- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

Local art collectors Robert and Nancy Nooter paid $15 for their first African mask in 1965. The U.S. Agency for International Development had named Mr. Nooter to head the mission in Liberia. The couple were just browsing when they found the mask.
The Nooters initially had seen African art at the former Museum of African Art that Warren Robbins founded on Capitol Hill in 1963. Their education about African art was limited to that visit and two books.
"Liberia had a reputation before the turn of the century as the white man's grave because of tropical diseases," says Mrs. Nooter, 73. "But it was a wonderful experience, and we and our children were never healthier.
"Little did we know the mask would be the start of 35 years of a compelling personal hobby that has absorbed us both and led to friendships around the world," says Mr. Nooter, 75, an economist and now a consultant with the World Bank.
"Eighty-five percent of what we first bought in Liberia were fakes, but that first one was authentic. Prices were low in those days, so our mistakes were not expensive. Most cost from $10 to $100," Mr. Nooter says.
His wife adds: "We were lucky to start in Liberia, where the market was restricted to art from the West African countries. We were learning, and it was easier to absorb information in this more focused area."
The couple's spacious home in Northwest confirms their passion for art from Africa and several other places. Back in the United States in 1971, and with their collection well under way, they bought a four-sided Ibo helmet mask. They got the dynamic piece of animal-and-bird wood sculpture from a New York dealer, Mr. Nooter says.
A masked Ibo dancer would have worn the "helmet" atop his head and covered himself from head to toe with a colorful cloth while calling for or representing a spirit. Ibo craftsmen had carved the piece at about the turn of the 19th century from a single piece of wood, except for a top piece — which was missing.
At first the Nooters delayed a decision about buying the mask. Later in the day, quite by accident, they bumped into the man who had brought it from Africa and sold it to the dealer. He confirmed the existence of the top piece at the time of sale.
"'I took it off because I thought it looked better,' the dealer replied to our queries, " Mrs. Nooter says laughing. The lucky accident snagged them the whole piece.
They have other favorites. A white Idoma female figure from Nigeria sits tall on a Plexiglas base that Mr. Nooter crafted. She has a large disc in her lip to both enlarge and exaggerate it. The lip, along with the black raffia wig, enhanced her beauty for Nigerians.
The craftsman painted her a ghostly white from the abundant kaolin in the soil. The Nigerians used white for ancestral or funerary figures.
A sculpture of a Hemba ancestor that sits on a coffee table and one from the Jukun ethnic group placed on the couple's piano are special to the Nooters. The Hemba live couple's piano are special to the Nooters. The Hemba live in Congo and the Jukun in Nigeria. The Nooters explain that museums and scholars now use the term "ethnic group" in place of "tribe."
The feet and part of the legs are missing on both figures. The craftsmen placed the sculptures in ancestor shrines on dirt floors, and insects ate through the bases of the shrines and into the figures.
"Experts consider the Hemba figures especially beautiful because of the coiffures and serene faces," Mrs. Nooter says. The one the Nooters have was carved from shiny brown wood in the late 19th century.
The Jukun sculpture is older, probably from the 18th century. The craftsman carved the now-whitish wood with sharp planes for the face and enormous earrings. He emphasized the face with a beehivelike headdress.
Obviously, the Nooters are no ordinary pair. They met at the University of California at Berkeley in 1945 where she was an undergraduate art student. He attended the university under the Marine Corps V-12 Program during World War II and later served as a first lieutenant in the Korean War.
Mr. Nooter has been circling the globe as an economist for developing countries since 1964 and picked up art in places as far afield as Lithuania and Tibet.
Mrs. Nooter finished her bachelor's degree at Washington University in St. Louis, where her husband worked for the family-owned Nooter Corp., a steel-plate fabricating company, from 1947 to 1962. She went on to earn a master's degree in anthropology at George Washington University with field research in Africa and worked as a writer, editor and curator for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art.
Mrs. Nooter co-wrote "African Art in American Collections: Survey 1989" with Mr. Robbins. As an artist, she exhibited her ink-and-brush drawings extensively between 1952 and 1973.
Mary Nooter Roberts, deputy director and chief curator of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California at Los Angeles, is their only child to pursue a doctorate in African art. The Nooters have five children and 12 grandchildren. Mary curated "Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History," which appeared at the National Museum of African Art in 1996.
The Nooters often are at the right place at the right time when it comes to art, but they also consult experts. They formed a friendship with the then-prominent African art expert William Fagg of the British Museum on their way back from Nigeria in 1967.
Mr. Fagg chose a Toma mask from their collection when he curated the 1970 exhibit of African art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He also helped the Nooters weed out their fakes when he came to Washington for the show.
The couple added other art to their collection in 1980. American Indian rugs, baskets and ceramics became a passion, and they frequently visited Santa Fe, N.M. An intricately patterned Navajo rug hangs in their kitchen, and a red children's blanket leads the way to the basement.
Mr. Nooter, a board member of the Textile Museum in Kalorama, began to bring back rugs from his assignments. A large, brilliant-red Turkish kilim of the 19th century covers a floor in their home. He collected weavings in the Caucasus and, piled them nearby.
Ethiopian art is another interest. The Nooters gave most of that part of their collection to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, but they still have a few colorful paintings and Christian crosses.
Tibetan book covers form still another part of the collection.
Mr. Nooter became fascinated with the art of Lithuania when he worked there in 1995. He found a magnificently expressive "Corpus," a Christ figure on a cross with attenuated ribs and a sorrowful bearded face.
"You never know where you're going to find something, " he says.

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