Killer Stuff And Tons Of Money: Seeking History And Hidden Gems In Flea-Market America

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The inside life of flea markets—the antiques world. The dealers, the fakes, the deals, the gems.

A pair of cast bronze hounds appear to stand guard at the Antique Market in Brimfield, Mass. (AP)
A pair of cast bronze hounds appear to stand guard at the Antique Market in Brimfield, Mass. (AP)

“Antiques Roadshow” gave Americans the thrill of the treasure in the attic.

The History Channel’s “American Pickers” got down and dirty with the stuff of flea markets and back road garage sales.

Now, Maureen Stanton rips the lid off the whole business of antiques, hidden gems, dealers and auctions and the fevered American trade in objects of the past. “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money,” is her new book.

Shaker furniture. Navajo rugs. Heirloom jewelry. Whale bone and weathervane. She takes us deep into the antiques biz.

This hour On Point: Owning the past. Killer stuff and tons of money.
- Tom Ashbrook

Maureen Stanton is the author of “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America.” Her story follows an antiques dealer from the chaos of flea markets to the high-brow world of auctions. Stanton is also a professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Scott Chalfant is a second-generation antiques and fine art dealer of antiques. He and his father own and operate their own antiques store in West Chester, specializing in early-American furniture, but have branched out in recent years into fine art and mid-modern furniture. An innovator in the business, Chalfant is developing software he hopes will help dealers conduct business more effectively online.

On the show today, we heard “Rag and Bone” by the White Stripes and "Antiques Roadshow Remix” by the Elusive Mr. Hatchard.

Tom's Reading List

There are numerous television programs examining different aspects of this story. Here are a few:

Antiques Roadshow

American Pickers

Pawn Stars

Auction Kings


Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America

Chapter One

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.”

Chapter Three

Boot Camp

We are just about finished setting up when 1:00 P.M. hits and the gates open. From our vantage point halfway down the field, we can see them coming, the buyers, making steady, hurried progress, not running, which would seem undignified, but more like race-walking, that odd sport. They approach in a way that reminds me of Dawn of the Dead zombies: at first they appear distant and untroubling and then suddenly they’re upon you in a devouring swarm, with their straw hats and fanny packs and walkie-talkies and cell phones and thick wads of cash and two-wheeled carts for hauling loot.

“Got any violins?”

“Fountain pens?”

“Do you have any scouting stuff?”

A one-legged man crutches by and shouts, “Cast iron cookware? Pots? Pans? Waffle irons?” What is it about cast iron cookware that strikes him? Why does he want, love, need an old waffle iron? (Investment perhaps: a “Favorite Piqua Ware” double-loaf cast iron cornbread pan sold for a record $21,000 in 2006.) I will see Joel, the cast-iron guy, every day this week, handsome, ponytailed, muscled arms and chest, and at other New England antiques shows calling out his familiar plea, “Cast iron cookware?” Indeed, he is a legend, appearing in the novel Brimfield by Michael Fortuna, and in Brimfield Rush by Bob Wyss. Trying to be helpful, I ask Avery if he has any cast iron cookware. He replies, “This guy, Joel, works incredibly hard. At every Brimfield he asks every dealer for thirty years if he has cast iron cookware. What are the odds of me finding something he doesn’t already have?”

People walk around wearing headsets, looking deranged, muttering to themselves. Husband-and-wife teams split up to maximize efficiency. “Honey, I’m in row C, near the concession. I’ve spotted a topsy-turvy doll.” Avery has a topsy-turvy doll for $200, perched in a wooden bowl, a strange hybrid cloth figure with two heads at opposite ends, one black and one white. A skirt covers one of the doll’s heads and torso when upright. “Turn me up and turn me back, first I’m white and then I’m black” reads a nineteenth-century ad for the dolls. Stitched together at the torso, the doll defies the notion of segregation.

Minutes before the show opened, Avery walked toward the men’s room, but never made it there. On the way, he bought two stoneware jugs for $400 from a dealer a few booths down, took the price tag off and placed them on his table. Now he’s just sold them—his first sale of the day—for $550. “A hundred and fifty–dollar profit in three minutes,” he says. “A new world’s record.” A girl in her twenties breathlessly asks, “Musical instruments?” as she moves quickly from table to table. I hear her voice like a lyric, “Sir, do you have any musical instruments?” A polite, almost plaintive call that fades as she hurries along the rows. “Anything on fireworks at all?” a man shouts into the booth, and then vanishes. There’s a dozen people in Avery’s booth inspecting objects.

“How much?” A woman holds up a pink “lusterware” dog figurine.

“Ninety-five,” Avery shouts. She sets it down.

Ten minutes into the show, Avery sells a set of 1800s andirons in the shape of hound dogs for $800. A soft-spoken man asks the price of a nineteenth-century carved fisherman nutcracker. Even the lowly nutcracker has an illustrious history. Archeologists found stone nut-cracking tools buried near the Dead Sea dating 780,000 years ago. The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Germany owns a nutcracker forged near the time of Christ. There is even a “father of nutcrackers,” Wilhelm Füchtner, who commercialized the production of nutcrackers in 1872. His great-great-great grandson still designs nutcrackers. The fisherman nutcracker is $150, Avery tells the man, who peels off bills and walks away happily with his nutcracker wrapped in newspaper.

Since I know nothing about antiques, I am of little help, but Avery asks me to keep my eye out for theft. He displays small, expensive items, “pocket pals,” in glass cases. There are no store detectives, two-way mirrors, hidden cameras, security guards. Only our consciences regulate the exchanges here. “Or lack thereof,” Avery says. Later, we learn that a dealer down the row not only failed to sell a single thing, but had something stolen.

A fortyish man with long hair on a kid’s banana bike rides past: “Got any marbles?” At first I think he is an obsessed weirdo, but in fact he is a savvy shopper. His tiny bike is easily packed in his car, and allows him rapid transit to hundreds of booths. The marble collector is the epitome of efficiency, not deficiency. Marbles are one of the oldest toys known. Retired toy manufacturer Bert Cohen owns two 2,300-year-old Roman marbles (among 300,000, which fill two floors of his house). In the United States in the 1920s, the game of marbles was so popular that Charles “Buster” Rech, the first champion “mibster” of the national marbles tournament in 1922, was fêted with a fifty-piece brass band before ten thousand fans.

Marbles have marvelous names: cat’s eye, clam broth, end-of-day cloud, Popeye corkscrews. An Indian is a marble hand-cut from a cane of glass. A single, late-1800s, German-made Indian sold for $4,082 in 2001. Marrididdles are homemade clay marbles you hardened in your own oven, and sulphides are clear marbles with a figure inside, like a bust of Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1880s, Samuel Dyke of Akron, Ohio, patented a machine to mass-produce clay marbles. At its peak, his factory produced a million marbles a day, which filled five railroad boxcars. For a penny, a kid could buy a fistful. Today, these clay marbles are still cheap. In a shoe box on Avery’s table, the earthen-colored, slightly misshapen orbs cost a quarter a piece.

In the banana-bike-riding marble collector, I recognize an enviable trait: passion. A dealer who bought a c. 1760 fan-crested, banister-back armchair with Spanish feet said in the Maine Antique Digest, “It crushed my heart it is so good.” Avery’s been smitten, too. Speaking of a Prior-Hamblin School portrait, he said, “I fell in love with that thing.” He won the painting at an auction. “It was such a star, such a queen,” he said. I’ve never collected anything beyond childhood, and though I can’t imagine what objects might attract me now, I long to feel this passion collectors feel, to fall in love with something.

This program aired on June 22, 2011.


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