Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America
Author: Maureen Stanton
Published by The Penguin Press,
New York 2011.
You might think this a strange book that I have chosen to review but with the popularity of the television shows, Antiques Road show (in its fifteenth season), Pawn Queens, Pawn Star and the thousands of flea markets and garage sales all around the United States, it is obvious there is a fascination by the public for finding unlikely treasures in unlikely places. The Brimfield Antiques Show, held 3 times a year in a sleepy little town in New England draws 250,000 visitors and over 5,000 dealers to each of its six day shows. This obsession by the public becomes most exciting when there is a possibility a found treasure bought at a cheap price turns out to be worth unknown thousands, or even millions of dollars. The likelihood of this happening is, obviously, extremely slight much like winning the lottery, but none the less it is there and it is a lure that many find hard to resist.
Maureen Stanton met Curt Avery (a pseudonym) in the 1980’s while in graduate school. Later she met him again when he flew from Massachusetts to Ohio with $4,000 in his pocket to look at a couple of old bottles he was interested in buying. He decided to bid on one of the bottles and stood behind a pole while using her as a decoy to bid in order to fool one of his competitors. He sometimes used this technique since people in the audience, who had no intention of bidding, only began bidding when they saw him raise his paddle or nod to the auctioneer, which was often their first clue that the item might be of some special worth. For the next six years Ms. Stanton followed him as a participant observer as he toured the country selling and buying goods at flea markets and antique shows. He tutored her about the business both as a favor to her and because he wanted people to better understand and appreciate antiques.
One of the first orders of the day for a dealer at a show is to take a quick tour of the booths, before the show is even open to the public, to see what is available. Sometimes items are purchased from other dealers and immediately put back up for sale in their own booths for a considerably higher price and sold again before the day is over. In Mr. Avery’s case, if he felt he made enough money from such a turnaround he would occasionally go back to the original seller and give him some of the profit. I strongly suspect this is not the norm with most dealers. Some shows require that the booths be set up ahead of the opening bell; in others dealers are not allowed to even begin to unpack their goodies until the doors open to the public. This adds a whole new dimension to the thrill of the hunt and dealers often see the same faces stopping to check out their booths three and four times during the day as they make the rounds to see what new things have been unpacked from the back of the truck, trailer or car. Many buyers have only one thing in mind such as political items, old police badges, valentines, or books and may carry a sign or wear a shirt announcing their interest.
Recently a painted rooster weathervane sold for $49,940 at a Boston auction. One such weathervane was sold in January, 2006, for $1,080,000 for an auction record, which was broken in August when one sold for $1,216,000, then once again when Jerry Lauren, Ralph’s brother, won the bid at Sotheby’s for $5,840,000.
This book is full of interesting tidbits of information told in a fascinating way. As an example, Christie’s will not auction items relating to the Holocaust and have had to stop auctions selling items representing slavery due to protests. A tea table made in 1763 which would have cost, what would be in today’s market, about $2,000 sold 242 years later for $8,416,000.
I found this book hard to put down. It is a non-fiction book that is so full of unbelievable stories you will think you are reading a novel.
Diane Bostick has lived on Marco Island since 1987. She was the Founder and President of Ft. Myers chapter of the Association of Children with Learning Disabilities, President of Jr. Welfare League, Ft. Myers Chapter, and served on the board of Art League of Marco Island. She is an avid reader, fly fisherwoman, tennis player and crafter.