Samuel M. Robbins, 93; collected neglected paintings
By his own description, Sam Robbins walked a singular path, and never more so than while spending nearly seven decades amassing an expansive collection of paintings by artists whose works languished under layers of dust in New England attics and homes.
“I have always been sort of a loner, an intellectual maverick, a contrarian,” he wrote in 1970. “This doesn’t win popularity contests, but it is just the right personality for this work.”
Mr. Robbins, who was 93 when he died Monday in Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Needham, unearthed more than 1,000 paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. When he and his wife, Sheila, announced earlier this year that they would donate their collection to the Peabody Essex Museum, their Newton home was filled with White Mountain landscapes and other vistas.
“The artists they collected are sometimes lesser known, but they are going to become more and more important,” said Austen Barron Bailly, the museum’s George Putnam curator of American art. “He loved these works of art so much.”
Just as significant a legacy, however, was the effect Mr. Robbins had on municipal budgets across the Commonwealth as a longtime board member of the group Citizens for Limited Taxation. “I was one of the ‘godfathers’ of Proposition 2 ½,” he noted in 1985 in the 40th anniversary report of his Harvard class.
An investment adviser for decades, Mr. Robbins extended his goals beyond the day-to-day of his financial work, his art collecting, and his role in politics. “I believe that life should be devoted to purposes that outlive me,” he wrote in his 40th class report. “Investment counseling puts bread on the table, but saving old art from the trash heap and political action can make a permanent contribution.”
Mr. Robbins and his wife initially gave 70 paintings to the Peabody Essex and promised that the rest will go to the museum. “They were interested in art that spoke to them, spoke to their values, and that they loved,” Bailly said. “When those kinds of values drive collecting, you end up with something very special and very unique.”
The couple’s paintings are well-traveled. Various works have been exhibited across the country, from the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge, La. Their works have been viewed in more than 40 venues over the years, including in places such as Topeka, Kan., and Youngstown, Ohio.
Their collection includes many works from the White Mountain painters — 19th century landscape artists who were active in New Hampshire. Among the artists whose works they own are Mabel Williams and Elizabeth Hamilton Thayer Huntington, who have all but slipped into obscurity. They also own paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars, though for some the purchase price was a mere $10.
“My wife and I have been quietly digging old American paintings ‘out of the woodwork’ for years,” Mr. Robbins wrote in 1985.
Earlier this year, Mr. Robbins said he and Sheila took a basic approach to building up their collection from the first paintings he bought just after returning home from World War II. “They had to be cheap, dirty, beat-up, and nobody wanted them,” he told the Globe, adding: “They had to be a masterpiece.”
One of four brothers, Samuel Morrill Robbins was born in Boston. His father, Julius, helped found the Economy Grocery Stores, which later became Stop & Shop, and then ran a financial firm. His mother, the former Rose Morrill, was involved in civic affairs and chaired the Hadassah group for Brighton, Brookline, and Newton.
Mr. Robbins graduated from Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield and went to Harvard College, where he interrupted his studies to serve in the Army field artillery during World War II. His unit saw action in Belgium, France, and Germany, and was among the first to help liberate the Dachau concentration camp.
Though he was part of the class of 1945, he finished his undergraduate work in 1948 and graduated with a master’s from Harvard Business School in 1950.
Through the sister of a mutual friend, Mr. Robbins met Sheila Wolffers, a concert pianist who later became a teacher. Their acquaintance didn’t expect them to hit it off. “The introduction to Sam went, ‘You won’t like her. She’s not your type, but she likes music,’ ” Sheila recalled.
They married in July 1957 and “after nearly 60 years, we still liked music together,” she said. “We had a long and fulfilling marriage. We did things together all the time. It was a marriage of togetherness.”
After Harvard Business School, Mr. Robbins worked for his family’s finance business in Boston. From there he moved to the Hayden, Stone stock brokerage firm, and then was an investment counselor at Studley Shupert & Co. In 1959, he started his own one-person investment firm out of his home.
“My only equity was hope, courage, and self-confidence,” he wrote in 1970 for his 25th Harvard class report. “I had no clientele but was certain that I wanted a humane, flexible life, near my family more often than at breakfast time, and free of the dreadful waste of commuting. Even in 1960, there were those of us who were concerned with the quality of life in America.”
His concern about the state of the country prompted him to become involved with Citizens for Limited Taxation, a politically conservative pursuit that didn’t always sit well with liberal friends and neighbors in Newton.
“He was very courageous,” his wife said. “He didn’t care what people thought of him. He was a man of great principles, and he was an honorable man.”
That principled approach, he believed, resulted in a longer career as an investment adviser than he had anticipated. “I thought people would never hire an old man to manage their money,” he wrote in 1995 for his 50th Harvard class report, when he was in his early 70s. “It turns out to be the opposite. They want the wisdom of experience. Another 20 years of it and I retire.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Robbins leaves a son, Jonathan of Westborough; a daughter, Melanie Steffen of Auburndale; and a brother, James of Green Valley, Ariz.
A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday in Adath Jeshurun Cemetery in West Roxbury.
To the work of building a collection of paintings that will reside at the Peabody Essex Museum, Mr. Robbins brought “an enthusiasm for the journey of collecting, the journey of discovery, which was really profound,” Bailly said.
Invoking the wisdom of an ancient Greek dramatist, Mr. Robbins once wrote that his art collecting and his entire life were guided “by the rule of Aeschylus, esse non videri. Be — don’t seem. I mention all this because in the back of my mind there has always been an obligation as a Harvard man to contribute something to the world — at least by example.”