20 Mar Chapter 4: Flea Markets
Judging by what you find on the news bylines of any of the usual internet provider websites, it happens about once a month: Someone buys something for two or three bucks and learns subsequently that its worth thousands, tens of thousands even. There’s also the story of the person who decades ago at a church charity sale bought a damaged piece of porcelain – a sweetmeats compote. I think they paid a buck or two for it. When put up for auction it brought over a million, setting a record for a piece of early colonial American porcelain because it was at the time the earliest such piece known to exist. Of course, if you shop the flea markets (or estate sales) in search of a score like that, forget it. If that’s what greases your gears, you might be better off taking a market’s admission cost and buying some tickets to the next mega-buck lottery – and there the odds are absolutely lousy. Still, it’s impossible to write about antiques without writing about flea markets and the finds people have made at them. I say this despite having heard it said many times that with the advent of the internet, flea markets as a source of quality antiques are a thing of the past – that dealers aren’t going to bring the “good stuff” and will instead put it on eBay or list it on some website. Sheer unmitigated nonsense! Maybe a share of the good stuff does end up on some internet auction site, but here are some things to consider. First, many of those who set up to sell at the markets don’t have a 14 year old granddaughter or grandson to show them where the ON switch is to the family computer. Computer illiteracy remains alive and well. Second, there are people who hate computers, or if not computers, then online auction sites. Paying some faceless corporation a 10% commission for simply existing and then charging another 3% for collecting your money is ideologically objectionable to some. Third, packing what you’ve sold so it doesn’t break and then standing in line at the post office to mail it is, for others, the equivalent of having a root canal. Fourth, as I’ve already noted, antiques dealers commonly live on the edge of financial oblivion and they don’t want to wait for their loot. If they attended an estate sale on Saturday, they want whatever they bought gone with cash in hand on Sunday. Finally, there are simply those dealers who don’t know what they have – those who think an $800 cast iron shooting gallery target is a $100 doorstop or an early 19th century document box in original paint is a tool box. There are those who can’t distinguish a Scandinavian blanket chest from a Pennsylvania dower chest, a reproduction weathervane from a 19th century original, an early painted 19th century Windsor from simply a piece of used furniture, or a Currier & Ives reprint from the real thing. That’s where I (and perhaps you, if you get there ahead of me) come in.
Before I get too far in a discussion of flea markets, though, I should first separate out the “biggies” – markets that can be labeled ‘flea’ only by stretching the word’s definition. I’m referring to places like Renningers in Pennsylvania, Round Top in Texas and the granddaddy of them all, Brimfield in Massachusetts. So distinctly different are these things from everything else that they warrant a separate category of their own or if they are to be lumped with anything, they more properly fall under the heading “Antique Show” despite the fact that they’re held in some open field where dealers light candles to the weather gods praying it won’t rain. So let me stick here to somewhat smaller entities like Amherst New Hampshire, the outdoor antique market in Clarence New York or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. As a matter of fact, let me focus on the flea markets that can be found on the West coast since that’s been my stomping ground the past twenty-plus years – markets at places like Long Beach, Santa Monica, Pasadena and, further north, Alameda. Briefly, a market like the Rose Bowl, while advertising itself as one of the biggies with 3,000 or so dealers, is actually smaller than that for the antique nut. Its offerings fall into three categories: New stuff, antique and collectible stuff (with an overly healthy dose of pure junk), and used clothing (apologies to all you collectors of Levi jeans and vintage Air Jordans, but I’m calling it like it is). Nothing need be said here about new stuff unless you’re interested in re-enameling your bathtub, cheap sunglasses, desert plants, perfumed soap and tools from China sold cheap. And I suppose I really shouldn’t scoff at the “used clothing” category. Although there’s nothing there that interests me and I’ve made no attempt to understand the demand for smelly sneakers or ratty tie dyed tee shirts, I know people pay crazy prices for vintage jeans and dirty sneakers. But this isn’t something I want to learn about. Besides, the musty smell that permeates the aisles there is hardly one that excites. So I’ll move on to the category of “antique and collectible”, which at a venue such as the Rose Bowl is largely set physically apart from the other two categories.
Perhaps the first thing that impresses at the Rose Bowl or any of the other markets is what it is that people sell and others buy. This includes ceramic vases whose best use is for target practice, a table made from welded horseshoes, store-front mannequins missing their arms, shredded quilts, “art” that is art only in the loosest definition of the word, used tires cut into seats for swings, a broken vintage slot machine, Polynesian folk carvings, contemporary Mexican pottery, beads from Africa and the inevitable cupboard painted day-glow orange. Amazing, huh? But keep this in mind: As crazy and worthless as some of this stuff might seem, everything and anything you find there was not only made by someone at some point in the existence of our species, but when new it was also eagerly bought by someone. I’ve also never understood the demand for 1930s and 40s furniture sloppily painted white then sanded down to give it a left-out-in-the-rain look. You can call it shabby chic; I call it crap. Ok, so all that means is that my taste isn’t universal. And it also means you can walk literally miles up and down the aisles of your local flea market and see an endless stream of things you wouldn’t want for free. But someone wanted it once, whatever “it” is, and hope springs eternal among the dealers that someone will want it now.
Shopping a flea market is in part something of a cross between attending an estate sale and picking a shop. First, most of what you’ll find at them came from estate or garage sales. After all, the dealers there got their merchandise from somewhere. Second, just like a dealer sitting in a shop (and a share of those who set up at the markets have open shops as well, which is another indication that the shop isn’t rolling in the cash, otherwise why not do something more relaxing on a Sunday), those with a booth are there to sell. They’re not running mini-museums. They don’t mind having you tell them you like their booth or think something on their table is cute. But don’t overdo the syrup – your words are worthless unless you buy something. Finally, like those who professionally run estate sales and prefer that there be nothing left at the end of a sale, those who set up at a flea market have an incentive to repack as little as possible when the day ends. Trust me, after sitting in the hot summer sun, freezing in the winter or fighting off the cloud burst that soaks everything and leaves you sloshing thru puddles, there’s nothing more disagreeable than having to pack things up and load it back into the van or truck.
Here is something to think about: When a dealer packs the day before setting up at a market, there’s time to be had in planning carefully so that everything fits. Treating one’s inventory as a giant mind-bending puzzle and packing an exercise in applied mathematical topology, one readily succumbs to the temptation to pack so as to maximize what is taken. After all, you can’t sell it if you don’t show it. But by 2:00 PM on Sunday when the crowds have begun to thin and dealers look forlornly up the aisle to see if there is at least one potential buyer in sight, all each dealer wants to do is to leave as quickly as possible, get home, take a shower and collapse. There’s nothing more aggravating than having to again load that cupboard no one even looked at or to pack up all the glassware that collects chips every time you move it. Actually, there is something more aggravating: Getting most of it into the van only to learn that in your haste to repack and depart, you didn’t do so carefully enough to fit it all in. It fit when you left the house, but that was when you proceeded with care and a plan; now, as much as you intend to reproduce how you did things the day before, a measure of sloppiness creeps into your labor with the result that the unsold rocking chair has nowhere to go. So here’s a question for you: When’s the best time to buy that big ‘something’ you’ve been eyeing in someone’s booth? The answer should be obvious: In the afternoon, when buying has slowed to a trickle (if there’s any buying at all) and desperation is written on each dealer’s face. You can always tell when desperation time has arrived: It’s when dealers begin hanging out in each other’s booths. It’s not because they want to be sociable. Rather, misery loves company and dealers want to stare at something other than their own unsold merchandise. It’s at that point, in order to not reload that big ‘something’ that a dealer might even sell it to you for less than what he or she paid for it.
To see what I mean by all of this, consider for the minute the dealer shown in Figure 4.1, preparing to leave for either a weekly flea market or an antique show. Consider the effort expended in packing this truck, the rope and bungie cords used to make certain nothing disappears along the highway or rub against another piece rendering it worthless for resale. Impressive, huh? But now imagine this same dealer some 6 or 8 or 10 hours later having spent a day in the hot sun. What incentive do you think he or she might have to sell the unsold bench or the Windsor chair hanging off the tailgate? Do you think there just might be a bargain there …. Or at least an asking price considerably less than what it had been hours earlier? I think the picture speaks for itself.
Fig. 4.1: Loaded Up and Ready to Go or “Hope Springs Eternal”
It also follows that the hotter the weather the better the bargains. I recall the time my wife and I were setting up at an outdoor market in Pennsylvania about two hundred miles from home. Our van was packed tighter than a drum the night before and when it was time to head out, we still had three kids to transport. Not a problem: We simply told them “crawl in and find a space for yourself among the chairs, tables, disassembled armoires etc.” Being young veterans of their parent’s insanity, they did as told. In any event, after setting up at the market, the dealer across the aisle from us had a 60 inch raised panel oak roll top desk with a full interior of some 30+ drawers. This was when such desks were in high demand (i.e., before people bought their first desktop PC and learned that it or their computer screen didn’t fit on or in such desks) and the price he was asking made his a literal steal. However (and there’s always a however), not only did we have to sell something before we could fit it into our van, but as I recall the temperature that day went above a hundred. Do you know what the selling is like when the temperature hits triple digits? It’s an absolute misery, because there is no selling.
Customers stay home or if they come, they drag themselves around as if they were extras for an episode of Zombie Apocalypse before heading home for a cold beer. People don’t buy in a hot sun and they sure as heck don’t buy big things. And when retail buyers aren’t buying, dealers get grumpy and when dealers get grumpy, they don’t buy from each other. No one buys. And when no one buys, everyone gets grumpier so that even if that odd buyer wanders by and begins poking around in your space, you just sit there stewing in the heat instead of jumping up with a smile to take on the role of used car salesman.
So there we were, suffering the torture of having to look at that bloody desk all morning and into the afternoon since its owner was having no better luck selling than we were. It was a socialist paradise – everyone was equally miserable. But I eventually did buy that desk, and do you know how? I spent several hours walking around trying to unload one or two of my larger pieces to anyone for anything, and as I recall, I literally gave away FOR FREE two such pieces. I wasn’t irrational – at least I don’t think so since the profit potential of the desk exceeded the cost of what I gave away. I might have even been tempted to leave those pieces in the woods behind the field if necessary. But this tells you what kind of bargains can be had sometimes with a little patience and the assistance of a hot sun.
There are, however, no hard and fast rules here as to how to shop a market and sometimes patience isn’t what’s required. For example, there was that time at a market outside of Pittsburgh where someone pulled up in their pickup truck with a beautiful walnut corner cupboard in the truck’s bed. The driver immediately hopped out, opened the cupboard and hung a gorgeous Victorian era kerosene lamp with cranberry shade and all its prisms off the door. As a crowd began to form I asked how much for both pieces. His answer, $400, stopped me in my tracks: At that price there had to be something wrong with one or both pieces, right? Are the cupboard’s feet replaced? Is the shade original or a repro? Has the lamp been electrified?’ Too late, for as those questions ran thru my head unanswered, a hand reached past my shoulder with four Ben Franklins … sold (and yes, the feet were original and yes, so was the shade … damn)!
I have to admit that this experience seems to have had a more profound effect on me than the roll top desk, for it wasn’t long after that, when I was driving down the aisle to our space prior to setting up at another market that I notice what appeared to be a miniature Hepplewhite chest poking out of someone’s still-unpacked box. I immediately stopped my van and jumped out, leaving the van blocking the aisle as I ran to the chest. Sure enough it appeared to be what I hoped it was: How much? $50! It was then, holding the miniature in my hands, that I could feel the hot breath of other dealers on my neck. Was the chest real? Was it made up? Was it American? Were any parts replaced? Never mind – the dealers crowding around were already giving me a sense of claustrophobia. So sold! And it was, I’ll admit, with a supreme sense of satisfaction that, as I returned to the van inspecting my purchase more closely to verify it was indeed a steal, I could tell the bevy of dealers following me that no, the miniature wasn’t for resale – at least not yet.
My experience with having to make instantaneous decisions didn’t end there. We slept that night in the van and around three in the morning, after a trip to the little girl’s room, my wife woke me up in a panic: “Someone just pulled in and they have a painted dry sink in the back of their truck!” I don’t recall if I took the time to put on anything more than my pants, but out I ran into the night with flashlight in hand. As with the miniature, a crowd was beginning to form in back of me and a quick look at the dry sink convinced me that the paint was indeed crusty and old. How much? $400. This time my response was the same as with the miniature: Sold! Now keep in mind that I had no idea at that point as to whether the dry sink even had a back. But there are times when decisions, good or bad, have to be made on instinct and with incomplete information.
As it turned out, the dry sink was also a bargain but I have to say that my experience with it, with the miniature and with the lost opportunity of the corner cupboard and Victorian lamp fed a dangerous tendency that I’ve long struggled to control – making decisions quicker than I should. Anyone, for example, who thinks they can flawlessly assess whether the paint on some country piece is original on the basis of a five or ten second inspection (with a flashlight in the middle of the night nonetheless!) is naïve or stupid. I was doubtlessly both at the time, but fortunately also lucky. There are people out there who are masters at faking early paint and if you don’t believe me, why is it that when the price of, say, 19th century mixing bowls, firkins or pantry boxes shot thru the roof in the ‘90s, painted bowls, firkins and pantry boxes appeared on the market by the carload? I am absolutely certain that there is now an entire generation of country kitchen collectibles sporting “original” nicely worn and suitably grungy blue, red, green or yellow milk paint that isn’t as old as my grandchildren.
Don’t like this example? Here’s another that should put the fear of god in you: Early in our ‘career’ as collectors, my wife lusted for a blue painted dry sink. The problem was that even if I found one, it was guaranteed to be out of our highly constrained price range. At the time, though, we were happy to merely have “the look” so I did the next best thing: I painted one that had previously been stripped and refinished. But rather than simply slop on some blue latex, I worked diligently across several weeks at applying milk paint so that it matched a 100 or 150 year old worn surface as best as I could make it (including using multiple coats, a heat gun to create a dried surface, and lots of rubdowns with steel wool), after which I added a suitable patina (how is my secret). We then lived happily with my masterpiece for four years until we moved to Texas, at which point we sold it to our neighbor across the street who wasn’t a collector but liked the country look for her kitchen and didn’t care that the paint wasn’t old. I can’t say what happened to the dry sink after that. I know there was a divorce, a dividing up of property, and doubtlessly some things got sold and changed hands multiple times. But approximately 15 years later I came across a new edition of a country antiques price guide. Normally I don’t put much stock in such guides (more on that later), but I was curious as to what was in this latest edition. The series had a center section of full page slick glossy colored photographs. And guess what? There, occupying a full page, was my dry sink. Now, however, it was labeled “Pennsylvania dry sink, original blue paint … $1,500”. Frankly, I don’t think anyone along the chain of ownership lied or cheated. As it moved from one owner to the next and its meager provenance was lost, the paint took on a life of its own (as well as some additional wear). I’d apparently done a better job painting it than I thought.
Of course, when I painted the dry sink I was only trying to capture ‘the look’ and I’m sure there were telltale clues to verify that the paint couldn’t possible be 150 years old – paint in a crack that was itself less than the age of the piece or a spot where the paint hadn’t been ‘aged’. But clearly, after it left my hands, no one bothered to give it a close inspection, most likely because everyone along the line after our neighbor somehow disposed of it wanted the paint to be right. If you don’t already know it by now on the basis of your own experience, that is one of the inherit dangers of falling in love with antiques – we sometimes too easily drop our guard because we want something to be real, to be as it initially appears to be. Thereafter we have to guard against finding ways to rationalize the signs that it’s something else entirely, including the possibility that it’s an outright fake. And trust me – some people have become damned good at faking things.
My cousin in New Hampshire tells the story of the painted candlestand he picked up one day at a flea market – an ostensibly 18th century country piece sporting its original paint. Some time after buying it and putting it in his home he had a friend over, another dealer, and as they chatted he noticed his friend admiring the candlestand from the corner of his eye. “You seem to like my candlestand,” my cousin commented, sensing the possibility of a sale. “Yes I do … I made it!” Oh well. But that wasn’t the only time he’d been snookered. At an auction nearby he bought a rare 18th century Windsor high chair sporting several coats of early paint. This time, though, it wasn’t a flea market with flea market prices – the chair cost him four digits and the first wasn’t a “1”. I hooked up with him one summer when I was shopping Brimfield and he was set up selling and still had the chair. It was perched prominently inside his van at the side sliding door, and as I approached it he told me it was a fake – 100%, thru and thru. I think I spent fifteen or twenty minutes going over the damned thing looking for something that confirmed what he’d just told me and I found nothing. It was only later, after he pointed out two inconspicuous inconsistencies that I had to agree with him. Caveat emptor.
Even things intended as mere reproductions can fool you if you let down your guard and let wishful thinking take control. I recently encountered two needlework samplers at a flea market – one undated and the other dated 1804. They were exquisite and made with all the care and detail of an original — and boy, did I want them to be legit since I was certain the dealer selling them didn’t have the foggiest idea what a sampler was. Both were framed and under glass, which made them a tad difficult to inspect. So I held one in my hands for over a minute, looking at it, treating it almost as if the telltale signs of legitimacy would miraculously appear. There was, though, no getting around the fact that the colors of the silk threads were too crisp and clear and the background linen simply too new – actually, not “too new”, but downright NEW! Still, I spent three, four or five more minutes looking at them, hoping, wishing, wanting them to be old, all the while trying to rationalize the impossible – a 200+ year old sampler on new linen. Indeed, if whoever had made them had intended to pass them off as legitimate, all they would have had to do was soak each in a bath of tea and allowed the tea to stain things a little and give the samplers the subtle brown of oxidized fabric. And I knew this: Because I wanted those samplers to be real, I’d have been an easy target for that scam.
The first rule, in fact, when approaching an antique, be it a piece of Chippendale furniture, a painting by one of America’s known folk artists, a simple pantry box or a seemingly 200 year old sampler, should be that it’s flawed – that even if it’s as old as it appears to be, the feet on any piece of furniture are most likely replaced, the face of any portrait has been touched up, the pantry box’s lid is a replacement or its paint a week old, and the sampler is a contemporary creation whose last home had been a gift shop selling country recreations. If it’s a Windsor chair, assume that at best it’s a turn-of-the-century Wallace Nutting reproduction; if it’s a cast iron doorstop or mechanical bank, assume it’s been cast recently in China, and if it’s a push up hog scraper candlestick or tin wall sconce, assume it was originally shipped in from Indonesia on the last container that entered the port of Long Beach. In other words, assume the worst and let the piece convince you otherwise. The problem here, though, is that because of the rarity of good 100% honest things, when we think we’ve found one – especially if we’ve found one at what appears to be a bargain – we want it to be real and we begin operating under the assumption that it’s legit unless proven otherwise. In other words, in searching for that fantastic find, we make ourselves suckers. Sorry, this isn’t a court of law: With antiques, it’s guilty until proven innocent.
Also keep in mind that modern technology can be your worst enemy. Do you want that ten year old weathervane to sport a hundred years of verdigris patina? No problem – the miracle of modern chemistry is there to serve you. How about the grey patina that tin acquires over the centuries or the pitted surface iron acquires when left outdoors for decades? Once again, chemistry can accommodate you. Take a look at Figure 4-2 and ask yourself: Is that “18th century” lighting legit or newly forged iron from, perhaps, a Tijuana workshop but aged with acid? Or suppose you’ve had a 200 year old painting professionally restored but don’t want black light to reveal that fact? Well, there’s a treatment for that too (as there is for any repairs that might be made to cracked or chipped pottery and porcelain). And how about this one: High definition laser printing. My same cousin, whose been in the business for 40+ years, recently purchased what he believed was a fantastic watercolor. But upon removing it from the frame he realized it was a print – a print that was as smooth as glass when lightly rubbed with a finger but which nevertheless appeared to have dimensionality. And I knew exactly what he was referring to when recounting his experience over the phone. I’d seen the same thing with needlework samplers – prints that appeared three dimensional.
Fig. 4-2: A Pitted Surface Yes, but not from Age – this is a Reproduction
At this point you might ask as to the relevance of these warnings in the context of flea markets. The answer is simple: If something turns out to be other than what’s its advertised to be when purchased from an antique shop, an antique show or even some auctions, you probably can return it for a full refund. There’s perhaps less of a guarantee at an estate sale (another reason for smoozing with those who run them), but you’re most vulnerable at a flea market and more than anywhere else, you’re on your own there. If, though, you are still not convinced on how the desire for a bargain and rare find can lead you astray, consider the example of a rare child sized late 18th century slant lid desk I found in a shop not all that long ago. Full sized slant lid desks are relatively common, but a period miniature of that form – well, good luck finding one. It was obvious the feet had been replaced, but since it was priced under $1,000, I could live with that since purity in this case would add another zero to the price tag. The dealer selling it, in fact, told me quite directly about the feet. The question in his mind concerned the lid. It was no less worn than the rest of the piece, but there was a problem: The cutout for the hinges didn’t match the hinges that attached it to the case. Barring some innocent explanation, the only assumption with which one should proceed then was that the lid, like the feet, had been replaced. But I really wanted that lid to be right, and my brain immediately went into overdrive searching for innocent explanations for the mismatch, however fanciful those explanations might be. The dealer and I then tossed hypotheses back and forth for upwards of 20 minutes, examining the lid as we did and hoping its validity would somehow become apparent. Could it be, for instance, that the desk’s maker originally planned on larger hinges, and only after he’d cut out the lid but before he’d gone on to do the same for the case, he found smaller and more appropriate hardware? After all, one can’t expect perfection in making something for a child. We might have bought into that hypothesis, but other more subtle problems with the lid loomed. As each such hypothesis was formulated and rejected, the only possibility that sustained itself was that the lid was a replacement and had originally been the leaf to a small dropleaf work table that had been modified right down to the addition of side cleats as on a full-sized piece. Now stop and think about this hypothesis for a minute, keeping in mind that whoever made that desk some 200 years ago wasn’t necessarily making it with the intent of constructing a family heirloom that would become a valued antique long after he’d turned to dust. Could it be that in scrounging around for wood to complete his creation that the lid was in fact taken originally from a table. Here was a hypothesis, then, that we couldn’t reject outright and that explained all other bothersome details. But on second thought, there was a bothersome detail. The desk was clearly early 18th century if not even 17th century, whereras the only tables we knew of that might yield the requisite leaf were all late 18th or 19th century. Oh well, so much for that idea.
The relevance of this desk, now, to what I’d previously been talking about is this: The desk was in an antique shop, the shop’s owner was as interested in ascertaining the piece’s legitimacy as I was so there was no attempt at deception on his part, and I had the luxury of being able to contemplate it unhurried. Think of how I (or perhaps you) might have reacted if it were found at a flea market and there had been but a minute or two to make a decision (or worse, at an estate sale, where there might be but a fraction of a minute to make a decision). I know my weaknesses and so I know there’s a good chance in those contexts that I’d successfully bamboozle myself since with the desk now a distant memory, I am more convinced than ever that the lid was indeed a later replacement which, when combined with the replaced feet, made it a pure decorative piece and not something that should be viewed as an investment.
It’s important to appreciate now that unlike the insights and honesty I benefited from at the shop with the miniature desk, you can’t presume you’ll benefit from similar professional assistance at flea markets. That’s not because the dealers there are all trying to snooker you. Some are, but not all (especially if you’re a repeat customer). The simple fact is that not everyone who sets up to sell at flea markets is a “professional”, and even those who do set up regularly will be, like those running estate sales, knowledgeable about only a fraction of the things they’re selling. This, of course, is a two edged sword wherein absurdly high prices are sometimes put on mundane things merely because they are old. Amateurs are also more likely to overlook the consequences of condition. Take, for instance, a Pennsylvania 2-gallon decorated stoneware crock. Suppose its decorated with a stenciled cobalt eagle. If so, your speaking here of a desirable piece, and in perfect condition it can easily command $600 or more in today’s market. Now however, give it a hairline crack – not a massive split thru which you can see light but a tight barely discernible crack. Oops, now your crock’s value has most likely dropped below $300, and if it weren’t for that eagle, you might have trouble unloading it for $25. But wishful thinking predominates in this business, especially if it’s your crock and even more so if you have limited experience with buying and selling stoneware. I long ago lost track of the number of pieces of 19th century stoneware I’ve seen at flea markets over-priced because of some damage the dealer incorrectly assumed was innocuous.
For another example of where you need to supply your own due diligence, take weather vanes. As anyone who has shopped for a legitimate 19th or early 20th century vane knows, prices have skyrocketed in the last twenty or thirty years. But so has the supply of vanes wherein 99% of the ones you’ll find at flea markets are contemporary reproductions. The problem is that they’ve been making vanes continuously thru the 20th century using, in the case of copper, the same molds they used a century earlier. Adding to the problem is that copper, when exposed to the elements, tarnishes at an exponentially decreasing rate as the oxidized surface (verdigris) builds. Thus, a weather vane that’s been on a roof 30 years isn’t going to look all that much different from one that’s been up there 50 years, and one that’s been up 50 years will look identical to one that’s been exposed to the elements for 80 years. It can take an expert to know the difference, but don’t expect that expert to be a dealer at a flea market. Thus, there’s no a priori reason to assume that the vane sporting a $1,000 price tag in the booth down the aisle is older than your car.
Fortunately, there’s a second edge to that two-edged sword that applies at flea markets just as it does at estate sales. Suppose that by some miracle, the vane is legit. There’s an equally good chance the dealer offering it will assume it’s a repro and if you’re armed with some expertise, you’ll have a fantastic steal. The same is true with cast iron mechanical banks. I’d bet that if there were 100 such banks at any particular flea market, 99 of them would be reproductions or outright fakes. But then there’s that 100th bank, and its up to you to find it since there’s a chance the dealer assumes that it too is a fake (and, of course, of the 99 fakes, a share of them will be offered as legit). I did once find that 100th bank. I think I paid $15 for it and, since one of my sons was set up at the market at the time, I took it to his space and gave it the bargain price of $400 or so. Soon enough someone came by and began studying it. He must have spent fifteen minutes examining it from every conceivable angle before handing over his cash. But far be it for me to get upset about the time he spent making a decision – he was merely applying the due diligence warranted by such a piece in the context of a flea market when his priors, quite legitimately, were that it wasn’t what is was advertised to be.
Of course, dealers who don’t know how to value a piece, especially one suffering from a minor compromise, can work to your advantage. I recently acquired (at the Rose Bowl, by the way) a nice albeit not fantastic 3-drawer miniature Sheraton mahogany and poplar chest of drawers (Figure 4-3). The dealer knew it was old (he correctly guessed ca 1820), but when I began to inspect it he immediately volunteered that the lock to the top drawer was missing and acknowledged that the hardware was inappropriate, as if both were major flaws. Well, I don’t know what the actual percentage is, but if I had to guess I’d say that the majority of all chests of drawers, document boxes and blanket chest are missing their locks. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing since even if the lock was there, the odds that it still had the key is close to zero (which is probably why the lock was removed in the first place). Besides, if you are somehow wholly anal about things, replacing the lock is a piece of cake (I probably have a half dozen of them kicking around in my workshop). In other words, the missing lock wasn’t going to cause me to subtract ten cents from what I was willing to pay for the miniature. And as for the inappropriate drawer pulls, a new appropriate set could be purchased online and was hardly a deal killer since I can’t recall the last time I saw a miniature with its original brass hardware. Nevertheless, since the dealer was intent on discounting the chest’s value heavily because of the missing lock and ugly hardware, I didn’t disabuse him of his thinking.
Fig. 4-3: My “Rose Bowl” Miniature Sheraton
Now don’t assume that uninformed dealers are your only or even primary source of bargains at flea markets. Luck can also play a role. A recent experience in that respect concerns yet another needlework sampler – the one mentioned in the Introduction to this volume. In this case I bought it from someone who knew what samplers were, knew they were desirable and knew its age since Susannah, the young lady who made it at age 11, was considerate enough to enter the date, 1831, along with the fact that she’d been born in 1820. So even a dealer who knows nothing about samplers isn’t about to let you steal it for $100. It was, admittedly, a relatively simple verse sampler with a minimum of floral accents (see Figure 4-4), and if it were English or even American with no hope of pinning it down more precisely as to origin, what I paid was about right as a wholesale number. The fact, moreover, that little Susannah said on her sampler that it was made in Dorchester was of minimal help since there’s both a Dorchester England and a Dorchester Massachusetts. So the dealer and I were at that point on equal footing insofar as knowing what I was buying. However, the sampler also held two words I couldn’t make out in the early morning light and struggled to decipher even when the light improved. It was only later when I got home that I could read “born Quincy”. So indeed, the sampler was American and made by someone from the hometown of the second and fifth Presidents of the United States: John and John Quincy Adams. But that’s not all. Taking the sampler out of its frame to inspect it more closely, I found a small envelope that contained a picture of Susannah when she was in her 80s along with her family’s late 19th and early 20th century genealogies. What I wanted, though, was a genealogy in the other direction, so enter the internet. And armed with all the information provided by the sampler what I learned was that Susannah was a 7th generation American whose great great great great grandfather emigrated from England in 1641 and settled in a part of Braintree south of Boston that later formed the village of Quincy. I also learned that Susannah’s great great grandmother was John Adams’ aunt, that the family farm on which Susanna was born was adjacent to the Adam’s property, and that property from the estate of an uncle several generations removed provided the granite for the Bunker Hill Monument. Now admittedly these genealogical connections are distant and there’s no evidence that Susanna’s parents and the Adams clan ever did anything but nod to each other when passing on the street. But in my mind all that information makes the sampler a treasure. It’s definitely not the sort of thing I expect to find every month at a community college flea market, but it surely keeps one in the hunt.
Fig. 4-4: Susannah Savil’s Quincy Sampler
Luck also played a role in keeping me from the consequences of a truly stupid blunder. At yet another market I came across and purchased a nice late 18th century mourning memorial silk needlework. Unusual in that it was in perfect condition, the dealer who sold it knew precisely what it was and priced it accordingly. Nevertheless, I bought it since being in perfect condition I hoped there would still be a bit of room left for profit. It was at that point though that my brain went on vacation. For whatever reason, I assumed that the name on the memorial, Mary R. Francis, was too generic to render a genealogical search fruitful, despite the fact that I knew Mary’s date of death, November 1st, 1792. So I simply charged ahead and listed the piece on eBay with an opening bid set with the presumption that the piece was English (in the vicinity of $750 as I recall). Fortunately, the memorial came to the attention of someone who doesn’t collect needlework but who nevertheless, for reasons that escape me other than that she has a lot of time on her hands, gets a kick out of doing genealogical searches. So a day or two after listing the piece I got an email informing me that “Mary was born in January in Medford Massachusetts and died eleven months later and is buried in the Salem Street Burial Ground in Medford.” Woah … and that’s not all!!! “Salem Street has a website and you can go there to confirm what I just told you.” Sure enough, the website not only offered a record of Mary’s burial, but also a picture of her headstone. Needless to say I instantly killed the auction and found a place to hang the memorial on my wall. What out of sheer laziness I’d assumed was at best a $750 piece was in fact worth at least twice that to a collector. Odds are, in fact, that while unsigned, it can be attributed to Susanna Rowson’s Academy for girls, which operated in Medford between 1800 and 1803 (and in Boston before that and Newton afterwards).
Fig. 4-5: My Brain Freeze
The lesson here, then, is that if there’s any opportunity to do a genealogical search on anything, then regardless of how fruitless you might presume that search will be, DO IT! In other words, don’t be an idiot and let your brain slip into neutral. Returning now, though, to the subject of flea markets, I guess it’s time for me to brag that neither my Quincy sampler nor this silk memorial are my best flea market finds. In fact, they probably only rank third and fourth on my list of discovered treasures out here in California. Ranking second was a signed and dated Joseph Rank paint decorated Pennsylvania dower chest. And this too illustrates why you have to rely on your own knowledge as opposed to what a dealer might tell you. First, though, let me say that when I asked the price of the chest, I was given a number that was simply unbelievable – less than one tenth its value. Generally something like this falls into the “too good to be true” category, but there was no crowd around so I was able to check it out carefully before handing over my Ben Franklins. However, after I paid for my treasure, the dealer said “there’s three more of these down the aisle.” Well, finding just one in California is akin to curing an incurable disease by touching a religious artifact; for there to be three more at a market isn’t merely beyond belief, it’s an impossibility – akin to finding a second Shroud of Turin in Los Angeles. Physicists might tell you that contemporary quantum theory dictates that all things are probabilistic and that there are no zero probability events, but I’ll state categorically that it’s never happened and it never will happen. But that didn’t keep me from racing down the aisle to see what he was talking about, and sure enough there they were – three 19th century paint decorated blanket chests. However, unlike the one I’d just bought, these were three relatively common imported Scandinavian chests that were worth about what I paid for the Pennsylvania one. The dealer I’d just “stolen” the chest from was a true Jeffersonian — all painted blanket chests were created equal.
You’d probably appreciate a quick side note here as to how one distinguishes a Pennsylvania dower chest from its Scandinavian relative. The best thing to do, frankly, is to get yourself a book on Pennsylvania folk art and study the pictures (see for instance Monroe Fabian’s The Pennsylvania German Decorated Chest, Schiffer Books, 2007). Minimally, that should give you a feel for things. As for what I might say here, read ahead to Chapter 12, wherein I illustrate with several blanket chests, the first thing to take note of is the wood. Scandinavian pine will have a more pronounced grain to it than American (northern) pine; and if it has no grain at all, the wood is probably poplar and definitely American. The second thing to look at is the paint. Although not a surefire clue, it nevertheless seems at times that northern Europeans of the 19th century had an oversupply of Day-Glo blue and orange paint so that when they decorated a piece, they decorated it to be noticed. Nothing subtle there. So if those two colors jump out at you almost as if it were an attack on your optic nerve, begin with the assumption that you’re looking at a Continental piece and, with a healthy dose of skepticism, let it prove otherwise to you.
OK, now back to my glorious victories. Ranking number one among my finds, though, is a dated 1785 bed rug (Figure 4-6a). Now if you’ve ever seen one of these entities, the odds are it was in a museum or pictured in a book. They are rare and simply don’t come onto the market with any regularity. Indeed, I’d venture to guess that you could attend a hundred Americana auctions – Garth’s, Pook & Pook, Northeast, Skinner’s, Julia’s and be lucky to see but a single example. Nevertheless, there it was, draped over a chair, the 1785 date in plain view. I don’t know how long it had been there, but it was already 9AM and I’d been walking the market for three hours. Some dealers are slow in setting up, figuring that their real target is a retail public that doesn’t show up until mid-morning, but how can one ignore ANYTHING with a 1785 date on it? Of course, if you’ve never had or touched a bed rug before, you might be confused by it. Larger than a hooked rug, it’s made in much the same way, though the supporting fabric is a heavy coarse linen rather than burlap and instead of bringing the looped fabric (wool) down immediately from the point where it’s been pushed up thru the linen, its run over an inch or two before being pushed back down. Regardless of construction, if you’ve grown accustomed to quilts and coverlets, a bed rug seems too heavy for the purpose it’s intended to serve – covering a bed – and who wants to sleep under something that’s itchy scratchy? There is, though, an explanation for all of this. Look around you and I’m sure you’ll find any number of things decorating your home that are less than practical. What about those large decorative pillows that clutter beds and sofas? Does anyone really sleep with them? The same was doubtlessly true of bed rugs – a decorative symbol of one’s prosperity that would be folded and set aside when it was time to sleep. But if you want a sense of a bed rug’s rarity, imagine who in the United States would have one in 1785. You certainly wouldn’t find one in some log cabin along the frontier or even in a typical urban or village home. Perhaps the likes of a Massachusetts Hancock, a New York Livingston, a South Carolina Rutledge, a Pennsylvania Morris or a Virginia Lee might grace their beds with them, but few others could. Who else is going to spring for enough wool thread to cover upwards of fifty five square feet of fabric? So imagine my shock when I laid the rug out onto the floor of the dealer’s booth and realized what it was (and realized at the same time that the dealer selling it had no idea what he had).
Fig 4-6a: THE Bed Rug
Fig. 4-6b: Patriotic Flea Market Quilt Find
The story of this rug continues to prove that the stars do sometimes align in the heavens – something akin to having that set of Thonet chairs reassemble on the first try. I knew I’d just absconded with something rare, but as for value I couldn’t gauge things even after scoping out the few auction records I found on the internet. So I listed it on eBay hoping there’d be at least two people out there with deep pockets who’d appreciate what it was. Well, it didn’t take more than hour before I got a call from someone whose name will pop up again in this volume … Julie Silber, one of the country’s foremost experts on quilts and the source of much of what I know about that subject. Julie doesn’t pay all that much attention to eBay, but like getting the first two Thonet chairs together properly, this was one of those times. She called to suggest that I kill the auction – her instinct was that the rug was too good to simply let fly on the internet and that it warranted some study. Chair number three fell into place when she said that by sheer coincidence she’d be in LA in two days to give a talk at a local quilter’s club and would like to see it in the flesh. Now keep in mind that while an expert and published author on quilts, she’d not only never sold a bed rug but hadn’t even held one in her hands. But a textile person is a textile person and she sensed something special here. Laying it out for her on my living room floor only confirmed that opinion. But again, how special is special? Well, those stars remained aligned (or rather, chair #4 set up perfectly) because after her talk in LA she was scheduled to fly to a textile conference in Virginia where she’d be able to get some expert opinions as to the rug’s authenticity and genesis.
Now here’s where the economic theory of incentive compatibility comes in – establishing incentives for your “agent” to work their butt off in your interest by making it in their self interest to do precisely that. Agreeing to go 50-50 on the deal, she and the rug headed East. Chairs number 5 and 6 then snapped together like clockwork when the textile conservator at Colonial Williamsburg, the site of the conference, not only pronounced the rug authentic and American (Connecticut to be precise) but also revealed that the only one currently in their collection was merely on loan to the museum. Well, to make a long story short, the rug never made it back to California and resides now in Virginia.
Let me be clear: I don’t head off every Sunday to a flea market because I expect to find Pennsylvania dower chests, Connecticut bed rugs, 19th century weathervanes or early American samplers and silk memorials with provenance. But the hunt yields something of value often enough that I don’t care how much my feet hurt by 9:00AM after walking a market for three hours. If I can push myself another half hour or so, I’ll do it. The more modest treasures I’ve found over the years out here include an 1870 princess feather quilt of exquisite design as well as a rare dated 1919 patriotic quilt (Figure 4-6b), both of which also ended up in Julie’s hands, a 5-drawer Soap Hollow Pennsylvania chest, an assortment of 19th century trade signs, three early 19th century New Hampshire folk art oil on board portraits of the same family, Jacquard coverlets of various description and condition, Pennsylvania and New York decorated stoneware, English and American early 19th century samplers, a variety of folk art carvings, early 20th century decoys, painted pantry boxes, a rather nice tramp art vanity, more than one tiger maple work table and so on and so forth. Now I realize that such finds may not be uncommon at the big mega markets such as Brimfield or even some of the smaller ones back East. But I live in California, and if you can find such things here, you can hope to find them anywhere. Just make sure you have a comfortable pair of shoes, that you don’t accidentally grab two gloves for the same hand on cold days when leaving the house, and know where the bathrooms are.
Fig. 4-7a: Some California Flea Market Finds
Speaking of walking and shoes, let’s take a look at how flea markets ought to be “attacked”. Here you have two objectives: (1) Covering as much of the market as quickly as possible so you’re the first to find any treasures and (2) being as thorough as possible so that you don’t miss a hidden gem. Clearly, these two objectives are somewhat incompatible. But there is something you can do to at least approximate the impossible – train yourself to develop an eye. Now what do I mean by this? Well, I don’t have a formal definition, but let me give you a few examples. First, recall the friend I mentioned earlier whom if you took a sterling or coin silver spoon and stuck it in a large pile of silver plate, he’d spot the spoon at a distance of ten feet. Well, he has an eye. Or for another example, consider again that signed Pennsylvania dower chest I absconded with at a flea market. It wasn’t actually me who found it – it was my son. We were walking down the aisle together when I spotted an early 19th century overshot coverlet on a table. I checked it out, rejected it because of condition, and turned to continue down the aisle whereupon he tapped me on the shoulder and said “dad, I think you should look at this.” Speaking of understatements! But someone with an eye, which he has, doesn’t miss such things regardless of how distracted they might otherwise be or how quickly they’re walking. Someone with an eye knows the difference between a first class folk art painting and a knock-off print at ten paces, they can see a late 18th century incised powder horn buried in someone’s display case while literally running past it, they can sense an 1820s needlework sampler stuck in between a pile of frames, and they know if something is a legitimate antique versus a 20th century reproduction at a mere glance.
Walking a flea market with someone who has an eye is like walking alongside one of those navy ships where, at the top of the conning tower, the radar antenna keeps swooshing back and forth, left to right (and if nature had made us with heads that could swivel 360 degrees, people with an eye would do that too). That’s what the eyes do of the ‘professional flea market shopper’ — they’re constantly scanning, constantly appraising each booth they pass, while at the same time, somehow, scanning ahead to see what’s coming. If they stop it’s only because their radar sees a “buy” or senses the potential for one. It’s also the case that people with an eye hate shopping a market with people who don’t have one or who think every tenth thing they see is “interesting” or “cute”. Such people drive the professional flea market hunter nuts since, from their (my) point of view, looking for or being constantly distracted by interesting or cute things is but a way to waste an otherwise potentially profitable morning. I like my daughter-in-law, I of course love my granddaughter and grandson, and my ex-student from Ukraine has been a virtual member of the family for more than fifteen years, but I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out than go to a flea market with any one of them.
I should also add that people with an eye – which, thru the years, I‘ve succeeded in developing on my own – will also not try to save their feet by using one of those electric carts. An electric cart is a hindrance, a distraction: When scanning a market as one walks, the last thing you want to worry about is driving over the back feet of whoever is in front of you. Walking a flea market also requires that a good model of your actions is like that of a humming bird, able to make quick stops, abrupt 90, 120 and even 180 degree turns. You can’t do that effectively in an electric cart. So forget about saving your feet – suck it up and hunt!
Dealers with an eye also have little use for something else: The retail buyer strolling the market with one of those wire shopping carts. Carts block aisles and they block quick entry to and from people’s booths. There is only one thing more infuriating to a serious flea market shopper than two people strolling leisurely down an aisle, each with a cart alongside blocking the aisle, and that’s the “Sunday shopper” who, while in someone’s booth, leaves their cart in the middle of the aisle or blocks entry to a booth that holds promise. Intolerance is fed, moreover, by the fact that dealers hunting a market have little use for carts themselves. Carts have to be attended to and thus get in the way. And no pro wants to waste his or her time playing kamikaze with other carts. Instead, the pros have their drop off points. If they buy something heavy or cumbersome, they’ll likely leave it where they found it, telling the dealer they’ll be back later to pick it up. Alternatively, they’ll simply carry it to some buddy’s booth and then quickly move on in search of the next treasure.
Those carts, though, do serve a purpose – they tell the pro when its time to call it quits and head home. It’s time to leave when the aisles get so crowded with gawkers, carts, children and housewives telling their girlfriend that their grandmother had this or that. The pros don’t need a wristwatch telling them its time to head home to watch football. What they need instead are a good alarm clock, a flashlight, a loop and a smart-phone. The alarm clock makes certain they’re up early so they get to the market when it opens. Hell, if they let in the dealers before the buyers, a pro will figure out a way to hitch their way in so they can hit the ground running. If you think you’ll find that hidden or unappreciated treasure by going to the flea market only when it’s convenient to get up and only after you’ve had a healthy breakfast, then good luck. Sunday breakfast and even a quick stop at Starbucks is a dispensable luxury. And since church is also likely to be out of the question, I suppose that’s reason for assuming that all such shoppers and dealers are indeed going to hell (and I don’t think the Sons of Abraham are excused either since if they’re dealers, they’re most likely loading their trucks or vans on Saturday). The flashlight, of course, is essential because in the winter at least shopping begins before the sun rises – enough said there. The loop – a jeweler’s magnifying glass – is essential if you want to avoid big mistakes. Here’s an example, drawn not from a flea market but an estate sale. I’d driven some 150 miles, leaving the house at 1AM, to get to a sale early because they’d advertised a fantastic sampler – probably English but one that seemed to exhibit the most incredibly detailed needlepoint I’d ever seen. Moreover, the internet pictures advertising the sale also promised a wide ranging menu of Americana. But the ad also said they’d be letting in only twenty people at a time, so it was essential that I be in that 20 (and I was actually #1). When the doors opened I raced in looking for the sampler, but it was nowhere to be seen (I asked one of the estate sale staff where is was, but with her poor English, she only led me to the Sanyo TV set). As it turned out, the sale manager had assumed it was too good to leave on the wall, and I finally found it alongside the sterling and jewelry at the check out counter. I quickly scooped it up and, adding it to my already considerable pile (just because I was in the hunt for one specific item didn’t mean I wasn’t scooping up other things), returned to the house to see if there were any treasures I’d missed. In all of this, though, I made two potentially disastrous mistakes: (1) I trusted those running the sale to know a good thing when they saw it and (2) in leaving the house at 1AM I’d forgotten my loop. So there was ample room for disaster and was saved only because a friend was nearby with his. And upon close inspection the sampler turned out to be a print. Yes, a print! As I noted earlier, reproduction photography and laser printing have reached the point where printing can appear dimensional. Until you put your eyeball up next to it, you’d swear you can see the third dimension of the thread on the linen. Absent that loop (and no longer blessed with 20 year old eyes), I’d have found myself in the hole for $1,275!
But why a smart phone as part of your “equipment”? The answer is so you can take pictures. From time to time you’ll see something you’re unsure of. And since there’s always the chance it won’t sell at the market, you might have an opportunity to think about it and to contact the seller later. Having a picture can be invaluable in making a decision after you leave the market. But smart phones can serve an even more important function. Suppose you find something but before you pull the trigger to buy it, you’d like a second opinion. You might simply call up a friend but have you ever tried to describe, say, a folk art painting to someone over the phone. Think of the questions you might be asked that are impossible to answer: “How vibrant is the blue?”, “Is the child attractive?”, “Does it have a presence?” or “Does it have the flat folk art appearance or is the painting academic?” I wish anyone luck in trying to answer those questions, but suppose you can email a picture of whatever it is you’re looking at. Now you’re in a different world … a high tech world … and we should hardly be surprised when something that’s a product of the 21st century is of value when evaluating something from the 18th or 19th. My most recent example in this respect I recounted earlier when giving the example of the estate sale with a plethora of dolls … cloth dolls, composition dolls, German and French bisque dolls. And what I said in that chapter remains true in this one: What I know about dolls can, if stuck on the head of the proverbial pin, leave room for something else. But there was one doll in particular that caught my eye and my instinct told me it might be a good one … but at $250 I wasn’t about to trust instinct, at least not when it comes to dolls. Well, a quick photo and eMail to someone who’s my expert on dolls immediately identified it as a Kathe Kruse, and most likely worth way more than the asking price. Enough said there. For one additional example, just recently I encountered the two 3-foot artist mannequins in Figure 4-7b. Unfortunately, the asking price was $1,200, which I knew a priori was too much for me to spend on them for resale. The dealer in question, though, made it clear he was willing to entertain offers. But the problem was I hadn’t the foggiest idea what would be a fair offer … one likely to be accepted but still leave me room for profit. So I messaged this picture to my friend who was sitting comfortably at home with ready access to the internet and in less than ten minutes he messaged me back saying he found two comps — one on eBay for a tad over $300 and another on liveauctioneers.com for a bit less than $500. That was good enough to let me know that I probably didn’t want to pay more than $600 for the pair since my outlet would be eBay. I ended up not buying them (the dealer selling them said he’d paid $750), but since I know he’ll be setting up at a flea market the next weekend, I can hope he still has them and has decided that a small loss is unavoidable.
Fig. 4-7b: To Buy or Not to Buy?
The point of all of this is to emphasize that good hunting requires preparation, perseverance and efficiency. But now back to having an eye and the question: How does one get an eye? Frankly, I don’t know. My cousin, whose been in the business longer than I have and who has no formal training in anything whatsoever, has an eye for art that he claims he developed by spending countless hours in museums studying what was great versus things deemed merely mediocre. I’m sure his museum trips helped, but I also suspect that he has a talent that wasn’t visited on me at birth. My son has an eye, but I have no idea where it came from. It’s surely not genetic because his sister wouldn’t know an antique unless it’s labeled as such. To the extent that I have an eye, it developed via some mysterious process after attending countless flea markets, antique shows and auctions – and making countless mistakes in the process. So perhaps it’s like learning to play the piano – practice, practice, practice. All I can tell you is that it behooves you to do whatever it takes to develop an eye – to refine your ability to spot and evaluate things quickly and from a distance – because if you don’t you’ll not only miss the things you want, you’ll also be afforded the ultimate frustration; namely, seeing someone leave the market with that special thing under their arm you’d trade your first born for.
Now as I’ve already told you, going hat-in-hand with having an eye is the admonition that knowledge is everything. Your job at a flea market (or anywhere else you might search for antiques) is, to put things bluntly, to take advantage of other people’s ignorance – to properly identify the thing that’s misidentified and correspondingly mispriced. Your job is to know in an instant the difference between a Pennsylvania dower chest and a Scandinavian import, between a 19th century weathervane versus one bought 20 years ago at Restoration Hardware, between a period Windsor chair and a 20th century mass produced knockoff, between old and new paint, between an American and an English sampler and so on and so forth.
I do know this, though: There is tuition to be paid in developing an eye and gaining the essential knowledge. One part of that tuition is reading all that you can get your hands on. Let yourself become Amazon’s best customer and read all that you can on whatever subject interests you and on anything that you might come in contact with at a flea market. Read about Amish quilts and the differences between those associated with Lancaster County versus the Amish of the Midwest; buy a copy of Silber’s Amish: The Art of the Quilt. Learn how legitimate period American antique furniture is made and the signs of a fake; get and read Kirk’s The Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques and Kaye’s Fake, Fraud or Genuine. Learn how to identify a good sampler as well as an American one versus the more common ones from England; read the Hubers’ Samplers: How to Compare and Value, or, if you have deep pockets, get Betty Ring’s two volume pictorial treatise on samplers. If it ever occurred to you to buy a weathervane, first read Miller’s The Art of the Weathervane or Bishop & Coblentz’s A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs. After that head to the internet to see the thousands of different forms a vane can take. If woven coverlets interest you, get copies of Anderson’s American Coverlets and their Weavers and Safford & Bishop’s America’s Quilts and Coverlets.
I could continue with this list of ‘essential reading’ indefinitely – baskets, antique advertising, trade signs, period candlesticks, cast iron doorstops, flint and pattern glass, toys and dolls, Bennington pottery, oriental rugs, hooked rugs, cast iron mechanical and still banks, wrought iron kitchenware, pewter, and so on. There are countless books that focus on each and every one of these subjects. And don’t forget, of course, the sub-categories of things: If, for instance, you’re a collector of antique advertising, is it coffee or spice tins that most interest you; or perhaps it’s cardboard oats and cereal boxes, or is it enameled signs or maybe you like those Diamond Dye cabinets. And you better sharpen your eye here, because reproductions have proliferated like ants on an ant hill. But one of the side benefits of your pursuit is that you’re likely to learn something about American history you hadn’t expected to learn. Here’s perhaps my favorite example: I once had the opportunity to sell off a very large collection of baking powder cans – two 50 gallon drums filled with them! That’s right – baking powder cans! Can there be anything less interesting to a collector of Americana than hundreds of 1900s baking powder cans? Well, what I learned in the process as compared to what I didn’t know was staggering. The first thing that struck me was that it seemed as if every city and town in America at the turn of the century had a baking powder company, since of the hundreds of cans I was about to sell I could find no two alike or from the same city! The variety was staggering. But what accounted for that fact? Well, at the time I had absolutely no idea but, via a circuitous route, I learned that the politics of baking powder in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the great salient issues of the day with respect to monopolies and state versus federal government regulation. There were two things to appreciate about baking powder at the time. First, there was no universally agreed-upon definition as to what exactly it was. A quick trip to the internet will tell you that it now consists of baking soda, starch and an acidic compound so as to make the concoction act as a leavening agent. But what precisely is the proportions of these things, what sort of starch will you use, and is it still baking powder if one mixes in a bit of flour to dilute the contents and increase your profits? And second, baking powder doesn’t deteriorate, rats don’t eat it and it can thus be easily stored for long periods of time. So if you were thinking of starting a small home-grown business in the back of your garage (or horse stable as the case might have been), what better thing to do than get someone to can your ad hoc mixture of powder, print some labels and voila – you’re a baking powder company. Now the ‘big boys’, who fully understand their self-interest and the benefits of monopoly, don’t like that nor do housewives who might worry that their bread will emerge from the oven as flat as a pancake. So after suitably dressing themselves up as defenders of otherwise helpless housewives, the big boys pursue the well-worn path to a national monopoly – lobbying for federal regulation “in the public interest”. After all, what better way to stifle competition and keep competitors out of the market than by having the feds impose costly standards for content and canning (what … you thought Henry Heinz lobbied for the establishment of the Food And Drug Administration purely out of some altruistic concern?). But that also means it’s time for politics, with the feds, lobbied by producers who have the capital to establish a oligopolistic national distribution system, struggling against states whose interests lie in protecting their local ‘mom & pop’ enterprises. So let me just say that studying the history of baking powder can be a lot more interesting and informative than you might initially suppose.
But back to developing your eye. Don’t forget museums. You don’t have to visit the Met in New York City, or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, or even the collection at Williamsburg Virginia or Deerfield Massachusetts to see good stuff. Municipal and county museums across the country often have superb mini-collections of fine art, Americana, etc. If you’re in Rochester New York, for instance, visit the Margaret Strong museum. The passion of George Eastman’s daughter in spending daddy’s fortune from Kodak cameras and film was toys and dolls. Daddy sold a lot of cameras, so Margaret bought a lot of toys, and as a consequence the museum offers what is perhaps the finest collection of dolls, dollhouses and mechanical banks you’ll see anywhere on the planet. On the other hand, if you’re in Los Angeles, head over to Pasadena to visit the Huntington collection. Not only will you learn the benefits of being heir to a transcontinental railroad fortune, but you’ll also find first rate examples of Western art and Americana. If you ever wondered what an original Audubon volume looks like or a first edition of the Federalist Papers, you’ll see them there. If you’re in Pittsburgh and have a free day, head out to the Westmorland County museum (look it up on a map) to see the finest collection of Western Pennsylvania fraktur you’ll find anywhere. And the list goes on. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll find things at your local flea market that warrant inclusion in any of these collections, but at a minimum they will sharpen your eye.
Even if you travel overseas and have no interest in European or Asian antiques, don’t assume there isn’t something to be learned. Art is art, and good art is good art. But for perhaps a more off-beat suggestion, you can do what I did when traveling through Poland and Ukraine, which might seem strange places to learn anything about Americana; namely, I visited some of the small recreated 18th and 19th century villages (skansen) scattered about in both countries (and Poland and Ukraine are hardly unique in having such places). What you’ll learn is the universal desire of people to make their otherwise dull, grey and hardscrabble existence bright and interesting. Pantry boxes and firkins weren’t painted in America because people didn’t know what to do with spare paint. People were adding color to their lives. Those beautifully grain painted or decorated document boxes, the elegantly drawn fraktur, and the decorated dower chests that today command four or even five digit prices served the same purpose. Well, Americans weren’t unique in that respect and, as a matter of fact, many if not most of the designs and styles we think of today as American were, as we well know (hence the label “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “Pennsylvania German”), brought to this country by immigrants from Europe. Now this isn’t to say that Polish or Ukrainian designs, in and of themselves, had a significant impact on what we today associate with 18th or 19th century New England or Pennsylvania painted forms. But those styles didn’t just materialize out of nowhere, and you might be shocked to see how “American” the country furnishings in those recreated villages appear at first glance Ever hear of the Battle of Poltava in Ukraine, 1709, between Peter the Great and King Charles XII of Sweden? Yes, that’s right … there was a Scandinavian influence back then thru Poland and into Ukraine. So to the extent that Scandinavian designs influenced us, they did the same in Poland and Ukraine and therein lies a genetic connection between the folk art indigenous to, say, Kutztown, Krakow and Khmelnitsky. Knowing, though, that you aren’t looking at New England or Pennsylvania pieces helps train the eye in the subtle differences in American versus European designs and color configurations.
To all of this I’d like to add, by way of example, one other reason for training your eye. Often those who set up at flea markets will have a piece that, because of condition (or ignorance), they deem as near worthless. In that case it’s not likely to assume a prominent place in their booth and might even, in the case of a textile, have been used for little more than packing. I’m thinking here of the example of the Jacquard coverlet I found not long ago dated 1850 but that in its ratty state hadn’t been set out on display. Instead it had been left in the van and was barely visible from the aisle. It nevertheless caught my eye (and the “eye” here was in identifying it as a Jacquard when only a corner of it was visible). The dealer hadn’t even intended to set it out because it was badly worn in addition to having served breakfast, lunch and dinner to many a moth. It was, to put it kindly, a basket case. But it was cheap, it had been a thin day at the market and I’m always a sucker for coverlets. My spirits were hardly raised when I got home, inspected it more closely and saw that it was in even worse condition that I’d originally thought: Another “why the hell did I buy this?” Still it had a nice border and was dated, so I figured it had to be worth something to someone, if only to be made into seat covers or pillows. Hoping to get back something on my investment, I put it on eBay, describing all its defects. It was impossible, though, to post pictures of every defect – there were simply too many. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the auction ended and I not only recouped my minimal investment but realized a nice profit. Still, I held my breath: Had the buyer read the listing carefully so that he or she knew all the damage? Might they want to return it once they saw it first hand? But then came a message from the new owner: They didn’t care about the damage, because there were specific peculiarities to the weave that identified it as having been made by the buyer’s cousin, several generations removed: “My husband and I are SO happy to get this coverlet. It will be treasured and passed down thru the generations.“ So not only can’t you know what you’ll find at the next market, you may not even know the value something has to someone somewhere. But it is always a joy to make that connection and to send a treasured piece home.
To prove that such occurrences aren’t uncommon, precisely the same thing occurred with the 2-panel Jacquard coverlet in Figure 4-8a. She’d apparently never been sewn together, which only made it easier for the flea market dealer who had it to use for packing. And it was used for that purpose because it had damage … the fringe at the bottom was worn, one corner with the date 1846 was clipped along with a nearby wear spot and, on the opposite (winter) side, some wear to a small part of the border (see Figure 4-8b). But take a look at that border … fruit trees at one end, and a hunter hunting deer along the two sides. Not ultra rare perhaps but indeed uncommon. Absent an eye and I’d never have found it; and absent an eye I’d never have sold it for four times what I paid for it!
Fig. 4-8a: 2Panel 1846 Jacquard Coverlet with Uncommon Border
Fig. 4-8b: Damage to Coverlet in Figure 4-8a
Let me conclude this chapter now with some comments about the “biggies” – Brimfield in Massachusetts, Renningers in Pennsylvania and Round Top in Texas. If you’ve ever been to any of these extravaganzas you know there’s no comparison between them and the ordinary neighborhood or regional monthly flea market. All three examples offer literally hundreds of acres of dealers. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is Brimfield, where three times a year fields of dealers stretch more than a mile along the main road through an otherwise small, sleepy non-descript New England town noteworthy only for the white Christopher Wren steepled church on a hill in the town center. In actuality, the Brimfield market consists of a dozen or so separate fields, run by different operators with not all of them opening at the same day or time. So serious shoppers will spend several days there, driving back and forth between some far away motel (forget about getting a room nearby – they’ve been booked a year or more in advance). Alternatively, if you own a mobile home or van you can always camp out at one of the parking areas and pray it doesn’t rain (or do you like mud?). But now here’s a fact to consider: You can’t see it all! I have no idea how many dealers ultimately set up across all of the markets there, but if someone told me it was 10,000 I wouldn’t accuse them of exaggerating. The density moreover of legitimate American antiques is probably greater there than anywhere in the country. Not only can you not possibly see it all, you can’t buy it all either.
Of course, not only is the density of “good stuff” great, so is the competition to buy. If, for instance, a market opens at say 8AM, you can expect upwards of 300, 400 or even 500 people waiting for the gates to be unlocked. And then there’s the market in which potential buyers are allowed to walk around a wooded field filled with dealers, but where the dealers themselves are not allowed to unpack until the bell rings. And at the sound of the bell chaos ensues. If any one dealer seems to be offering truly good things at bargain or fair prices, good luck getting within five feet of his or her space. Moreover, crowds at a booth become self-fulfilling prophesies – once one forms, everyone nearby assumes, true or not, that there’s something special offered there, in which case the crowd grows even denser. Now this might all seem like a crazy way to run a market, but there’s a logic to it. One of the great frustrations of being among the ‘ordinary’ folk, simply shopping for a bargain, is to stand outside a fenced off field waiting for it to open. What you’ll see are dealers not merely setting up on the other side of the fence with goodies that are unreachable until the gate opens (and one thing is universally true about antiques: Everything looks better from a distance), but you’ll have the pleasure of watching those dealers scurrying about shopping and scooping up what you are certain are the best bargains to be had. It’s not uncommon, then, for people to sign up to do a field but bring with them only some minimal inventory so they can join the other dealers to pick off some underpriced treasure before the general public has a shot at things. The market with the big bell, in contrast, establishes a level playing field in which everyone has an equal opportunity to find that hidden bargain. In fact, here the advantage shifts to the public, since rather than shop the field, dealers setting up are too busy unloading, unpacking and selling.
So you might ask, what ARE the chances of finding a treasure at some bargain price when you’re surrounded by literally tens of thousands of people, many of whom have decades of learning in the things that might interest you? I can’t offer a universal answer to this question, because it depends on what fuels your passion. If you’re looking for a legitimate 19th century weathervane in its original gilded surface, all I can say is good luck! First, there aren’t going to be many of those to be found, if there are any at all (a dealer hardly has to carry such a piece to a flea market to sell it). And even if there is one, the odds of you getting to it before anyone else finds it begins to approach zero. I can’t say it won’t happen, but I might suggest going to church afterwards and lighting a candle if it does. On the other hand, if you’re interested it decorative country accessories in original paint – those ubiquitous painted firkins, bowls, game boards and pantry boxes – or things like decorated stoneware, hooked rugs and historical Staffordshire pottery, you’ll most likely find plenty to choose from and some may even be priced at wholesale. Although there may be hundreds of people on the alert for what might interest you, competition here is a two-edged sword – there will also be dozens of dealers selling similar things, and each has no less of an incentive for you to buy their firkin, bowl, or whatever than someone else’s.
It’s also been my experience that with some careful shopping once the dust settles from the first hour of chaos there’s a chance you’ll discover a hidden gem, such as in my case the early 19th century Pennsylvania presentation long-handled spatula with brass inlay that was priced at $700 as I recall, but worth four or five times that to a serious collector. Of course, if you head off to one of these mega-market extravaganzas with the goal of finding such a gem, you’ll more than likely be disappointed. It’s best to go with the hope of merely finding a few things to your taste at reasonable prices. Disappointments will be few then, and the bargains will be unexpected surprises. There is, moreover, another dimension to this strategy. As I noted earlier, not all markets at Brimfield open the same day. Thus, on the second day at one market, the crowd will have moved elsewhere like migrating Canadian geese, rendering yesterdays “hot place” a nearly deserted wasteland. This is when one can shop with ease. Some of the dealers, having signed up for multiple fields, may have vacated their spots so as to move onto the next hot spot, but not all will have done so. And those that remain know that once the fury of a field’s opening has passed, any further sales will grow increasingly difficult to achieve UNLESS they open themselves up to more concerted bargaining with the few customers strolling the aisles. It may still be true that the bargains and undiscovered treasures are few and far between, but at least you won’t feel pressured into making mistakes and buying things you can’t thoroughly examine with a crush of potential competitors hovering around you.
One more thing about Brimfield. I don’t care if your 70 or 20, athletically challenged or an Olympic gold medal winner, but if you got there in the morning, if it’s a typical humid New England summer day and if you’ve been shopping continuously, then by noon (earlier in my case) your feet will be killing you. So I’ve sometimes thought that better than finding a hidden treasure is plunking one’s butt down at one of the many picnic tables there for a noontime lemonade along with a freshly grilled burger with onions and all the fixings or a Greek falafel or a … well, you decide. Trust me – just as it might be to your taste to bang your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop, that will be one of the most desperately needed and refreshing lemonades you’ll ever experience.
One other comment now about flea markets generally and the advantages of being a regular shopper at them. Specifically, dealers learn what you’re looking for, which in turn raises their antenna in looking for those things in the hopes of selling their finds to you. Here’s a few examples. Some time ago I bought three quilts from a couple who I’d actually never bought anything from previously. But upon completing my purchase they announced that they had dozens more at home: “they all belong to a long time retired dealer and she gave them to us to sell. Want to come to the house to look them over?” Did they really expect me to say NO? And indeed, a few days later I drove over to see what they had. Well … wow! They had a huge pile of first rate quilts and after buying them all, they told me “this is only the first half of the woman’s inventory. Do you want us to call you when we get the rest?” Why do people ask questions that have obvious answers? In any event, I should tell you that just because I might have been buying late 19th and early 20th century quilts by the gross here, I wasn’t stealing them – I was paying fair wholesale prices. The couple selling them were long time well known dealers in the area and they knew their market. They’d invited me to their house because many of the dealers they’d known over the years (decades actually) had moved on, some to places like Forest Lawn. From their perspective I was ‘fresh blood’ and a good dealer always cultivates potential customers of my type (i.e., I like to spend money and I pay in cash). But the other advantage of visiting them at their home was that it gave us the opportunity to socialize a bit over a beer and for me to lay out the sorts of things that most interested me. “Ok” the husband said, “I’ll be on the lookout.”
Now nine times out of ten that leads nowhere. And indeed, for about the next six or so months, they had little I was interested in when they set up at the flea markets I frequented. But then came THE PHONE CALL with yet another question with an obvious answer: “You said you like early American primitive portrait paintings, right?” Admittedly, my expectations were minimal, and they dropped further still when the promised pictures failed to appear in my email box. But then another phone call “the pictures are in my wife’s camera, and we left it by accident at her mother’s house … I’ll get it this evening.” And I have to say that what he told me then didn’t raise my expectations in the least “there are two portraits, a man and a woman.” The image that immediately came to mind were two mid 19th century portraits — most likely a husband and wife — of ugly old people. Such portraits account for upwards of 95% of those you’re likely to find at flea markets and estate sales. Indeed, it seems that by the time people in the 19th century could afford to have their portraits painted, they were ugly and old (or was it that they were simply old, with most people of that era being ugly regardless of age?). Now let me tell you something: Regardless of how old a portrait is – 1820, 1860 or 1880 – unless they’re painted by a recognized and highly sought after folk artist (e.g., an Ammi Phillips, an Erastus Salisbury Field, a Sheldon Peck, a Sturtevant Hamblin, and so on) people don’t buy paintings of ugly old men and ugly old women (unless they’re related to them, and even then who wants the incarnation of the evil witch from The Wizard of Oz looking down at you every time you eat dinner?). So I held what little enthusiasm I had in check and awaited the email which, as promised, arrived that evening.
I don’t think I was able to get to the phone fast enough once that email arrived. The portrait of the man was interesting in his own right, but he’d been cut down so as to fit in an unattractive late 19th century oval frame. His folky quality might have given him some value before this massacre, but its value had been driven into the ground thereafter. But then there was the woman!!! Or should I say girl. First the bad news: She was off her original stretcher and rolled up, the bottom had been cut so her toes were missing, there was a 3 or 4 inch tear at the bottom off to one side and the portrait needed touchup throughout so that when restored it would look like it had measles under black light. Sounds pretty bad, right? But now the good news – the really good news: She wasn’t old (I’d say in her early teens), she wasn’t ugly (actually she was quite pretty) and it wasn’t merely a portrait but a full-length image. Not enough for you? Ok, here’s more: Her face was in perfect condition, her dress was a bold eye-catching red and the style of the painting was the absolute essence of early American portraiture folk art. In addition to her bright red dress, she had a darling little choker around her neck, one hand was holding a purse and the other a canary! In other words, if you’re a collector of American folk art paintings, it doesn’t get any better than this! Or, to state matters differently, if you’re putting together a book of the very best of early American folk art, she belongs in that book. Oh, and by the way … the unrestored portrait is the one in Figure 4-9! The lesson of this story, then, aside from suggesting that you read up on folk art paintings so that you can recognize a good one should it cross your path, is that it pays to get to know the flea market dealers around you, since you never know what they’ll find. And you want them to get to know you so that when and if they do find it, whatever “it” might be, they call you.
Fig. 4-9: Girl In Red Dress, Unrestored