Appreciating Finds at a Flea Market

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

| October 2012

  • 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
  • Three Opium Bottles
    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.
    Photo Courtesy Penguin Books
  • Two Opium Bottles
    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.
    Photo Courtesy Penguin Books
  • Four Opium Bottles
    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.”
    Photo Courtesy Penguin Books
  • Quimper Plates
    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.
    Photo Courtesy Penguin Books
  • Quimper Plate Back
    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.
    Photo Courtesy Penguin Books
  • Maureen Stanton
    Maureen Stanton earned an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio State University. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
    Photo Courtesy Penguin Books
  • Antiques Are Green Logo
    At www.antiquesaregreen.org, learn about a carbon footprint study that compares an antique chest of drawers to a new one using greenhouse gas emissions.
    Logo Courtesy Penguin Books

  • Killer Stuff
  • Three Opium Bottles
  • Two Opium Bottles
  • Four Opium Bottles
  • Quimper Plates
  • Quimper Plate Back
  • Maureen Stanton
  • Antiques Are Green Logo

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.