Flea-market hounds fantasize. We dream of discovery and recovery. Cast-off couture and wind-up watches rub us the right way. Most of us, however, won’t cop to being covetous. Why, we’re just digging through other people’s trash.
But vintage beauties don’t offer themselves up easily. Marinating in years of dust and neglect, antiques can, and often do, slip by our gaze unnoticed. In an attempt to increase the odds of scoring, Traditional Home invited antiques ace Judith Miller to scour acres of artifacts in Brimfield, Massachusetts, home to the country’s largest flea market three times a year since 1959—and held this year May 10-15, July 5-10, and September 6-11.
Judith, author of the international best-selling Miller’s Antiques Price Guides and more than 60 books on collecting antiques , gamely agreed to walk her talk at Brimfield, where some 5,000 dealers from 35 states converged last May. "Ideally, you want to find something at a flea market , rather than when it ends up in a smart shop," says the Scottish-born supersleuth who now lives in London with her husband, John Wainwright, and three children."There’s a bargain at every flea market —if you know what you’re looking at," opines the blond and brainy author, who has combed through antiques fairs and "boot sales" (a car trunk is called a boot in England) on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 35 years
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.
Judith herself collects colorful Scottish Monart glass from the 1920s as well as sparkly vintage jewelry like the gold-plated sun-face brooch pinned to her blouse. "People often stop me to ask about this Joseff-of-Hollywood pin," says Judith, who gently jiggles the vintage brooch to make the twinkly rhinestone eyes move. "The exciting thing about costume jewelry is that you can stumble across something very individual for not very much." Prices depend on designer names and workmanship. Collectors pay big for pieces marked Chanel, Schia- parelli, or Haskell. But just how the pieces were made counts, too. For instance, are the stones glued or prong-set? Prongs push prices upward (and more prongs mean higher prices).
Her admiration for fetching vintage costume jewelry is contagious. "They are at least equal to or better than the precious equivalent," notes Judith. "Many of those who designed costume jewelry had earlier been designers for fine jewelers such as Cartier and Van Cleef," she adds, pointing out that Frenchman Alfred Philippe moved from the real thing to vintage bling (Trifari) in 1930.
Despite the sweltering heat, Judith speeds up when she spots a glimmering constellation of jewelry : chandelier earrings, crystal bead necklaces, and sprays of dazzling rhinestone brooches.
Vintage vendor Jeanne DeSantis is barricaded behind velvet-lined trays of gorgeous goodies and customers two-deep. " Rhinestones rule," she says, by way of a greeting.
We wade into the crowd and meet Elizabeth Gavais-Miller, a personal shopper for Bergdorf Goodman, who hopes to reclaim some of the family jewelry . "My grandfather was jeweler Benjamin Bogoff, and I’m trying to buy back as many of his period rhinestone pieces as I can find," explains Gavais-Miller, who wears her fabulous fakes to work at the posh Manhattan department store.
Gavais-Miller is in good company. A glass-gemstone bangle dangled from the wrist of the Duchess of Windsor (American Wallis Simpson), a triple-strand faux pearl necklace framed the face of Jackie O, and diamonds made of paste sparkled on Marilyn Monroe.
There’s no need to convince Judith, who literally wrote the book on Costume Jewelry (DK Publishing, $35). She sifts through dozens of trays before finding a delicate mother-of-pearl necklace and bracelet, circa 1930. At $35 for the no-name pair, Judith is clearly delighted.
"It’s sweet," she says admiringly as the dealer wraps it up.
This July, dealer DeSantis will again display her beauteous bijouterie at Brimfield, next to Collin’s Apple Barn. We reached her by telephone at her home in Sylvan Beach, New York, as she was shuffling boxes in preparation for the trek to Massachusetts.
"Colorful rhinestone brooches are in this year," she says, "but Bakelite is dead." Thanks to changing tastes, Bakelite (the first synthetic plastic, patented in 1907) presents a real buying opportunity for impecunious collectors in love with smooth, glossy Art Deco bangles.
But price-guide guru Judith tempers my enthusiasm to corner the market on Bakelite. "Don’t buy antiques and collectibles as an investment," she cautions. "If they appreciate, that’s good. But you should buy it because you love it and can’t live without it."
Suddenly, I hear those vintage sprinklers calling—psst, psst, psst, psst.