On Tuesday, the fever dream known as the Brimfield Antique Show returns. With its 6,000 dealers over 23 fields, Brimfield is the king of outdoor antiques events in the nation, inspiring studies by the Smithsonian and TV specials from HGTV to the BBC. If you’ve been there, you’ve felt its charged air of possibility, intensity, and oddity.
Maybe you’ve seen Cast-Iron Joel, for instance, who walks with a faux-parrot on his shoulder and calls out “Cast iron, any cast iron cookware here?” Or the guy who roams wearing a T-shirt that says “I Collect Old Clocks.” Or those in pursuit of pre-World War II Coke bottles, Civil War surgeon’s kits, clambroth marbles (named for their cloudy interiors), and soft-paste porcelain.
“Brimfield remains a market for the driven,” writes Bob Wyss. He’s author of “Brimfield Rush: The Thrill of Collecting and the Hunt for the Big Score” (Commonwealth Editions, 2005). This most delicious book prompts a disclaimer: It’s out of print, along with a few others I cover here. But you’ll have an easier time finding them than Cast-Iron Joel would in pursuit of, say, a Griswold No. 9 waffle iron. Besides, extreme antiquers don’t mind the hunt: They live for it.
“Brimfield Rush” follows two collectors in search of, mostly, rare paintings, madly consulting their Davenport’s guide to see whether an obscure Bucks County painter merits big bucks or agonizing whether to auction off an early Maxfield Parrish. But the book also showcases the show. The Brimfield event, we learn, was founded in 1959 by Gordon Reid Sr., a canny local dealer — his vanity plate was “SOLD” — who used his back pasture for a “station-wagon tailgate” sale. As it caught on, other locals added their fields.
Dealers soon realized the best pickings were available before the official opening. They camped out in the dark and bought stuff straight off the trucks as they pulled in. It was common to make sales at 3 a.m. antebellum; the general public’s war came later. One year, a TV cameraman got up on a ladder so he could film the opening rush. Within minutes, he and the ladder were flat knocked over.
In “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America” (Penguin, 2011), author Maureen Stanton gives us the pseudonymous “Curt Avery,” a likably profane dealer with tattooed biceps and a great eye. She shadows him at Brimfield and other New England venues as he imparts all kinds of fantastic esoterica. I especially liked how Avery analyzed the wear pattern on an 18th-century Stiegel creamer, for instance. A fake will sport an implausibly even wear pattern, but the real one shows wear only at the most-touched spots, like on the base where the creamer hit the table.
Avery shares other wisdom, too: One-quart butter churns, it turns out, are much more valuable than two-quart churns. “For all the work you did, you only got a little butter,” he says. “You do the same amount of work in a two-quart churn and you double the butter. Once they figured that out, they didn’t make too many of the one-quarts.” Each book here flaunts these pros’ heroic levels of historical and aesthetic knowledge. At most fairs, says Avery, “ten thousand people show up, but only nine people know anything.” He also thinks there should be a reality show where you give 10 dealers $1,000 each and set them loose at Brimfield. “Market Warriors,” which started airing on WGBH in 2012, has much the same premise.
This isn’t the first time public broadcasting has capitalized on the antiques craze, of course. And so to “Antiques Roadshow, Behind the Scenes: An Insider’s Guide to PBS’s #1 Weekly Show” (Touchstone, 2009) by Marsha Bemko, executive producer of both “Roadshow’’ and “Market Warriors.’’ The secret to “Roadshow’s’’ success? According to one of the forces behind the original Brit version, it’s “a kind of game show in which everybody has a prize to begin with and the ‘contestants’ are just trying to find out if it’s worth anything.” Read here about some of the biggest coups: the faded Navajo blanket at the Tucson taping (appraised at up to $500,000) and the four pieces of Chinese carved jade and celadon from the Ch’ien-Lung Dynasty (up to $1.07 million). What of the washouts, though? Bemko says don’t bother bringing these certain duds: Hummel figurines, paintings on black velvet, Boy Scout/Girl Scout memorabilia.
Leigh and Leslie Keno, the twin blonde regulars on “Roadshow,” gleam forth in Bemko’s book. But they’ve also written their own (with Joan Barzilay Freund). It’s called “Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture” (Time Warner, 2000, out of print). These guys exist on the very high Sotheby’s and Christie’s end, so we get a lot of rhapsodizing about a prize Duncan Phyfe sewing table on “Antiques Roadshow,” or why Federal doesn’t sell like Queen Anne and Chippendale: Minus the curves, it lacks the “anthropomorphic movement, and, quite frankly, the sex appeal” of those earlier styles. Now cue the comic relief: I liked when Leslie tries to gamely assess, on an Albuquerque “Roadshow,” a bassinet made from an armadillo shell.
Otherwise, we get a sort of autobiography-through-antiques; they started collecting as boys, and financed their college education by selling their stash of stoneware. As a mom myself, I salute Norma Keno for allowing her sons to follow their passion by letting them skip school on select Fridays to scoot to the weekend shows: By fourth grade, they were earning a few hundred bucks a week.
The Kenos have a cameo in Thatcher Freund’s elegant “Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them” (Pantheon, 1993, out of print). So do various greats like Israel Sack, who apprenticed in a Boston shop where they churned out fake antiques (furniture gets left in a room pumped with ammonia to “age” it fast) and later founded his legendary (legitimate) shop on Charles Street. The narrative hinges on the history and provenance of a few prime pieces, including an ornately beautiful Chippendale card table and a plainly beautiful blue-painted 1750s blanket chest. The writing is both deeply reportorial and philosophical. Freund notes that objects like these, or what you might cull at Brimfield, are “pieces of human energy and industry and genius frozen in time.”
Hardly elegant but highly winning, “American Pickers: Guide to Picking” (Hyperion, 2011) picks over the strategies of the guys behind the History Channel’s “American Pickers.” Based in Iowa, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz describe their avocation as “a cross between Indiana Jones and Sanford & Son.” Author credit also goes to Danielle Colby, their Moneypenny back home researching on the fly, along with journalist Libby Callaway. Putting 60,000 miles a year on their van, Wolfe and Fritz scour the back roads — unmown yards and windows taped with newspaper often prove promising — for “rusty gold.” They knock right on the door and ask whether they can poke around in attics and barns. Nine out of 10 efforts fizzle, but pay dirt is out there. One of their best categories? “Mantiques,” meaning old motorcycles, movie posters, and retro shop signs.
I’m surprised more novels don’t feature antique dealers; they’ve got such a rich tumble of stories. But luckily, a good one has. Larry McMurty’s “Cadillac Jack” (Simon and Schuster, 1982) isn’t perfect but it’s nicely Brimfieldish in its quirks. The comic, quasi-romantic story follows a former rodeo star-turned-antique scout, who woos a female dealer by promising to deliver Billy the Kid’s cowboy boots. Meanwhile he’s up for anything: Lalique glass and Colt revolvers, Apache basketry and early cameras. Specializing isn’t for Cadillac Jack. He’s “too curious, too restless, too much in love with the treasure hunt.” Sounds like most of us at Brimfield this week, giddy for the big score.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.