Appreciating Finds at a Flea Market

Discover how a flea market unfolds through the eyes of serious collectors and dealers.

Killer Stuff

“Killer Stuff and Tons of Money” is many things: an insider’s look at a subculture replete with arcane traditions and high drama, an inspiring account of a self-made man making his way in a cutthroat field, a treasure trove of tips for those who seek out old things themselves and a thoroughly fresh, vibrant view of history as blood sport.

Cover Courtesy Penguin Books

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Millions of Americans are drawn to antiques and flea-market culture, whether as participants or as viewers of the perennially popular Antiques Roadshow or the recent hit American Pickers. This world has the air of a lottery: a $20 purchase might net you four, five or six figures. But as Killer Stuff and Tons of Money (Penguin Books, 2011) illustrates, you’ve got to know your history to find those hidden gems. Author Maureen Stanton shadows charismatic autodidact Curt Avery, a master dealer, to flea markets, auctions and high-end antiques shows—and discovers a true behind-the-scenes look that reveals the deep knowledge and obsessive passion necessary to earn a living selling old objects. Through the eyes of Curt Avery, learn how objects’ histories and aesthetics unfold in the flea market world in this excerpt taken from Chapter 1, “Opium Bottles and Knuckleheads.” 

It’s 5:00 a.m. on a May Sunday in Massachusetts, and still dark outside. Curt Avery sits in front of me in his fully loaded pickup truck, part of a mile-long line of dealers waiting to get into the Rotary Club flea market. We inch along for an hour, as the rising sun evaporates dew from my windshield. Inside a chain-link fence, flagmen wave dealers into allotted spaces. Avery is peeved because the setup is disorganized and he must wait in line instead of being able to quickly park and then “pick” the show, antique-world parlance for plucking hidden gems off other dealers’ tables. Ahead of me, I see him brake, jump out of his idling truck and sprint down a lane where dealers who arrived earlier are setting up. Half a minute later, he jogs back and tosses what looks like a small footstool into the front seat. He moves his truck another thirty feet, spies something down another aisle and leaps out to buy it. Drive-by antiquing.

He finally pulls into his spot and immediately a man materializes, nosing around the back of the truck, but Avery has come mainly to buy, so once he unloads sawhorses and plywood, he locks his truck and we cruise the aisles. The gates don’t open for another three hours, but the “show” starts the minute Avery passes through the chain-link fence. By the time the unwitting public arrives, it will be over, the good stuff gone. There will likely be no great finds left. This is the show before the show, when dealers trade with one another out of their still unemptied trucks. Coffee cup in hand, Avery hunkers down the lanes. I follow. “Fresh blood,” he says, spotting a Ryder truck. A rental truck can mean that somebody has inherited an estate, or some other one-time circumstance. Amateurs. People who don’t do this for a living, who haven’t taken the time to research their stuff, who want to turn a quick buck. The objects are new to the market; they haven’t been floating around from show to show, the ink on the price tags faded or blurred illegible by rain. “Fresh tags can be good,” Avery says.

As we approach the Ryder truck, Avery scans the objects, like the Six Million Dollar Man with telescopic vision. Twenty feet away from the table, he sings a ditty into my ear: “I just made a hundred doll-ars.” He picks up a butter churn, a small glass canister with a wooden paddle wheel inside, pays the asking price of $40. “They made very few one-quart butter churns,” he says out of the dealer’s earshot, “because for all the work you did, you only got a little butter. You do the same amount of work in a two-quart churn and double the butter. Once they figured that out, they didn’t make too many of the one-quarts. They’re rare.” This bit of esoterica—and Avery has hundreds of such factoids—will earn him a clean C-note when he resells the one-quart churn for close to $200. This is my first five minutes in Avery’s world, and he makes finding treasure look easy. But the easy money is deceptive. Avery’s apparently effortless profit is the result of years of being on the scene, gleaning tips from other dealers, working at an auction house for minimum wage, studying obscure reference books. “It’s a long education,” he says. “You really don’t start until you spend $100. I can remember the first time I broke the $100 mark. It was traumatizing.”

Now the Ryder truck woman is unloading a variety of two-inch-tall, delicately shaped perfume bottles. Avery picks one up, asks how much. “Five bucks,” she says. It’s an anomaly to see Avery gingerly handling the fragile bottle. He was a wrestler in high school, and still has the wrestler’s form, a low center of gravity, with beefy arms and legs and a barrel chest. He has tattooed biceps, a wild mop of carbon-black curls, and a five o’clock shadow by noon. With his dark, deep-set eyes and heavy eyelashes, he’s handsome in a rugged, Bruce Springsteen way.

As the woman unloads more bottles, Avery picks up each one, asks the price. Same as before, five bucks. Finally he says, “How much for all of them?” He walks away with a shoe box of thirty antique perfume bottles for $100. Probably some woman who collected perfumes died and her collection, her lifelong passion, ended up in the hands of these people, who didn’t know its value, and—it would appear—didn’t care. Avery will later sell the bottles on eBay, most for $20 to $50 each, and one for $150. This is capitalism down and dirty, no guarantees, no regrets. There is a rebellious, outré air to the flea market, “suburban subversive,” one researcher called it, “libidinous,” said another.

“Flea markets,” Avery says, “are the carnal part of this business.”

The term “flea market” is from the French marche aux puces. In mid-to-late nineteenth-century Paris, biffins (rag-and-bone men), chiffonniers (rag men), and pêcheurs de lune (“moon fishermen”) sifted through trash in search of resellable items—glass, nails, animal carcasses, human hair, rags, cans. Hair was used to make wigs, carcasses rendered into candles, animal bones used for buttons or glue. Metal and glass were melted and recast. Sardine cans were fashioned into cheap toys, like tiny tin soldiers. An estimated thirty thousand ragmen hooked scraps of cloth out of the trash to sell to paper producers. Stories of the flea market’s origin vary. One account claims it arose when the municipality of Paris began to collect trash to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases, like cholera. In 1884, the government of Paris passed an ordinance that required every building to be equipped with a lidded garbage can, an effort spearheaded by a city official named Monsieur Poubelle. His name is fixed in history—poubelle is French for garbage can.

Another theory says that city rents were rising and scrap dealers, who bought the scavenged goods from the rag-and-bone men, moved to cheaper locales on the outskirts of Paris. Emperor Napoleon III charged a civil servant named Baron Haussmann with rebuilding Paris. Under Haussman’s vision, crooked streets were straightened and whole neighborhoods razed, including run-down buildings that housed salvage dealers. The poor were divided from the well-to-do. Haussman’s boulevards were designed to inspire commerce, though mainly for the bourgeoisie. Trades involving “an oven or a hammer” were banished from certain areas. Another story suggests that rag pickers and other secondhand merchants could sell goods outside the jurisdiction of Paris without paying city taxes, so they congregated beyond the city gates at Saint-Ouen near Porte de Clignancourt. Since the rags and other merchandise were likely infested with fleas and lice, the market earned the nickname marche aux puces.

Probably all of these forces contributed to the development of the flea market, but by 1890, the town managers of Saint-Ouen built roads and walkways, and merchants erected stalls.Vendors at Saint-Ouen paid a fee to exhibit their goods, as dealers do today. The original marche aux puces at Saint-Ouen, which bills itself as the world’s largest antique market with 2,500 vendors across seventeen acres, is now a protected architectural heritage site that attracts up to 150,000 visitors each weekend, more than the Eiffel Tower.

Avery and I wander up and down the aisles, stopping to chat with other dealers—what shows they’ll work this summer, rumors of a real Louis Vuitton suitcase discovered here earlier this morning for $50, worth thousands. We wend our way down the field, skipping some booths, veering toward others. Avery buys a set of Quimper plates for $10. Quimper (pronounced kem-pair) is a town in the Brittany region of France where faience pottery, a type of glazed earthenware, has been made since 1690. The Quimper plates that Avery buys feature small, Dutch-looking figures, bonneted women with aprons, and men with tall hats and yellow or blue pantaloons. In an antique shop, a set like this might cost twenty times the ten bucks Avery paid.

At the next booth, he buys a glass paperweight for $3, a rather ugly translucent blob that he says is from the early nineteenth century, and worth about $150. This seems like finding nuggets of gold in a shallow stream. It’s exciting and addicting, but it’s clear that the breadth and depth of knowledge needed to get to this point is daunting. Knowledge is what makes this robbery okay. Robbery is not the right word, though, because the information is available to anyone willing to study, to do the homework. “If you buy something off someone’s table, you don’t owe them anything,” Avery says. The dealer is responsible for setting the asking price. Caveat venditor. He tells me about a woman who bought an eighteenth-century tapestry “for nothing” and resold it for six figures. The first dealer learned of the six-figure sale, which left her with a sour taste, especially as the buyer had “beat her up” on the price. “That first dealer fucked up,” Avery says. “It’s different when you see a great thing and you still haggle down the price. My philosophy is, just give them the money. I don’t bargain then. I just buy it. I never want that person coming back to me and saying, ‘You knocked me down ten dollars, you cheap motherfucker.’”

Avery has even double-checked a price to give the seller a second chance. One year at Brimfield, in the “Pennsylvania Triangle,” where three top Pennsylvania dealers set up, he saw a piece of redware. “I asked the price and the kid said $25,” Avery says. He didn’t think that could be right given the dealer’s reputation, so he asked the kid to check again. “The kid yells over to his father, ‘How much for this?’ The father said $25.” As to the value of the redware piece, “Add two zeros,” Avery says. I ask him how this happens with knowledgeable dealers. “They just missed,” he says.

Avery and I shop for a couple hours, and when the show opens to the general public at 9:00 a.m., we return to unload his truck. Avery isn’t selling much here. This is not the crowd for pricey antiques. This is a flea market crowd, people who want a bargain, people who lack knowledge yet still want to find something valuable for cheap, people—I shamefully realize—just like me. I am Avery’s nightmare customer. “At this flea market, ten thousand people show up, but only nine people know anything,” he says. “I saw a little girl about Kristina’s age pick up something from my booth.” Kristina is Avery’s eight-year-old daughter. “I said to her, ‘I bet you can’t tell me what that’s for.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I think it’s a bed warmer.’ The mother said, ‘I thought it was a popcorn popper.’ The kid learned it on a field trip to Plimoth Plantation or something.”

A woman picks up a small, delicate bottle from Avery’s table, asks how much.

“Twenty,” he says.

“Cents?” she asks.

“Dollars,” he says.

She quickly sets it back on the table. The bottle is four inches tall, about the circumference of a nickel, with a brownish tarry residue inside and a crusty cork jammed in the top, circa 1890. Raised lettering on the glass reads Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium. A fragment of the label signed by the apothecary attests that the opium is “genuine.” I recall from my “History of Lizzie Borden” class in college that Borden took opium and morphine (its derivative) regularly, indeed on the day she axed to death her father and stepmother (allegedly: she was acquitted). Avery has a few opium bottles—he gives me one as a gift—but they are fairly hard to find, which seems odd since opium was so widely used. In a single year, 1859, just one glass factory in France produced eighty million bottles for opium. Until it was banned in 1905, opium was cheaper than beer or gin, and easily available in grocery stores, by mail, and over the counter at pharmacies. Parents even gave opium to fussy babies, a product like Street’s Infants’ Quietness, which “quieted” many infants through death by overdose. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey called opium a “panacea for all human woes” and “the secret of happiness.”Opium addiction was so widespread that an English pharmacist, C. R. Alder Wright, formulated a derivative called diacetylmorphine, which he hoped would be less addicting. The new drug, sold by the German company Bayer, was called Heroin for its heroic ability to cure. It was the best-selling drug brand of its time.

After I learn about opium bottles, later at a small one-day antique show with Avery, a girl about eleven years old picks up the bottle and reads the lettering. “What’s opium?” she asks, pronouncing it “opp-ee-um.” I tell her a little bit about the bottles. “Awesome,” she says. “So much history in a little bottle.”

A woman picks up a $90 Japanese Imari porcelain plate from Avery’s table, says to a friend, “Oh, I saw one just like that at Job Lot,” a warehouse filled with liquidation items. I grimace as the woman wanders away. Avery disparages the shopping strategies of this class of buyers. “They are aiming for cracked things,” he says. “I can have the perfect plate in my hand and it’s twelve dollars, but they’ll be like, ‘Oh no, I’m fine with these. Do you have any more like this?’ I couldn’t sell a good thing to these knuckleheads.” Inside I cringe, as this has been my strategy—buy the slightly “off” thing for cheaper. I, too, am a “knucklehead.”

Earlier that day, Avery bought an antique chest of drawers for $20, a lovely smallish piece of solid oak. No fiberboard or cheesy plywood backing or fake wood-grain veneer. He put a tag of $80 on the dresser, about half its retail value at a better show. Dozens of people admire it. It’s such a bargain that I’m tempted to buy it even though I have no place for it. I am amazed that Avery can’t sell this solid oak dresser for less than anyone would pay for a factory-assembled, particleboard imitation from Walmart. He drops the price to $50, and now this becomes a sociological experiment—a test of what, I’m not sure, perhaps a theory about American culture, that we are easily satisfied with simulacra, the surface of things over substance and quality. The dresser still doesn’t sell.

At the flea market, Avery sells objects far below their value. He’s willing to be flexible and take a hit on his prices here, but he has his bottom line. “I had this really, really good lampshade in cranberry glass with an oval cut to clear,” he says. “They dip the blowpipe in clear glass, then in cranberry glass, and then blow it into form.” After the piece is shaped, a pattern is cut into it. “This lampshade was rare, from the 1850s,” he says. “It was beautiful. It had a couple of chips, but it was just a rare, rare thing.” Avery glances occasionally at the people wandering through his booth. He continues. “I started at $200, but I had trouble selling the lampshade because it was a single, so I marked it at $129. This woman says, ‘Would you take $80?’ I looked at her and I go, ‘NO.’ I mean, I’ll smash it before I’ll sell it for $80. The lady was like, ‘Would you take $85?’ I said, ‘Do you even know what you are buying?’ The lady looked at me. ‘Oh, yes, yes.’ I go, ‘It’s $100.’” For that price, she couldn’t refuse.

“This isn’t about the money,” Avery says. “It’s about appreciation.” We joke that he should make customers pass a quiz before they’re allowed to buy something, to prove they deserve the piece. For Avery, this is about a love of objects, a keen understanding of the skill invested in creating a lampshade without the benefit of technology. In the nineteenth century, a glassblower’s apprenticeship was seven years.For Avery, an antique has value beyond utility. He and other dealers and collectors are lay historians, approaching their subject through the back door. Avery is a teacher at heart. When I arrived at his house before the show, he brought me into his living room and pointed to a framed sampler on the wall. “What do you notice about this?” he asked.

I looked at the eighteen-inch-square sampler, frayed at the edges with spots of dry rot, the alphabet embroidered across the top and the bottom by some young girl, lessons in feminine crafts. If I saw this at a flea market, I might pay $10. It’s pretty, but worn and faded. I studied the sampler and found nothing odd or amiss. I didn’t notice that one of the alphabets omits the letter J. “The letter J,” Avery said, “was not in usage until 1780 to 1790. Prior to that, the letters I and J were written as I. You had to discern which letter was in use by the context. Obviously ‘is’ was meant to be ‘is’ and not ‘js.’” On Avery’s sampler, the upper alphabet includes the letters I and J while the bottom alphabet omits the J. The sampler is transitional, Avery hypothesizes; the girl who sewed it had forgotten in one instance to include the new letter J. He dates the sampler to the late eighteenth century and values it at $600. The sampler tells a story of a girl’s life, what girls were taught, but it also tells a story of the English language. The sampler is literally a stitch in time.

After the Rotary show, on my drive home to Maine, I stop at an indoor flea market just before it closes. I spot a perfume bottle that is exactly like one Avery bought, with a hand-painted gold stripe around its belly, in delicate purple glass, for $20. At home, I’m still patting myself on the back for negotiating four dollars off the asking price when I discover through a quick Internet search hundreds, if not thousands, of identical bottles for sale, blown a week or a month ago in Turkey, asking price: a buck. I recall some of the things I’d learned from Avery that I’d failed to apply: wrong color, no discernible wear, and too easy a find, especially at the end of the day. That twenty bucks was my first installment on a home-school education in antiques. The real proving ground is the Brimfield flea market and antique show, reportedly the largest in the country. For dealers, Avery says, “Brimfield is boot camp.”

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques and Collecting, by Maureen Stanton, published by Penguin Books, 2012.