IN THEIR heyday, of collecting folk art, Jean Lipman remembered, they sometimes bought things without knowing where to put them.
"The grandfather clock, for instance, fit with only a tenth of an inch to spare. But we would have bought it if we'd had to put it in horizonally. And the cupboard -- we had to keep it for 10 years before we could find a place in the house for it."
Even though prices were cheap when Howard and Jean Lipman began collecting 40 odd years ago, incomes were lower, too. Jean Lipman, in an interview, remembered the time they were on vacation and stopped in an antique shop. For years they had been searching for a certain type of painting, with many little people in it. Wonder of wonders, the dealer brought out "York Springs Graveyard." The Lipmans were overwhelmed with pleasure, a search had come to an end, a prize had been found.
"Then he told us the price, $50. A horrendous price. My husband said, 'We can't afford it.' I said,'Let's walk around the block.' We decided we just had to have it. So we bought it, ended our vacation right then and headed home because that $50 was our vacation money."
In 1940, they found an Edward Hicks Peaceble Kingdom painting, the best one of all his versions. The dealer asked $500. "We thought he was crazy," said Jean Lipman. "Today the painting is one of the cornerstones of the Williamsburg collection. Hicks paintings sell in the neighborhood of $200,000."
The Lipmans, who tell stories the way they collected folk art -- with great enthusiasm, verve and humor -- have several hundred stories such as these. Jean Lipman and her husband Howard are certainly among the greatest collectors of American folk art of this century, not to mention contemporary art.
As folk art experts, Jean Lipman is "right at the top," according to Nancy Druckman, Sotheby's folk art specialist.
Sotheby's York Galleries in New York will auction off 450 pieces from the Lipman collection Nov. 14. The collection was sold earlier by the Lipmans for an undisclosed price to the Museum of American Folk Art, which is retaining 20 pieces. The museum is selling the remainder of the collection to help finance a new building.
"We sold the collection," said Mrs. Lipman,"because we decided to live in two places instead of three. All the folk art was in our 18th-century house in Wilton, Conn. It certainly was easy to move after we sold our house -- Sotheby just came and packed it all."
"We took everything except a few light bulbs," said Druckman.
The collection, Druckman said in an interview, will go for about $600,000/$800,000, marking it as one of the major single collection sales in recent years. "The Garbisch collection, sold at Pokerty Md. recently, really had very little folk art in it, except for a few very expensive pieces such as the eagle," Druckman said.
"Much of the Garbisch collection of folk art had been dispersed earlier, in Sotheby sales and as gifts to museums. Most collectors," Druckman said, "seem to reach a point when they feel as though they just have too much. They worry about burglars and taking care of all these valuable objects. The Lipmans had only spent one weekend in Connecticut in a year or so. And they had a break-in, though all that was taken was a razor.
The Lipmans now divide their time between New York City and their winter home in southwest Arizona. "Everywhere we live, we live with folk art," she said.
In New York, their lives revolve around the Whitney Museum of Art where Howard Lipman is chairman of the board of trustees and Jean Lipman writes publications and curates exhibitions.
Jean Lipman has been responsible for many shows and books at the Whitney, including Calder's Circus and Calder's Universe. The last show, with its book by Lipman, brought out long lines that stretched down several blocks. Calder died shortly after the exhibit opened.
The Lipmans are keeping their collection of Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson artworks. Jean Lipman has just finished another book on the mobile maker called "Alexander Calder and the Magical Mobiles" (Hudson Hills Press) and is at work on a book about Nevelson.
The Lipman's son, Peter, an eminent geologist, was one of three volcano experts who measured Mount St. Helens after its eruption. He is the author of many articles on volcanos.
The Lipmans have made not just one collection, but several. Their first major collection of paintings was bought by Stephen C. Clark for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. "Of course, we hate to let our collections go, but you console yourself that it's like sending your children out into a wider world," she said.
Howard Lipman is a well regarded sculptor who became a Wall Street stockbroker "because he thought it would be nice for a family to eat," as his wife, who is also a painter, explained. He put together a remarkable collection of American sculpture for the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.
Jean Lipman was editor of Art in America magazine from 1940 until 1971. She was one of the first to write about folk art. Her first book,"American Primitive Painting," was published in 1942, and her "American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone," has recently been revived by Dover Press. Her book, "American Folk Decoration," began the interest in painted furniture.
Her book, "The Flowering of American Folk Art: 1776-1886" (with Alice Winchester) accompanied the blockbuster show at the Whitney in 1974, the first publication and exhibition to cover the wide range of American art. "The show and book was a coming of age for folk art," Druckman said. Some of the objects in the Sotheby sale were in "The Flowering." Jean Lipman's latest book is "American Folk Painters of Three Centuries" (with Tom Armstrong).
The Lipmansbegan their collection in 1937 when they bought the 18th-century house in Wilton. "We went looking for something to put on the wall," she said. "We found things at Edith Gregor Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York. She was the one who sold Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Mrs. John D. Rockefeller her first folk art later housed in Williamsburg . Mrs. Halpert really deserves the credit as a discoverer of folk art. Though of course, the Whitney Studio Club, in 1924, had been interested in folk art."
After their first purchase from the gallery, "We were hooked. We spent all our holidays antiquing in the country and in the galleries in town. We bought three Edward Hicks from Knoedler Gallery, as well as many by painters just as good who haven't yet been recognized. It's a dirty thought, but the value today of these pieces is so enormous. At least people will take care of them because they have to pay so much for them."
The Lipmans went about their collecting very seriously. "We'd go through a gallery or a shop or a museum, and separately grade everything in there. Then we'd compare notes. Only those things we agreed upon, we'd rate as A. Over the years, there were few things we didn't rate the same, after we talked it over."
Jean Lipman is one of the reasons for the prices, as well as for the preservation, of much folk art. "When I first wrote about Rufus Porter, the mural painter, I found murals that he had done that had been papered over or scrapped off the wall. Now I get letters from people who've found his work and want to know how to save them. Monetary value is an insurance of care." The Lipmans collected some of Porter's more portable pieces, including his painted boxes with feathered trees, expected to sell at Sotheby's for $4,000/6,000.
She's indignant when she thinks of all the wonderful things that have been lost. "I remember when we were looking for decorated furniture, and a dealer, before we could stop him, took out his penknife to scrap off the painting to show it was pine."
Before long "we were at the point," she said, "when we had to go all over the house looking for a place to put whatever we'd bought." Mrs. Lipman recalled the time she gave a cocktail party and about 50 decided to stay for dinner. She asked a friend to count noses. "All right," said the friend, "as long as you'll count the cigar-store Indians. There are more of them."
The Lipman house in Connecticut, built in 1730, was a showplace. Druckman greatly admired the 18th-century floors, hardware and woodwork. The house had been remodeled for 20th-century living.
The reception hall, an expansive room used as were the halls of English castles, was once the kitchen. Before its immense fireplace was a wonderful green Windsor settee (estimated to sell for $4,000/6,000) with not only seats but a full set of arms for four people. A cutout Gabriel tooted his trumpet over the fireplace. On top of a chest was a fierce Indian. A painted spoon rack still had its spoons. An Uncle Sam whirligig with waist coat, striped trousers and top hat and star spangled arms, whirled no more but stood at attention by the fire.
Imaginative rugs were spread over the wide board floors. A Pennsylvania Chippendale painted and decorated pine dower chest, decorated with stylized red, green and yellow tulips and other flowers, was made in 1799. (It is estimated to sell for $10,000/15,000.) The clock that just fit, a painted and grained pine tall case clock, is expected to go for $8,000/12,000 in the Sotheby sale.
In the taproom, according to Druckman, a large broadside proclaimed the virtures of temperance, and another announced a lecture about "Peculiar People."
In the living room stood a lift-top dower chest, with a central panel painted with a spread-winged American Eagle and stylized flowers. Surrounding it was an overall pattern of stars and circles. The eagle's banner proclaimed its first owner, "Wilhelm Wagoner". (It is estimated at $15,000/20,000.) According to Mrs. Lipman, the painter added sand to the paint in some areas.
Atop the dower chest stood a sea captain with a telescope standing on an arrow, betraying its former life as a weathervane. It's expected to sell for $15,000/25,000.
In the dining room, the stippled table held a bowl of glass globes. A peacock with a fancy tail stood on a cabinet of large drawers. It is estimated to sell for $15,000/$18,000.
Paintings from the house included Paul Seifert's homestead in winter, a watercolor on blue paper; a Mary Ann Wilson watercolor portrait of a lady in a green, yellow and orange dress; and a Jugen Fredrick Huge "Fanciful View of the Bay of Naples." A watercolor of a gentleman, 1835, shows him standing before Niagara Falls, surrounded by droopy fir trees.
The 450 objects are endlessly diverse; even mourning jewelry is included. A painted tablecloth has a watercolor design of fruit. A carved and painted wood vase is decorated with compass point stars. A tinware coffee pot has stylized flowers in red, yellow and green.
In all the objects, it is easy to see the link between contemporary artists and folk arts, a point of great interest to Mrs. Lipman. The folk artists' use of abstractions in furniture designs and textile patterns provide a strong bond. She pointed out that many of today's artists, including Andy Warhol, collect folk art.
Looking through the wealth in the catalog, you can see why the Lipmans ran out of room and stopped collecting in the 1950s.
"Folk art has grown steadily more popular, in a gradual rise since 1940," said Mrs. Lipman. One reason, she believes, is the wider interest in three-dimensional, useful objects, away from a rigid, formal regard for easel art. "Today folk art is a part of the mainstream of American Art, not separate or special.
"The high prices are not surprising when you think there are more folk art collectors today than the entire population of the country back when these objects were made."
Lipman wrote in "The Flowering": "These 19th century furniture decorators displayed the uninhibited use of unconventional materials and the fascination with pure design that are characteristic of American folk artists. In the speed and freedom of their paint manipulation, they were surprisingly akin to the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. Both groups of artists -- a century apart in time -- were action painters in the literal sense of the term."
Mrs. Lipman defined folk art this way: "No single stylistic term, such as primitive, pioneer, naive, natural, provincial, self taught, amateur, is a satisfactory label for the work . . . but collectively they suggest some common denominators: independence from cosmopolitan, academic traditons; lack of formal training, which made way for interest in design rather than optical realism; a simple and unprentious rather than sophisticated approach, originating more typically in rural than urban places and from craft rather than fine art traditions . . .
". . . a number of folk artists arrived at a power and originality and beauty that were not surpassed by the greatest of the academic painters. . . . I am convinced that the entire field of activity of the folk artists was absolutely not a charming postscript. I believe it was a central contribution to the mainstream of American culture in the formative years of our democracy.