QUINCY — For 30 years as a painter in the city’s public works department, James Pantages spent his days applying fresh coats of color to trucks, municipal buildings, and city equipment.
And when he wasn’t applying paint, he was buying paintings: spending weekends at area flea markets, art galleries, and auctions scouring for humble treasures he’d squirrel away in the ramshackle three-story home he shared with his mother for roughly 60 years.
But when his 96-year-old mother entered an assisted living facility earlier this year, Pantages, 69, was finally forced to reckon with what had grown into an unwieldy collection: a sprawling hoard of some 1,200 objects that crowded every inch of their home.
“It just mushroomed, like an atomic bomb,” Pantages said recently as he stood in his cramped basement, frames 10 deep against the wall. “I just didn’t realize how overwhelming the collection can be. You know, you buy a piece every couple weeks. You don’t know how it adds up.”
Pantages, who retired in 2002 and is now moving into a smaller place, is working with appraiser Peter Smith, who last month began systematically removing and cataloging the collection, a portion of which is slated for sale this September.
“He’s never gotten any recognition about how good the collection is, how interesting it is,” said Smith, who owns the Plymouth Exchange antique and curio shop. “He was a bit ashamed of it. He wasn’t proud.”
Smith said they’ve gone through about 10 percent of the collection to date. “We could be looking at a $1 million collection,” he said.
Though Pantages has an affinity for African-American artists, the Ashcan School, and tribal artists, his collection is wildly eclectic. It ranges from the 18th century to the present, containing everything from 19th-century French paintings to a mythological work he said was executed by the notorious Mafia hit man Joe “The Animal” Barboza.
Pantages said he usually paid “in the $100s” for artwork, often picking up a canvas or sculpture for as little as $25. He also rarely paid attention to names, instead searching out works that “evoke an interest.”
“People look at signatures, but it’s not the only way,” said Pantages, who is prone to apologizing for all the clutter. “I’m offbeat. I go cutting edge. Not everybody will go for the things I like.”
Even so, there are certain blue-chip painters Pantages can’t help but covet, Picasso and Matisse among them.
“I didn’t have the resources of a real collector, like they’ll pay millions of dollars,” he said. “I’d go to a flea market and say, ‘How much for the picture?’ They’d say, ‘Give me $25’ or something, and I’d get all excited.”
Although Pantages said he usually spent within his means, he recalled he once took out a $5,000 loan to buy a painting by the American Impressionist Colin Campbell Cooper.
“It’s gone now,” said Pantages, who called it “one of my best pieces.” “It’s on consignment. I’ll probably lose out on it because I overbid.”
Although Pantages said there was once a woman in his life, they never married, and he quickly steers conversations back to his paintings: the color of one, the social commentary of another, the back story of a third, which he thinks once hung in Dustin Hoffman’s home.
“But I’d have to have somebody send an e-mail to verify it,” he said. “There’s a lot of mystery in art collecting.”
About half the paintings in his collection are unsigned. Many are unframed. Most need cleaning. Others need repair. And while Pantages has pored over art books and back issues of trade journals to identify some of the artists and works in his collection, Smith and his wife, Judy, an art restorer and researcher, are now working to confirm Pantages’s research.
“Jim would pick up a painting and tell Judy everything he knows about it,” Smith said. “I’m still sort of reeling from it all.”
So far, the Smiths say they have authenticated a group of works by some fairly well-known artists, including painters George Inness, Rockwell Kent, and Max Weber, among others.
Still, there’s been a bit of push-and-pull with Pantages, who aside from attending a five-week course at an adult education center has never formally studied art — educating himself instead through books, magazines, and his own eyes.
“We’ve had to let him down easy on a few paintings where his mind has wandered, thinking maybe it’s this guy, or maybe it’s this guy,” said Smith, who nonetheless praised Pantages’s eye for good works. “He thinks one of the paintings is worth half a million dollars: It’s not.”
Nevertheless, the Smiths’ interest has been gratifying for Pantages, who used to stash his finds in the attic to conceal the breadth of his collecting habits from his parents.
“I’d get their critique,” he said. “I kind of kept it low-key.”
When his father died in the mid-1990s, however, Pantages began bringing some of his treasure out of hiding, first into spare bedrooms on the second floor and later throughout the house.
And though his paintings and sculptures would eventually spill into every room of the house, he said he continued to disguise the depth of his collection when his sister would stop by.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, Jesus: Here she comes,’ ” Pantages recalled. “You could have a Bernini, and she’d say, what are all these heads doing here?”
But as his mother’s health declined, the family became more concerned about the sheer size of the collection, said Pantages’s niece, Joanne Salerno.
“Jimmy never realized how vast it was, but the family definitely did,” Salerno said. “We saw that the house was more taken over by the artwork.”
Eventually the family began making plans to sell the house — a decision Pantages initially resisted, as the collection would have to be sold or relocated.
“I kind of gave Jim a little scare and called Got Junk one day’’ just to get him moving, said Salerno, who added she had “zero intention” of following through. “You know, just to say: This is reality. We have to do this.”
In early March they reached out to Smith, whom Pantages had admired after reading an article he’d written about liquidating estates. Smith agreed to take a look, arriving at the Pantages home with Judy.
“I had no idea what I was walking into,” said Smith, who said he was immediately overwhelmed by the collection’s quality and size. “I looked over at Judy and just saw her swallow.”
Pantages may have initially resisted getting rid of the collection, but more recently he’s come around to the idea. He now says he’s ready to downsize. It’s time for someone else to appreciate the work and act as its caretaker — “a caretaker of all the junk.”
As moving vans cleared out some of his last remaining paintings, he paused to reflect on a recent rainy morning.
“I used to kind of eat, sleep, and drink art,” said Pantages, who’s taking a few choice pieces to his new home. “I just want to simplify now. I can’t afford to do any more, unless something hits me that’s reasonable — maybe a small piece.”