Long before Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz swaggered into the spotlight with “American Pickers,” writer Maureen Stanton became fascinated with another rugged Alpha Male of the antiques world. But unlike Wolfe and Fritz, the handsome, brash 40-something man she calls by the pseudonym “Curt Avery” tends to avoid the spotlight.
“Brimfield is like a big outdoor museum where you can touch stuff.”
Avery, with his muscular arms and mop of curly black hair, is a professional antiques hustler, wheeling and dealing at flea markets all over the country—30 or 40 per year. And between September 4 and 9, 2012, he’ll be one of thousands of vendors at the last Brimfield Antique Show of the year, the largest such outdoor flea market in the country, which happens three times a summer. Most likely, he’ll be operating on a few hours of sleep and propping himself up on what he calls the “dealer’s cocktail” of Pepto-Bismol and aspirin.
Stanton (pictured above with another antiques dealer, Jimmy DiCaprio) followed Avery, an old friend of hers from college, on and off for more than 10 years, starting in 2000. Her book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, published last year and released in paperback this summer, reveals what goes on behind the scenes at Brimfield: How dealers pick one another’s trucks and booths before the public does and how Avery spots valuable antiques at a bargain, which he can then upsell to the retail crowd.
Currently an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Stanton worked for Avery at several Brimfields and became familiar with the distinct characters you meet at these shows—the respectable and the unsavory—as well as the ways buyers and dealers end up losing or raking in big money, sometimes at the same fair.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get the idea for this book?
Stanton: It all started in 2000 when I was in graduate school in Columbus, Ohio, and working on an entirely different book. My old college friend Curt Avery, who was living in Boston, simply called me up. He said, “I’m coming out to this glass auction. Can I sleep on your couch?” I had never been to an auction, so I asked if I could tag along. I found it fascinating. Because somebody was always tagging or trailing him, Curt would literally hide behind a pole to bid. And so I set out to write a magazine article, which I never finished because I was working on my thesis.
Three years later, I came back East and ran into Curt on the way to a Rotary Club flea market in Massachusetts, and that revived my interested in writing the article about him. Then, he kept laying down challenges like, “Well, you haven’t even been to Brimfield. You don’t even know this world until you’ve been to Brimfield.” So I said, “All right, I’ll do that.” Once I got into Brimfield, I became hooked, and then I saw that there was so much more to write about this subculture.
Collectors Weekly: And that was way before “American Pickers”?
Stanton: Yes. In fact, I’ve been following the television shows, and I put together a chronological list. In 2000, there was really just one show, and that was “Antiques Roadshow.” And then “Pickers” came out in 2008, but by then, I had been working on the book for about five years. And I kept telling myself “Someone else is going to come out with this book; hurry up, hurry up!” But nobody covered it in the exhaustive way I did. But since 2009, according to my tracking, over 45 shows on this subculture have come out.
Collectors Weekly: What do you think happened?
Stanton: When I was writing the book, my agent tried to sell my proposal in 2007 and didn’t get a bite. When I went out again in 2009 with a little more material and a better agent, I got several offers on the book. The recession changed everything. Suddenly, people were forced to look elsewhere to save. Flea markets, like Brimfield, do better in a down economy because people realize, “We have to find things cheaper.” Once you get there, you realize that there are so many reasons to be there. One is just the aesthetics of it—the beautiful, interesting, and oddball objects in a carnival-like atmosphere. These used, cheap things are often better-made and unique.
“Antiques aren’t sexy until you know how to interpret them.”
Plus, there’s the social interaction. You can get tired of just shopping. Even an IKEA can be demoralizing, especially because of the products, how they’re made, and where they come from. It’s the difference between the spiritually impoverished experience of shopping in a Wal-Mart, or any big-box store, and talking to somebody who maybe crafted the things themselves or a dealer who has this little esoteric piece of American history.
Once it caught on with “Pickers,” everyone realized that a whole lot of people like junking and do it for entertainment. That came together with the popularity of the shabby chic look. There are whole lot of women, actually, some of whom are quite affluent, who love vintage stuff, love to go junking, and have blogs where they write about it. I didn’t even know they existed. When I was writing this book, I was in my own little world, thinking, “I hope someone is interested in this.”
Collectors Weekly: And flea markets often have high-quality furniture for cheap?
Stanton: Yes. You often find these real beautiful solid wood pieces. You don’t have to buy particle-board or chip-board stuff, which falls apart, for more money. A stark examples of this is the Anthropologie catalog, which sells upscale hipster furnishings, offering steamer trunks for $1,000 at least. But you can find a steamer trunk at Brimfield for 25 bucks. Also, they were selling Victorian fainting couches for about $3,000, which is a hundred-dollar auction item. There’s a pleasure not only in finding the things they sell for a fraction of the cost, but also having the aesthetic eye to know what they are.
Collectors Weekly: Were you into antiques before you started working on this book?
Stanton: The truth is, I didn’t have an interest in antiques per se. But since I was a teenager, I always loved going to flea markets, as well as junk and Salvation Army stores, to buy costume jewelry and funky stuff. In college, that was my aesthetic, anything just like weird and old and silly—you know, kitschy things.
This antiques dealer of 20 years has yet to find the golden ticket.
Before I started this book, my sense had been that flea market dealers were fringe people, trying to make a living, selling just junk. What I hadn’t realized is that over the 15 or 20 years since I first met Curt in college, he actually turned himself into a knowledgeable antiques dealer. He has a real vein of knowledge in Americana and in 17th and 18th century artifacts. So the book changed because it wasn’t about flea markets as much as it was about people who were lay historians, the mid-level antiques dealers. Because of that, I’ve developed a real appreciation and interest in antiques that rekindled the passion for history that I had long lost. I fell in love with the history of the objects.
Today, certain flea market dealers are doing very well selling 20th-century vintage things with a particular look. But the people like Curt, who are still selling objects that you need knowledge to buy, they’re suffering a little bit in the economy. For example, at Brimfield I have a dealer friend who sells things like mannequins and junkyard salvage stuff, nothing really old, but all sorts of funky 20th-century objects. And he’s just making handfuls of money—he made around $50,000 at one show at Brimfield. But Curt is trying to eke out a $10,000 show because he’s selling whale oil lamps and things like that.
Collectors Weekly: Right, they’re not as sexy.
Stanton: They’re not as sexy unless you know how to interpret them, and that’s where I was when I started the book. I didn’t understand. I remember Curt coming up to me at Brimfield and saying, “I’m so excited. I want to show you this six-board blanket chest.” And I looked at it and I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s just a bunch of brown wood nailed together.” I had no appreciation for it at all. But once I started understanding what a blanket chest was in our history and our culture, what it was to the people that owned them, they became very romantic objects to me. And I love looking at them now, knowing what I know.
Collectors Weekly: Well, what is a blanket chest?
Stanton: A blanket chest is six pieces of wood, four sides, a top and a bottom. Sometimes they’re nailed together with just eight nails, and it’s maybe one of the only objects that the first hundred years of settlers brought over with them because they couldn’t bring much. They would eat off it and sleep on it because it was the only piece of furniture they had. They’re usually very early, 17th century or early 18th century, very primitive, and not beautiful. Some of the later chests were painted, and those are beautiful and folk-arty. But the early ones are just big, brown boxes.
Collectors Weekly: So you wouldn’t know they were special just by looking at them?
Stanton: No. That was the fun of hanging around with Curt, because he’s a teacher at heart. A lot of dealers are willing to talk to you and say, “Oh, that’s a coffee grinder,” or “That’s an ear spoon” or “That’s a marrow spoon.” This is how I piece together what life was like back in a certain era. It’s a back doorway into history that I came to appreciate because I’d always hated just reading history books. I honestly didn’t even like reading historical novels, and before I got into antiques, I didn’t even want to watch any movies that came out before 1950.
When the textbooks focus on battles in wars, major events, and mostly male politicians, history does seem boring, cold, and remote. But when it’s the objects someone used, like an apron or little three-tined fork or a little doll that someone played with, it gives you a visualization of an ordinary person’s life that’s really exciting. What do you need a marrow spoon for? Because you have to get every little bit out of the bone. [See slideshow below.]
It does take a long time to learn any antiques category, but even the most superficial level of knowledge increases your appreciation. When I started out, I was unable to even tell all the wrought-iron that’s brought in from China that’s made to look old for doorstops and garden ornaments. It took two minutes for someone to show me the difference between old and new, and it made it so much more pleasurable to walk around a flea market. And no way could I be an antiques dealer. But the fun thing is there’s so much more to learn all the time. I buy with my eye, and then I try to research and learn about things afterward.
Collectors Weekly: I love that story where Curt tells you to look for an ovoid crock marked Paul Cushman.
Stanton: He was constantly throwing those tips to me. Hanging out with him, things were transformed from ordinary objects that you just see at Brimfield—and you don’t even know what they are—to these little cells of history. They all had a story, and that’s what captivated me.
I just bought two chalkware string holders, [see slideshow below] and they’re these goofy little faces of a boy and a girl with little holes in their mouths where the string was pulled out. So I start thinking about that, realizing, hey, they didn’t always have tape or sticky paper, so everything had to be wrapped up with paper and string, like meat from a butcher shop. Now, I’m fascinated with string holders, but I haven’t done all the research on them yet.
Collectors Weekly: Who are the people you meet at Brimfield?
Stanton: You meet really different people. I’ve met museum curators who are scholars, and they’re looking for a particular object to display. They’ll say, “We’re looking for a specific item from this particular period, and if you have it, here’s our business card.” I saw the “Southern Living” buyers, who are looking for cool objects to reproduce in China and offer in a catalog for cheap. You see a lot of New York interior decorators buy stuff for their clients.
You see just all strata of people, starting with older people who are die-hard antiques collectors and dealers. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of younger people—and that’s really cool—even teenagers. Then, there are adults who are decorating or just want to find cheap furniture. Macy’s sponsors buses to drive people from New York City, mostly retired teachers who’ve been collectors for a long time. I’ve seen Pez collectors, looking for that one dispenser they don’t have, and very wealthy people coming to furnish their cottages with a rustic look. Brimfield draws all sorts of people because it is like a big outdoor museum where you can touch the stuff and buy it.
Collectors Weekly: You also talk about reproduction companies bringing the demise of the antiques industry.
Stanton: Reproductions from China started flooding the antiques field in the late ’70s/early ’80s when China opened its doors to capitalism and started trading and manufacturing. If you look online, you can see reproductions of antiques in any category; it doesn’t matter whether it’s Quimper pottery from France or wire urns or painted chairs, everything. Since the book was published, people have said to me, “I had no idea when I was buying that spice cabinet at Pier 1 Imports that it wasn’t a real antique.” That’s the way I was too.
I understand antiques can be expensive. When I go into a high-end antiques store, I go, “Oh, beautiful!” but I can’t afford it. I’m a teacher. Not everyone can afford to drop $300 on a 19th-century lemonade server. But you can get that same kind of lemonade server from “Southern Living” for probably 40 or 50 bucks. People don’t care about the historic value; they just want that look. It really has hurt the antiques trade. There’s just no way around that.
I’ve also learned that in some categories I actually can afford antiques. Thanks to Curt, I can distinguish a real hooked rug from a machine-loomed rug, and find the real antique for $40. If you educate yourself, look a little harder, go to auctions, and go to flea markets, you can afford a lot of good antiques. For me, I worked for an environmental organization for 10 years before I went back to writing. I don’t like the idea of buying something new that comes over from any country where they’re not treating the environment the way they should or they’re not treating their labor force the way they should.
Collectors Weekly: The September Brimfield is the last of the three fairs of the summer. Is it always the same stuff?
Stanton: Dealers sell so much at the May Brimfield that they’ve got to find new stuff for the shows after that. Every time I would work a show with Curt Avery, it was fun to see the new stuff he had. And certainly, there were a few things I’d look at and think, “Oh, that again. I’m unpacking this thing for the third or fourth time.” There it was again, the six-board blanket chest that he brought to 10 shows before he sold it. It just needed the right context.
But he always sells fresh stuff. To be successful, a dealer has to have interesting, unusual things that are high quality, fairly priced, and very fresh, not things have been around and around and around so people are sick of them. If it hasn’t sold and you see it again, people tend to think something’s wrong with it or it’s not good. It starts losing value, which is just something we all have in our minds, like a collective agreement. If the right buyer hasn’t come along, rather than overexpose a great item at many shows, a dealer will just tuck it away for a year and bring it out at a better, more specialized show or throw it in a specialty auction.
Collectors Weekly: Can you explain more about the importance of context?
Stanton: There’s a way that antiques travel up the ladder of value. One of the latter stories in the book is about a yarn winder that somebody pulled out of a dumpster. It was sold to a dealer for 40-50 bucks, who then sold it to Curt for $90. Curt recognized it as a piece of Shaker work [see slideshow below] and put it in a Shaker auction. It brought him close to $7,000. So it’s just a matter of recognizing something and putting it in the right context where other people will recognize it. Even an auction is risky because, say, there’s another important auction across town and the right buyers aren’t in the audience. It could’ve brought half the value, or it could’ve brought twice that value.
Collectors Weekly: What about the truck-picking and night-shopping the dealers do?
Stanton: A lot of the shopping and exchanging happens outside of retail hours. For example, I consider myself a retail buyer: I go in when the doors open, and I buy stuff at the price it is marked. But there are all kinds of extracurricular deals that go on before that and after that, just among the dealers. That’s just the way it is because different dealers have different knowledge and different clientele.
Curt Avery might notice a great rug. But he doesn’t really deal in rugs, so he’s going to call his rug-dealer friend Laura. She’ll buy it and go to her Rolodex of rug collectors to find a buyer. Then she’ll kickback 20 percent to him, sometimes more. The television shows and magazines depict very cutthroat dealers working against one another but many dealers actually work with each other and help each other out.
But at Brimfield, you have to get in there. It was astonishing to see that, in a matter of two seconds, Curt Avery missed a very unusual giant pewter charger [see slideshow below], priced at $75, which he probably could’ve sold for a thousand dollars. He walked into a booth right behind another guy, who picked it up two seconds before him. In that way, dealers are in competition with each other. They have to get there early because the best pieces aren’t going to last. If it looks good on the field, there’s a lot of dealers with the same knowledge who are going to find it.
It’s so funny because, contrary to that, you can have something sitting there for years, and people don’t recognize it. For example, Curt bought a jug [see slideshow below] at a group shop—the sort of store that has a reputation for being picked over, because they have maybe a hundred dealers with booths. But this jug was in there for two months, on a bottom shelf at your foot level. Who’s going to bend down?
You had to know something about the cobalt design on the jug. You had to know that a bird sitting on a nest is unusual. I would not have known that. So Curt paid a $1,000, took it to a Pennsylvania show, and he sold it for $2,000 in the first five minutes. That’s the winning formula: a bit of esoteric knowledge and luck. Curt brought it to a different context, which was a fairly high-end show, rather than a group shop. But you know what? Every time that happens, there are 200 other things he hasn’t sold still in the booth.
Collectors Weekly: Can you explain how things travel from booth to booth?
Stanton: I’ve seen Curt buy something off a booth, and he’ll pick the price tag off. He’ll put it right in his booth for double or triple the money. Dealers do that all the time. But with another thing, he won’t put it out at that show. He’ll take it home. He’ll do his research. He’s saving it for a better show, a better context. Sometimes it’s about finding something cheap and flipping it. Sometimes it’s about, well, you’ve got something really good here, and you’ve got to put it in a particular auction.
At Brimfield, you’re going to find a lot of dealers who are decorators, and they don’t necessarily know that what they have is not only a beautiful piece, but it also has some kind of historical importance. So they’ll sell it as a decorative piece, not knowing that they can get more if they put it in a certain auction. Not every dealer knows everything about every category, and that’s how they all make money off each other and help each other out.
I once asked Curt who’s getting the worst deal. And he said, “Well, it’s the person at the end of the line.” The person at the end of the line is often a collector or maybe a curator buying a piece for a museum. They’re not going to be sitting through auctions. They’re working with dealers and people who can find stuff for them.
Collectors Weekly: A lot of people dream of picking something dirt-cheap and selling it for big bucks.
Stanton: Yes, everyone wants to find a retirement piece in their basement. The “Antiques Roadshow” is a perfect example of the myth. They get 4,000-5,000 people standing in line, each with two objects to be appraised. About 0.5-1 percent of the objects are worthy enough to be on the show. Most of it is junk. When I was on the set, even with a very little, shallow knowledge I had from hanging around with Curt, I could see most of the stuff people were bringing was junk. I wouldn’t carry that 200 miles and stand in line for four hours. But people don’t know, or they are hoping, “Well, maybe this old thing from Grandma is worth something because everything in ‘Antiques Roadshow’ is worth big money.” The chances of having something fantastic are pretty small.
Curt Avery’s been doing this for 20 years, and he’s out there all the time, always looking, and he has yet to find the Willy Wonka golden ticket in the chocolate bar. If he hasn’t found it, with all the hours and labor and the knowledge that he has and the looking that he does—and he’s a workaholic—then that shows how hard it is. He still hasn’t found a million-dollar thing. It’s pretty rare. And a lot of the TV programs don’t show misses as much as they show hits. But, really, the balance is off. There are many more misses than there are hits.
Collectors Weekly: In your book, everyone has a story about losing money.
Stanton: Dealers lose thousands of dollars. Sometimes the only way to know you made a mistake is for that loss to really sink in. You buy the thing, and then you find out from another dealer who has more expertise you missed something. But you’ll never do that again.
Take that Peep at the Moon bandbox that’s in the book [see slideshow below]. Curt bought it because he liked it, but he didn’t know anything about it. He asked a friend, who said, “Well, it’s got a broken part. I’m not that interested.” I think Curt bought it for like $50, and sold it for $250. That’s nice, a $200 profit. Then it changed hands four or five times that day. That’s how he knew that he had made a mistake and sold it too low. Now that particular Peep at the Moon bandbox is in the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. So it’s worth several thousand dollars, I’m sure, because it’s a pretty rare one. That’s the price of that lesson, and he’ll never do that again. The lesson is, do your homework on your objects.
I bought a pair of fake Roseville candlesticks [see slideshow below] because I didn’t know any better. People are taking all the Roseville pottery and making reproductions. These items are designed to look real, and they even have a Roseville stamp underneath. They become fake when somebody unscrupulously tries to sell them as real. And that’s what happened to me. I got excited when I should have paid attention to the clues and put it all together. I know exactly now what I did wrong, and I can tell real Roseville versus fake now. That is part of the learning you can’t get from books. You have to have both the hands-on field learning, from being out there day after day and week after week for years, and the book learning. That combination is how you move yourself up the ladder of the hierarchy in this second-hand trade.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of people like Curt, who is making his living as an antiques dealer?
Stanton: I’d say that a lot of people are making a living as antiques dealers, but there are not a lot of people who are Curt Avery’s age with small children doing this. A lot of the antiques dealers I met are retired. Or, they have a spouse who has a regular job. Either they’re teachers and they do it in the summer, or they have some other job that allows them to take a few weekends off a year and do this part-time. Or, they’re in the third generation of a family business. There are very few people who do it in their 20s and 30s. It’s less of a career choice than a fallback plan. Most people don’t set out to become antiques dealers.
Collectors Weekly: Early on in the book, you say that antiques dealing is not an easy life.
Stanton: Yeah, it’s not. I couldn’t do it. In the book, Curt says that if he wanted money, he would’ve been a banker or a stockbroker. He has the intelligence to be anything he wants. Most of the mid-level dealers get into it because they were collectors, or because they have a passion for history. They’re doing it for a love of the objects and a love of the history. And if they weren’t, it would be a very hard way to make a living. Now, all the mid-level antiques dealers are getting hit hard in the recession because all of these objects are superfluous. They’re not selling food and toilet tissue, which are necessary no matter what the economy is.
It’s horrible being out in the rain at Brimfield, packing up wet stuff and then unpacking it the next day. It’s like packing up and moving, and then a week later, doing the same thing. Or even a day later, if you’re working Brimfield and moving from field to field. Plus, it can be demoralizing when you’re sitting out there with your beautiful, precious antiques, and people say to you, “That’s so overpriced,” or they don’t appreciate it.
But everyday is an adventure, because it’s so far outside the corporate cubicle. In that way, it’s a great pleasure for many reasons—the freedom, the craziness of it, the people you meet, and all the satisfaction of making your own hours, being your own boss, and surviving by your own wits. That balances the grueling hours, the grueling packing and unpacking, and the other disappointments.
Slideshow: Things to Look for at Brimfield
This rare Peep at the Moon bandbox, which Curt Avery sold for $250, now lives at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Photo courtesy of the Shelburne Museum.
Did you make a great find at Brimfield this year? Post it on Show & Tell.