NY couple donates 125 vintage photos to 'the Jewish people'

Growing collection and annuity ensure a competitive edge for the Israel Museum's photography department.

Paul Outerbridge 88 224 (photo credit: Anthony Truncale, courtesy of the Israel Museum)
Paul Outerbridge 88 224
(photo credit: Anthony Truncale, courtesy of the Israel Museum)
After three decades of turning away museum VIPs who were eyeing their vintage photograph collection, Harriette and Noel Levine of New York City have decided to gift their approximately 125 works to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, they announced Friday. "I bought [the photographs] because I loved them and enjoyed having them. Many people from museums have come and gone gaga," Noel Levine told The Jerusalem Post. "Then one day I was sitting in the library and I said, 'you know, Harriette, I think this collection belongs to the Jewish people.'" When they decided to find a home in perpetuity for their works, the Levines had already been in meetings with the Metropolitan Museum and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where there were already photography galleries named in their honor, he said. After much deliberation, the Levines signed an agreement with the Israel Museum. They decided, along with museum director James Snyder, that Israel's 60th anniversary year would be the appropriate time to announce the gift. As part of the anniversary gift, the Levines also pledged $1 million, as did Harriette's sister, Patricia Gerber, in the Levines' honor, to add to the $12 million endowment fund that the Levines had already established for the museum's Photography Department in 2005. At that time, Mr. Levine told The New York Times that he had always had warm feelings toward the Israel Museum. "This is an annuity. It will give them about $600,000 a year income," he said. "That will go a long way toward building the collection, which was my aim." The museum called the Levines' 2005 endowment the single largest such gift ever given to a museum photography department and renamed its department in the Levines' honor. NOEL LEVINE, today a major collector, had always been a camera buff, snapping and developing his own photos. But in 1976, after visiting a number of galleries and deciding that he was merely "a rank amateur," he said, he stayed awake all through the night looking through the 250 photography books he had acquired, contemplating how to start a collection. Soon after, he purchased his first work, a defining image of Greta Garbo by photographer Edward Steichen. Levine's wife, an interior designer, put it in a carved gold frame and hung it in their home in New York, along the 19th-century oak paneling. Before long, the couple was buying, framing, organizing and reorganizing new acquisitions until all the walls were covered four-deep in photographs. They bought 1,000 Andre Kertesz works and gave most of them away to museums, including 80 to the Israel Museum in 1994. They bought seminal works from such modern photography masters as Man Ray, Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, and contemporary masters like David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and William Wegman. They also bought dozens of early 19th century American and European landscapes and later Pictorialist works, spanning 160 years in all. The works have increased in value, historically and monetarily, Noel Levine said. "A photograph I bought for $10,000 is today worth $500,000-600,000. One of our vintage photographs is worth $1 million." Snyder says the Levines' is one of the finest vintage collections in private hands. "The images are icons of vintage 19th century and early modernist photography, and the individual prints are masterful and unique in quality. This gift ices the cake in terms of the quality of our collection, which is already impressive in scope, but now also in the richness of singularly great images." With over 55,000 photographs in its collection, dating from the beginning of the medium in the 1830s until now, the Israel Museum has one of the largest museum collections in the world. In addition to a vast number of US and European works from the 19th and 20th centuries, it also holds the largest concentration of early images of the 19th century Near East, Holy Land sites and Israeli photography. When the museum was founded in 1965, it intended to launch a photography department, but had no curator and less than 100 photographs. At that time, most encyclopedic and specialty museums did not have independent photography departments separate from other mediums, like drawing and prints. DURING THE following decade, New York photographer Arnold Newman, known for pioneering the "environmental portrait"- making the background as important as the portrait itself in photos of world figures from John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower to Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso - was constantly phoning Jerusalem's mayor Teddy Kollek, who established the museum, urging him to launch a serious photography department. Nissan Perez, who is today the senior curator of photography, was then the staff photographer, capturing images of the paintings and sculptures. After applying for the first photography curator position at the museum in 1977, Perez was hired and sent to Rochester for the world's first curatorial program specializing in the medium, and then for another year to Paris and London, where he studied with photographers, curators, dealers and galleries. "It was a wise decision of the museum's board and management," Perez says in retrospect of the privately subsidized study sabbatical. "In 1979, we officially opened the photography department with a program of acquisitions, collecting and research; we were [only] the fourth major museum to do this." In an "only in Israel" moment, Perez, when he was in his first months on the job, went from department to department asking around for any photos. In the department of reproductions, a few old boxes of magazine images were slated to be discarded. In one, Perez discovered hundreds of original vintage photos from the 1920s, '30s and '40s in perfect condition, including a selection of vintage Man Ray photographs. Today, thanks especially to the support of the Levines, says Perez, the photography department can become a true leader in the field. "The gift is fantastic as a vote of confidence for the museum and the photography department." Next year, the Israel Museum will publish a book of the Levine collection, and in 2010 will inaugurate its new photography galleries with the collection's world premiere.