by Evelyn Somers
When I first saw the title of Maureen Stanton’s book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting
(the Penguin Press, 2011), I was intrigued yet slightly skeptical: intrigued because the first part of the title so perfectly evokes the secret hopes of millions of flea-market junkies, eBay addicts, and fans of Antiques Roadshow. Skeptical because the subject hit too close to home for someone married to a historian who frequents virtual and real auctions and brings home more hidden “gems” than we have room for. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about all that stuff.
But by the end of the first chapter, I was hooked. Stanton’s book isn’t at all a how-to for getting rich buying and selling antiques. It’s a work of literary journalism—the story of her immersion in the world of flea markets and auctions, of finding treasure and uncovering its worth. It’s also the story of her friend and guide, Curt Avery (the name is an alias). In the words of a Kirkus reviewer, Killer Stuff is a “tour d’horizon” of a subculture spawned by our abundant material culture and the almost primal urge to acquire and preserve.
Although Stanton recalls her mother doing a bit of frugal trash-picking in her youth, she didn’t become interested in the more sophisticated world of antiques dealing until 2000, when Avery, an old friend from college, flew to Ohio where she was in graduate school, to attend an antiques auction; Stanton went with him. At the auction she watched him go through the elaborate dance of buying an antique bottle, while using her as a decoy bidder. A self-taught dealer who can’t compete with affluent “born-to-the-trade” experts such as Antiques Roadshow appraisers Leigh and Leslie Keno, Avery is the book’s de facto protagonist: part of the interest of the book comes from watching a man with considerable expertise, whose whole heart is in this speculative business, try to make it to the big leagues. “My editor kept saying, ‘narrative arc, narrative arc,” Stanton recalls. “Curt Avery’s rise—or not—became one of the arcs.”
Another appeal of Killer Stuff is the romance of it all:
It’s not an easy life. There are no paid sick days or vacation time, no pension fund or retirement plan, no corporate ladder where hard work gets you recognized, no year-end bonus. . . . No safety net. In this endeavor, you survive by your wits alone. . . .
But how many people have a job where every day is a hunt for treasure, every day infused with the hope and possibility of finding a pot of gold. . .
Stanton was in her late forties when she sold her proposal for Killer Stuff—which she’d initially titled Everything Rich and Strange. But she’d been writing for decades. “I’d really taken to creative writing as an undergrad. But once you get out of college, you don’t know what to do—at least back then, in 1983, I didn’t.” To support herself and pay back student loans, she worked in public relations and fund-raising for environmental groups—the Nature Conservancy and later a smaller group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “I really loved the mission of the organization—and I was always dabbling in writing on the side,” she says. But the job wasn’t an intellectual or creative challenge, and she started to burn out. “And I hit thirty-five—that’s what it was, and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I’m halfway through my life, and this dream of being a writer is not happening.’” Stanton saved some money, quit her job, and found a small, cheap place to live on Cape Cod. “I wrote like crazy, and I got myself into graduate school. I got into graduate school at thirty-seven; I got my MFA at forty.”
After finishing a memoir and an essay collection that she couldn’t sell, Stanton consulted with her agent, who was interested in a project about flea markets that she’d started. She put together a proposal, but her agent couldn’t sell it.
At that point I asked, ‘Should I continue? I’ve been working on this for four years.’ And I had another leap of faith. I decided . . . I hadn’t seen another book on this subject, the subculture. I knew I had an interesting character. He was willing to share everything with me. So I kept on, and I talked to a couple of other agents, and I got such strangely odd, ranging advice. One guy, who I thought would be perfect, said, ‘You just have a magazine article, you don’t have a book.’ I had other agents saying, ‘You need some kind of superstructure. Maybe it should be about the history of glass.’ Somebody else said, ‘It’s a love story.’ I took a little bit from each thing an agent said that was useful, but for the most part they weren’t willing to sign me on or take on this project. I let my agent go, because he pretty much stopped returning my phone calls. Nothing feels worse than that. I decided it would be better not to have an agent than to have an agent who made me feel bad. So I let him go, and I had no agent.
She considered joining the Peace Corps and making another “radical shift” in her life: “I was actually getting excited about it, because it was something I’d always wanted to do.” But a fortuitous decision to attend a conference on journalism led to her finding an agent, who sold the proposal for her flea-market book in two weeks.
During the course of the research, Stanton shadowed Avery intermittently, going to shows in her native Massachusetts, along with Pennsylvania and New York. Before she took a full-time teaching position, she could “pick up and just go with him.” Later, in 2006, an NEA grant gave her time off to further research and write.
The anecdotes of Avery’s flea-market finds and sales are seeded generously throughout the book, alternating with information about the items he’s buying and selling. At Brimfield, “the Mother of all Flea Markets,” Stanton watches Avery buy a “killer small” ivory cup “incised with a flag and eagle decoration, a tortoise-shell bottom” after studying it with a magnifying glass for twenty minutes. He gives the dealer $1000, scooping it from the grasp of another dealer who arrives just after the sale is made. Later, he puts it safely away at home, Stanton tells us, to help fund his retirement. At an auction, Avery passes up a red wing chair that goes for $900 and a yellow chair that sells for $2900.
These prices matter to Avery, so they matter to Stanton—and by the time I finished the book, they were important to me, too. To read this book is to become a vicarious buyer and seller. At a show in York, Avery buys a “firing glass,” a late eighteenth-century shot glass, mislabeled as a wineglass, for $35 and sells it in a matter of hours from his own booth for $125. “For Avery it’s a profit of $90 for fifty feet of walking,” Stanton says, “almost two dollars a step.”
Sometimes the stories of stuff and money are secondhand, “as-told-to” tales of dealers’ hard lessons or victories. Avery tells Stanton about watching a friend lose almost a million dollars when he retracted a $14,500 bid on a painting, suddenly skittish and fearing that it wasn’t in fact a work by the nineteenth-century New England master Fitz Henry Lane. The painting was later authenticated as a genuine Lane and sold for $960,000. “I felt sorry for him [the dealer],” Avery reflects. “We are only going to be presented with these things a handful of times in our lives, if we are lucky. Like a lottery ticket.”
At the core of this story is knowledge. No one can succeed as an antiques dealer without it. The more you know, the more likely you are to find the treasure that other dealers have overlooked. Curt Avery doesn’t think he has the gift of a “good eye,” but he researches everything, and it pays off in his ability to spot an object like the firing glass and know it for what it is. Killer Stuff doesn’t bury the reader with facts—but neither does it wear its research lightly. Stanton says the research she compiled was twice as much text as the finished book. She researched virtually every object discussed, and for many of them she wrote what she calls “vignettes” that detail their history. A fascinating example is a discussion of nineteenth-century opium bottles. We learn that Lizzie Borden was a regular opium user; that in 1859, one glass factory in France manufactured 80 million bottles for opium; and that, as a tactic for ameliorating widespread opium addiction, a new variant was developed, supposedly less addictive, and sold by the Bayer company of Germany. It’s brand name? Heroin. “For it’s heroic ability to cure,” Stanton explains.
In the published book, only about a quarter of the original vignettes remain. Stanton had to fight her editor to keep them, and many more were cut. Trimmed down and laid between more narrative sections, they add historical dimension and richness. I can understand why Stanton fought to keep her informative vignettes: in a story about people who buy, sell, and love things because of their past, it would seem like a fatal deficit to gloss over all that history.
One-third of North Americans identify as “collectors.” Stanton entered the flea-market world thinking that people who collected so much were “a little off.” But while writing the book, she revised her opinion, realizing that she’d been just short of condescending. “I learned that there’s great knowledge,” she says.
She observed this knowledge firsthand at Brimfield (Massachusetts) one July, in the famous open-air flea market that takes place in May, July, and September. With “the smoky foothills of the Berkshires as a backdrop,” Brimfield draws 5,000 dealers and up to 250,000 visitors. It is “sheer superfluity,” writes Stanton. This particular Brimfield show included a four-hour gated show with two hundred dealers, of which Avery was one. After helping set up Avery’s booth in the 90-degree heat, Stanton watches the crowd swarm in when the gates finally open:
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.
But these are not curiosity seekers. They’re expert collectors and dealers with what Stanton repeatedly refers to as “esoteric” knowledge about cast-iron cookware, musical instruments, marbles—even fireworks.
Its superfluity notwithstanding, Brimfield is just a small portion of America’s flea-market and antiques culture. With Avery, Stanton visits auction houses and participates in high-end shows for which Avery—marked as a mid-level dealer by his baggy shorts and cluttered booths—has to plead entry. It’s a culture where money flows and real is everything—which means it is also rife with fakes. Stanton interviews a “master deceiver,” who sells repaired and restored pieces (Stanton calls them “bastardized antiques”) through auction houses to legitimize them. He takes on pieces that others might think too far gone to be restored and works on them until they look authentic. “’I’m the “go to” man,’ he tells Stanton. “’When you think there is no way it can be done, and it’s impossible, then I get the job. . . If there is a problem with a piece, I make it go away.’”
She explores the world of eBay, too. Avery sold antiques on eBay for a while but got out because of profit-eating fees charged to sellers. But Avery’s friend Jimmy, a “cyber-picker,” makes on eBay triple the income he used to make traveling to shows like the ones Avery sells at. Everyone has a story of a hard loss or a big coup. Jimmy’s coup was buying a piece of eighteenth-century glassware on eBay for $305 and selling it for $50,000.
Still, eBay, TV, and Antiques Roadshow have hurt the business. “People are buying with their wallets now, not with their hearts,” Avery laments. He’s a dealer by trade but a conoisseur by disposition—dismayed at people’s failure to recognize in antiques an intrinsic worth based on rarity, aesthetics and history. At Roadshow, Stanton interviews staff and appraisers and lifts the veil on the criteria the staff use to choose that scant handful of objects, out of the thousands people bring, that will be appraised on the show. She even ventures into the world of collectible comic books. There are fakes in this niche, too, though unlike in the antiques industry as a whole, there’s also a central arbiter of authenticity—an enterprise called Certified Guaranty Company that, for a price, will inspect, rate, and seal comics for sale to collectors.
Shows and auctions. Profits. Provenance. Loading trucks and hauling and unpacking again—it might all feel like a glut of materialism, even though the goods in question are antiques with a venerable patina (except for the fakes). But Stanton tackles the bigger subject, too: Why? At Brimfield, she is struck by the collectors of “ephemera”: paper items—postcards, etc. “Ephemera is something that doesn’t last, isn’t meant for durability,” she writes, “yet these collectors are engaged in an effort to oppose time itself, to keep a thing designed to discard.” The urge to collect is ancient, she explains. Archaeological digs of ancient sites reveal collections of weapons, tools, amber. Tombs house “collections” for the dead. There’s the Church, with its relics. And, throughout history, individuals, some famous, some obscure, obsessed with accumulation. There’s apparently no end to the theories about why people want to collect and hang on to things. Men are more likely to collect than are women. As “conquests”? Because they can’t bear children and are seeking fulfillment? She enumerates the theories. Collecting has been seen as pathological or therapeutic, depending on the interpreter. Stanton views it more as a matter of “seeking to understand, even own, the world through objects.” Late in the book, she observes:
Collections take on a life of their own, have a magnetic force. Like attracts like. A single thing is an oddity, lonely. One object with its twin is interesting, a pair. Three is a crowd, four is a family, five or more a community—then a village, a world, a universe and now, the collector is its ruler, its god.
Homepage photo credit: Maureen P. Stanton
Flea Market photo credit: Brimfield Antique Show