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Couple donates antiques collection as a "gift to Kentucky"

WILMORE, Ky.-- Bob and Norma Noe's retirement home at Wilmore's Wesley Village resembles a museum. They're surrounded by fine furniture, original paintings and historical silhouettes.

But the beautiful items there are just a sampling of their life's work. Most of what they collected is now in a museum. They probably could've made millions of dollars selling their finest antique, but instead, they donated 120 pieces to Louisville's Speed Art Museum. It's a collection so extensive and valued, it couldn't be displayed until the museum completed a major expansion last year.

Scott Erbes, the museujm's Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, said, "We had a small gallery in which we displayed Kentucky material periodically, but because of their gift, the momentum that created, it made it possible for us to create a 5,000 square foot space just for the art of Kentucky."

Bob and Norma Noe grew up in farming families in Garrard County. After after they married in 1954, each worked in Civil Service jobs in the Air Force, first in Dayton, Ohio and then in Washington, D.C. It was during those years that they traveled to museums up and down the east coast, taking particular interest in the galleries that displayed state collections. They realized Kentucky didn't have anything like that on a large scale.

Bob Noe said "I guess my dream… and it was just a dream.. was to start a collection that Kentucky could be proud of."

When they returned to Kentucky in 1980, they started searching antique stores and going to auctions, looking for furniture made in Kentucky in the late 1700s to mid- 1800s. Bob was a bank director by day, a treasure hunter by nights and weekends.

He said "There was no one interested in it and it was rather easy to buy."

They found tables and desks with beautiful inlays, grandfather clocks and a sugar chest that Bob calls a masterpiece. Much of it was scratched, dirty and covered with paint. The Noes made sure everything got restored. And when it was time to downsize, they called the Speed Museum.

"They were well-known as collectors, said Erbes. "Someone said 'You won't believe what you'll see. ' I hear that a lot. The first time I went I was completely blown away by the quality and breath of the collection."

Still it was difficult for the Noes to part with the collection.

"Tears came down my eyes. I stood in the front yard and watched the trucks pull away," Bob said.

But from the start, the Noes they weren't collecting for themselves—they were collecting for the people of Kentucky.

Norma Noe said, "Kentuckians have been called hillbillies and backwoods people. so I was proud to find that, in the early days, we had people who made beautiful furniture, and silverware. We had artists here,too, so I was really proud of that."

Go to the Speed today, past the large statues and contemporary galleries, and you'll see just what the Noes wanted-- a gallery of Kentucky-made items that have stood the test of time, being enjoyed by school groups, Kentucky natives and tourists.

"I hope they enjoy the beauty of the pieces and learn that Kentucky really did have some great things," Norma said.

That's the only payback they've ever wanted.

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The address for the Speed Art Museum is 2035 S. 3rd Street, Louisville.

Website: speedmuseum.org

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