PHILADELPHIA — Eugene Von Bruenchenhein never sold a piece of his art during his lifetime, but Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz have plenty of examples of it in their home near Rittenhouse Square. Among their prized ceramics by Von Bruenchenhein are fantastical little thrones some six inches tall, constructed from chicken bones salvaged from TV dinners; dazzling crowns; and lacy, tabletop towers.
“He was a baker, so he low-fired the ceramics in his oven and then spray-painted them,” said Mrs. Bonovitz, also a ceramic artist who began making vases after living with Von Bruenchenhein’s elaborate creations. She displays her more minimalist white porcelain vessels in juxtaposition with his pieces on inset shelves.
Near the front door, as if to hail visitors, are wooden figures of a preacher and his wife, carved at three-quarters life size by the Appalachian artist S.L. Jones.
“When we moved here, we placed all the art first and then bought the furniture,” said Mrs. Bonovitz, surrounded by the work of Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, Howard Finster, Purvis Young and James Castle among other sought-after self-taught artists and some obscure ones.
“We know the field of American outsider art as well as anybody,” said Mr. Bonovitz, chairman emeritus of the law firm Duane Morris. The couple was seeking out idiosyncratic works that spoke to them long before there was an Outsider Art Fair and major museums were acquiring this kind of work.
Mrs. Bonovitz, daughter of the dealer Janet Fleischer, grew up surrounded by the eclectic tastes of her mother, whose Philadelphia gallery was one of the first in the country to show self-taught artists in the 1970s.
There was no art in Mr. Bonovitz’s childhood home in Cleveland, where he helped out in his family’s wholesale fish business. “I was the first person in our entire family to go to college,” said Mr. Bonovitz, who took a few art history classes at Wharton as an undergraduate. After his marriage, in 1967, he enjoyed accompanying his wife to galleries and museums. “I was susceptible,” he said.
Their sporadic art-buying in the 1970s took on more focus and momentum after they saw “Black Folk Art in America” in 1982 at the Corcoran in Washington. “We were knocked out by it,” said Mrs. Bonovitz. A favorite was Sister Gertrude Morgan, a preacher from New Orleans whose vibrant paintings in the Bonovitz home depict her as the bride of Christ.
They have promised the Philadelphia Museum of Art 200 works that were exhibited there in 2013, and expect that more of their 600-piece collection will ultimately go to the museum, where Mr. Bonovitz is on the board. Teasing her husband for his voracious acquisitiveness, Mrs. Bonovitz said, “I think you use the museum as an excuse sometimes to buy things.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the first piece of outsider art you purchased?
SHELDON BONOVITZ We were in New York at a folk art/antique store. There was a piece hung at the ceiling that we liked. It was $3,200 and I said, “We’ll take it.” The person selling it was shocked. It was by William Hawkins, called “Yaekle Building,” very colorful, painted on wood with three-dimensional window treatments coming off it. We now have five pieces by Hawkins. He signed every painting “Born July 27, 1895.”
Do you have to agree on things?
JILL BONOVITZ Over the years, our taste has grown more similar.
MR. BONOVITZ Jill and I agree on 95 percent of the work, if not more. I’m Mr. Acquirer. I like the art of the deal. Jill doesn’t.
MRS. BONOVITZ I go in the other room.
Do you have any particular favorites?
MR. BONOVITZ These limestone sculptures by William Edmondson. He was called the black Brancusi. Edmondson was the first African-American to have a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937. Alfred Barr, the director, wanted to buy some and the board said he was crazy. You could have bought them for less than $10 apiece, probably. MoMA finally bought a small piece [two years ago] for $160,000.
MRS. BONOVITZ I love Bill Traylor’s “Runaway Goat Cart,” the way the image is going off the page.
This looks like Anselm Kiefer, who is definitely not an outsider artist.
MR. BONOVITZ We also have works by James Brown, Margaret Wharton and Karel Appel. You can’t tell the difference between outsider and trained artists. Great art shows well with other great art.