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A Calling to Collect

Having just celebrated his 90th birthday, Howard Stein is a living testament to the forward moving power of positive thinking. A Depression-era Brooklyn native, this WWII Air Force vet graduated from Brooklyn College and married his college sweetheart, Irene, his wife of nearly 66 years. Here, we chat with the Steins at their art-filled apartment in Buckhead to talk about collecting, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and giving back.

“Français : Divan Japonais” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec hangs in the foyer.

Howard and Irene Stein in front of their art collection

You were in the carpet business to begin with, right?
When I graduated, I got a job as an assistant credit manager at a wholesale carpet company in New York. The next day, I was credit manager, as the then-credit manager wanted to sell and was waiting for someone to take his place! A year or so later, I joined an import company as a salesman—my first month out I made enough to buy an Oldsmobile Delta 88 right off the showroom floor. Our first ever! Eventually, I started Howard Carpet Mills and was known not only for my rich colors and designs, but for the introduction of the Berber carpet. We sold all over the world and went on trade missions with the government.

How did you and Irene start collecting?
We had an office in Long Island and would walk after lunch, visiting the neighborhood art gallery. We bought our very first poster from them—an Alphonse Mucha. What attracted us was the Hebrew lettering that spelled out Sarah, the name of the posters’ subject—Sarah Bernhardt. After buying a few more things we decided that if we’re going to collect, we want the best, so that’s how we eventually got to Toulouse-Lautrec.

How did you assemble a world-class collection without any formal training?
Collecting becomes a passionate quest. At one point, we had every single printed poster Toulouse-Lautrec ever made. I paid the most ever paid for an individual piece of Lautrec and when I sold it, it was the most ever paid. Since then, I have started to collect other things that enhance our collection.

You’ve become very involved with the High Museum of Art.
The museum has become an integral part of our lives. And our growing and treasured friendship with David Brenneman (director of collections and exhibitions and European art curator) helped expand our collecting eye, which, in turn, helped to expand and diversify our collection. Likewise, Michael Shapiro, the director of the museum, has grown the museum tremendously since he arrived. We have given numerous pieces to the High and have contributed funds to enable them to purchase pieces of import to further their collections. We have decided to leave our collection [to them on our passing]. It has been a labor of love, and we want to keep it together.

There is an Irene and Howard Stein Gallery at the High, correct?
Giving the collection to the High will take on some memory of us, even though we’re not important. It’s all about the art. We hope that our gift will inspire other collectors to do the same thing. We are blessed. It’s been a fulfilling life that we wouldn’t trade with anyone. Our life has had its ups and downs, but has been invigorated and enriched by our friendship and association with both David, Michael and the High.

So, how do you make it all work? Life, love, happiness?
We’ve been fortunate in the sense that we did everything together from scratch. I have always led with Irene by my side.