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Finding a place for primitives

Utility is one of the defining characteristics of primitives and an appealing aspect for collectors. Learn more...

By Eric Bradley

If you ask three collectors (or dealers) of primitives to define the term, you will most certainly get three different answers. This category has long appeared under the description of folk art. Legendary Alice Winchester, author, former editor of the magazine Antiques, and lifelong student of antiques, does her best to delineate the difference between primitives and folk art in her influential book “The Flowering of American Folk Art.” She describes these objects as thus: “No single term, such as primitive, pioneer, naïve, natural, provincial, self-taught, amateur, is a satisfactory label for the work presented as folk art.”

Commonalities Set Primitives Apart

Winchester, however, does point out that all primitives share some common features that set them apart from folk art: Primitives are often independent from cosmopolitan influence and academic training, which often results in simple and unpretentious objects from typically “rural than urban places and from craft rather than fine-art traditions.”

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Utility is the chief aesthetic of primitive antiques. With the ability to nail four boards together you had a box, to use as a wall shelf or the apron of a table or bench. A few more boards (perhaps oak, chestnut, or No. 10 white pine – the wood most often used to build barns) and you could create a cupboard, pie safe, sugar chest, or workbench. Primitives did not require much talent, just a need and the right tools. Those simple truths despoil the simple beauty collectors see in these well-used objects: years of patina only handling may build, scratch marks from thousands of dinners served that only love could provide, ingenuity that only necessity could supply.

These simple, homegrown items are often the only remnants of the families who worked America’s soil and forged her frontier. Not even their portraits are as valued as their primitive bowls, stools, cupboards, spoons, and chairs.

Connect With Early Country Style

“For some, primitives are ugly and uninteresting,” said country/primitive dealer Beth Pulsipher, co-owner of Old Town Antiques in Marcellus, Michigan. She sells at specialty shows in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. “But for those who treasure history and practical home-based old antiques, owning primitives fills that need for connecting to an earlier country lifestyle.”

Primitives shows have evolved over time from multiday events with hundreds of dealers to five-or six-hour shopping extravaganzas with 40 to 60 hand-selected dealers of the utmost quality. “These shows have very strong followings, bringing in 1,000 to 1,500 customers,” she said. “These short-and-sweet shows are a major change from the traditional multiday general line antiques shows and are quite successful.” Pulsipher has also sold country and primitive collectibles through innovative Facebook pages such as “1803 Sugarhouse Auctions” and “Authentic American Folk Art (AAFA).” The pages have assembled more than 9,500 members. Sellers post images of collectibles, and buyers place offers in the comment section.

Original Paint, Finish Captivate

Auction results show strong collector interest in finishes that age well and in original paint. A touch of artistic flair or ingenuity boosts the hammer price considerably. An important 18th century painted pine lantern with oak hoop handle and leather-hinged door sold for $8,050. The piece opens to a crimped tin candlestick under a pierced tin ventilation cover. It sold in an auction of Robert Rogers’ collection of art and antiques. John McInnis Auctioneers presented the auction in early 2015. It's a fresh-to-market find. 

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“Both primitives and folk art are in a strong market right now,” Pulsipher said. “The best pieces are heavily competed for at auction. Today there are more primitives dealer specialists than ever. Good quality brings top dollars, and one-of-a-kind ‘best’ pieces are bringing record prices.

“Still, a collector can find plenty of good primitive antiques in both furniture and in smaller items, with the best shopping being found with specialty primitives dealers and at specialty primitives antiques shows,” she said.

Smalls Set Steady Pace

Dealer Jim Sheffield agreed that small items are brisk sellers. He and his wife Sandra specialize in pantry boxes, crocks, and large bowls retaining original paint. They sell at more than 30 shows annually. Their business is Cabin on the Hill. 

“Bowls are a big seller,” Jim said. “The more original paint the better. They really fit with any décor and just have a warm feel about them. But even those have been hit by reproductions. It’s best to always buy from a dealer who sells only originals. The new bowls won’t keep values whereas original paint will likely go up in value.”

Grab This, Skip That
Jim Sheffield
Cabin on the Hill Antiques
Georgetown, Texas,

What’s hot: Pantry boxes are strong sellers. “I’m always asked, ‘What’s a pantry box?’ and I tell them, “Consider it early Tupperware.” These are hard to find in good condition, but they sell well at shows.
What’s not: Pewter. Good large pieces still sell well, but the market seems softer for small, simple examples.

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