Ice House

The Hoarder with Good Taste

The collections that cluttered the hallways of Stephen Primoff’s home provided for his family in the end.

By Greg Fails November 21, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Stephen Primoff always said he planned to sell of his collections.

For some part of Lauren Primoff’s 33-year marriage to her husband Stephen, she considered him a collector: of paintings, typewriters, cowboy hats, guitars and, especially, African art. The stuff he gathered was beautiful, it was interesting, and Stephen always said he didn’t intend to keep it in their modest Cypress-area home.

“He would say he was going to sell it, that was his goal one day, but nothing ever left the house,” says Lauren, 58. “He would keep bringing it in, and I was like, Why are you bringing more stuff into the house?

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An altarpiece from Nigeria, an artifact from Stephen's collection

When he wasn’t working in sales for an oil and gas services firm, which he did for 25 years, and acquiring things, Stephen loved playing the guitar and traveling internationally.

But at age 58, in the summer of 2012, he collapsed. Lauren rushed him to Methodist Hospital, where he was diagnosed with glioblastoma—a malignant brain tumor. The diagnosis came just months after their daughter Rachel, now 27, was left in a wheelchair following an auto accident.

No longer able to indulge his other interests, Stephen turned full force to collecting, buying up guitars and African art at an ever-increasing rate, filling not only the home but the garage and five storage buildings he’d added to the property over the years.

By then, the family had realized he was, in fact, a hoarder, albeit one with excellent taste. “After he got diagnosed, he was doing it worse,” says Rachel. “I couldn’t get around the house and could barely squeeze between all his crap…. He’d buy it, it’d go in a bag, and the bag would go in a corner, never to be opened again.”

Last year, something else began to dawn on Lauren, too. She was going to have to face the challenge of getting rid of her husband’s things—including an African art collection that had grown to a thousand pieces, covering nearly every inch of floorspace in the house—to allow Rachel to maneuver through it. “I didn’t want to insult him or take it away from him,” says Lauren, “but whether they are great things or not, I had to have them gone.”

After doing some research, Lauren managed to get in contact with appraiser John Buxton, a frequent guest on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, who agreed to visit the Primoffs and appraise their stores of African art. The family made the decision not to tell Stephen their plans to auction it off. “I don’t think if he did [know],” says Buxton, “he would have been too happy about us appraising the collection.”

The process took several days, during which time Buxton uncovered everything from Benin bronzes and ivory boxes to wood-carved statues taller than he was. The most interesting pieces, he says, were sets of carvings he believes may have originated in the workshop of acclaimed 20th-century Nigerian artist Olowe of Ise.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around the commitment this takes,” says Buxton. “To have all this material is quite fascinating.”

On March 8 this year, not long after Buxton’s visit, and three days after the couple’s 33rd anniversary, Stephen passed away, leaving behind not only his family but his beloved collections.

The same spring, Lauren finished shipping both the African art and her late husband’s guitar collection—hundreds of instruments strong—to Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Virginia, which held a series of auctions that drew buyers from across the globe.

While she’s uncomfortable sharing how much the collections went for, the proceeds are, she says, “in large part how I’m going to support my daughter in the future.”

The family home has more space now, and Lauren’s been able to begin renovations, with plans to add a handicapped restroom and other amenities for Rachel. The things that had so annoyed them during Stephen’s lifetime provided for them in the end.

Lauren is still working to sift through the rest of Stephen’s various collections, occasionally selling or donating items still piled high in her home.

Despite the success of the auctions, Lauren thinks her husband probably wouldn’t have been happy about it. “He wanted me to sell it myself, piece by piece, which would take me 20 years,” she says. “And I just couldn’t.”

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