th-century New England paintings, a collection rich in White Mountain landscapes, still lifes, and modernist works by painters who once flourished around Provincetown.
Their 1,000-work collection now fills nearly every corner of their Newton home, where paintings hang from walls, stand propped against banisters, and crowd an upstairs hallway. Their children’s bedrooms have both been commandeered for storage, with hundreds of paintings standing in serried ranks, separated by cardboard and old political yard signs.
But not for much longer: The couple are donating their entire collection to the Peabody Essex Museum — a gift that promises to transform the Salem institution’s holdings of American regional painting.
“Being able to tease out the American story through a New England lens is very important to us,” said PEM’s deputy director, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan. “This couple has had a love affair, not just with each other, but with American paintings and specifically the White Mountains. . . . They’re in it full hog.”
Indeed. The Robbinses have approached the collecting life with a fervor that verges on the righteous. They’ve taken it upon themselves to rescue the timeworn works of unknown painters. They’ve tracked down descendants of obscure artists, purchasing scores of paintings for as little as $10 a canvas — then spending thousands on restoration.
“These paintings were beautiful, they looked like they might be permanent records of civilization, and they were cheap,” said Sam Robbins. “If we didn’t preserve them, who would?”
The Robbinses are fierce defenders of New England painting, particularly White Mountain painters — a group of some 400 landscape artists active in New Hampshire in the 19th century. Long dismissed as mere “tourist paintings,” White Mountain art was for decades considered a poor cousin, its virtues eclipsed by its vaunted relative, the Hudson River School.
“You take a painting and say to somebody, this is a Hudson River painting. . . . Ooohh, God! They’re worth something,” said Sam Robbins. “But if you say this is the Saco River. They say, ‘What river?’ Saco!”
Austen Barron Bailly, curator of American art at PEM, said the Hudson River School’s dominance is at least partly an accident of history.
“With the rise of New York as the art capital,” she said, “the artists that [were] showing the most and getting the most press in the 19th century [could] most easily get out into nature in the Catskills, two hours from New York.”
The market has by now caught up with the Robbins collection, which brims with names like Robert Spear Dunning, Alfred Thompson Bricher, and John Joseph Enneking, whose pictures can command tens of thousands of dollars.
Other highlights include pieces by Karl Knaths, E. Ambrose Webster, and Benjamin Champney, as well as largely forgotten artists such as Mabel Williams and Elizabeth Hamilton Thayer Huntington.
That’s not to say every work in the collection is a masterpiece. Even some works by marquee painters are, well . . .
“Not my favorite,” said Sheila Robbins, 85, casting a dismissive eye upon a large landscape at the top of the stairs. “Some of these things, I don’t know how they got here.”
Nevertheless, the couple said they were mystified when an assessment of a few dozen of the collection’s best works came back at only $500,000.
“I could have sold the Champney alone for $125,000,” said Sheila, who quickly turned philosophical. “How much money does a person need?”
The couple have long since given up keeping records. Neither can say just how many artists are in their collection, and acquisition dates are often offered by the decade.
One date, however, is fixed in their minds: 1946, the year Sam Robbins bought his first paintings, a pair of New Hampshire landscapes, for $50. Sam had spent his childhood tromping around the White Mountains. He recognized the scenes in the paintings, so he decided to take a survey course in art history at Harvard, where he was a student, to see where they fit.
“They only spent two weeks on American paintings — what’s the matter with you people!” he said. He was so dismayed that he wrote a term paper on the virtues of American art, criticizing the department’s Eurocentrism.
“The professor returned my paper: triple A,” Sam recalled, adding that the professor said he “thoroughly disagreed.” “I knew then that I was on to something. . . . Nobody wanted these masterpieces.”
But it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that the couple, who met in 1955, began collecting in earnest.
“I liked him very much, so then I liked the paintings,” said Sheila, who had worked as a waitress at a hotel in the White Mountains after graduating from Girls’ Latin School.
Over the years, Sam worked as an investment consultant (“I’m still trying to retire,” he said). Sheila, a onetime concert pianist, continues to give piano lessons out of their home, which houses no less than four grand pianos.
Married in 1957, they have spent countless weekends rambling about the White Mountains, cultivating a deep appreciation of the landscape and developing a network of gallery owners who would alert them whenever a painting surfaced.
“Inch by inch, we grew an army of little dealers who’d be glad to keep their eyes peeled,” said Sam. “Every now and then the phone would ring: Hello? We’ve got a painting here of some mountain. What mountain? I don’t know. Is it signed? I don’t know. It’s too dirty to see. Bring it!”
As their collection grew in importance, Sheila began curating shows drawn from it around the country and loaning individual paintings.
“I just go upstairs rumbling through,” said Sheila, who estimates their paintings have been in more than 40 museum exhibits. “I love the shows and the people I’ve met. I don’t need trips on Viking Cruises.”
The couple have already given 70 of their most cherished works to the museum, which plans to exhibit 14 of them starting May 18. Taken directly from the walls of their home, the art has been replaced by the Robbinses with other works, which will eventually go to the museum.
“It was a wonderful journey,” said Sheila, who acknowledged that the museum may end up selling part of the collection. “It’s like being in a garden: You have the aroma of the flowers. You enjoy it immensely, and you leave and you still have the aroma in your mind.”