Make no mistake: It’s the hunt for a bargain that keeps us walking under the flaming afternoon sun. But if you’ve ever trolled for antique treasures at Brimfield, you know that bargain is a very elastic term. (Is a vintage cast-iron lawn sprinkler shaped like a duck really undervalued if I live in Manhattan’s concrete jungle?)
Her eagle eyes buried behind oversized sunglasses and shaded by a floppy hat and umbrella, Judith moves through the maze of tent-like stalls unnoticed. Silently, she surveys the goods (and bads) from afar before moving in for a close-up view. Scouting for treasures isn’t a spectator sport. Much of what Judith sees she also feels, fingering furniture carving, silver repoussé, and cut glass.
Often she engages flea market dealers in friendly banter. “Knowledgeable dealers are the best source of information,” whispers Judith as she thumbs through a pile of neatly folded vintage French toiles purchased at the Vanves street market in Paris by dealers Julia Kelly and Valerie Hodenius of Arlington, Massachusetts. “True antique fabric will not be pristine,” dealer Kelly gently tells a shopper puzzled by the charm of aging fabric. Judith zeroes in on an antique hand-towel-size, pinkish red-on-cream toile that was probably once Jell-O red-on-white before developing its mellow patina. The same vintage toile pattern is illustrated in French Fabrics: 1783– 1790, which the dealer shows Judith. Impressed, Judith pounces, sealing the deal for $95. Judith plans to fly the flea market find back to France’s Dordogne region, where a friend owns a (smart!) shop popular with American tourists. The ricocheting antique may yet find its way back to this side of the pond.
Flush with success, Judith continues her quest for the best, focusing on brass candlesticks in the next flea market booth. However, most antique buyers faithfully search for their one true love—whether it’s Royal Doulton rugged-faced character jugs, pre-1900 sewing machines, cast-iron cookware, engraved silverware, novelty teapots, or “anything poker.” You don’t have to read minds to know what the competition is gunning for. Pairs of collectors, working in tandem, phone in sightings from the far corners of the field. Lone pre-dawn shoppers armed with flashlights dash by dealers’ booths, bleating the names of their elusive antique treasures: “Steiff,” “Tiffany,” and “ Mission” were on the early morning hit list.