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Philo Levi “Chief” Willey Papers

Identifier: A0060

Scope and Contents

This collection contains Willey’s sales records, including records of sales from Jack Kamas’ gallery and bank deposit statements and receipts, between 1969-1979. These meticulous records contain lists of painting titles and numbers, the name of the customers, and the prices of sale. Biographical information about Willey can be found in the Times Picayune newspaper spread. Additional items in the collection, such as empty envelopes and a list of auction houses, have less apparent context. This collection would be a useful resource for those interested in the pricing of self-taught art in the mid-twentieth century and/or self-taught artists’ sales records.


  • 1969-11-05 — circa 1980
  • Majority of material found within 1970 - 1979


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research. Access to sensitive materials may be restricted at the discretion of AFAM.

Conditions Governing Use

The Philo Levi “Chief” Willey Papers are owned by the American Folk Art Museum. The collection is subject to all copyright laws, and is dedicated to public use for research, study and scholarship.

Biographical / Historical

Philo Levi “Chief” Willey (1887-1980) was born Philo Levi Willey on September 26, 1887 in Falls Village (Canaan), Connecticut. He left home at age 12 after only going to school for about six months. Travelling around the United States, Willey worked as a deckhand, lumberman, farmer, cowboy, fireman, boxer, chauffeur, and horse driver in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He served as Chief of Police for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board from 1931 until his retirement in 1965, retaining the moniker of “Chief” into retirement.

In retirement, Willey started selling antique furniture that he had repainted at flea markets, “but found it unsatisfying.” Instead, he started painting pictures using watercolor pencils and acrylics. He sold his work in New Orleans’ Jackson Square among other local artists. Visitors to Jackson Square loved Willey’s art, and he eventually gained local popularity. He sold his work in John Kamas’ gallery in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soon enough, Dr. Robert Bishop, Director of the Museum of American Folk Art from 1977-1991, noticed his work. In 1981, Bishop organized an exhibit at SUNY showcasing Willey’s work. In 1982, Janice Vanderpoel arranged for his paintings to be shown at an American Folk Art Museum exhibit.

After Willey died on July 7, 1980, his widow Cecilia M.S. Willey gave the papers contained in this collection to the Museum.

Sources:, “Philo Levi ‘Chief’ Willey” biography in his AFAM People File, The Clarion.


0.5 linear feet (1 Standard document cases)

Language of Materials



The Philo Levi “Chief” Willey Papers primarily contains sales records maintained by Philo Levi “Chief” Willey (1887-1980) between 1969-1979. Willey began making art late in life, and sold his paintings and drawings in New Orleans’ Jackson Square. His work also appeared in Jack Kamas’ New Orleans’ gallery, and appeared in exhibits at SUNY and the American Folk Art Museum after his death.


The Philo Levi “Chief” Willey Papers are arranged in folders by format and topic.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Some notebooks and papers in the collection are physically fragile and should be handled with care.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was donated by Cecilia M.S. Willey in the early 1980s.

Related Materials

Additional materials about this artist can be found in the AFAM People Files.

A Guide to the Philo Levi “Chief” Willey Papers
Sarah Barlow-Ochshorn
July 2021
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Regina Carra

Repository Details

Part of the American Folk Art Museum Archives Repository

47-29 32nd Place
Long Island City New York 11101 United States
(212) 595-9533