A favorite adage of mine is, "It's not where you go but who you are when you're there." I want to say I coined the phrase, but if I didn't I certainly wish I had!
This adage applies to many situations but it is especially pertinent when it comes to 'exercising one's eye’ (a clever euphemism for shopping.)
Flea markets are perfect illustrations of this: you usually go with no specific goal in mind, but if you keep your eyes open you can discover amazing things.
Sometimes of course you come away with nothing, but other times you carry off prizes! I suppose my all-time best flea market find was a hallmarked 18th century Georgian silver teapot-on-stand by a known London maker dated 1794, which the sellers practically forced on me for $250.-, maybe a twentieth of it’s actual value. The morning was well on so anyone else could have bought it, but it leapt out at me, and I carried it off in triumph to join a silver coffee jug and a pair of Adam-style silver candlesticks, 18th century brothers found under similarly fortuitous circumstances.
The copy of the insanely rare 1932 HOLLYWOOD COCKTAILS drinks guide in the original presentation box doesn't even exist on bookfinder
but I found my copy sitting on a table of mostly indifferent merchandise in a provincial market--and was glad to pay the $15.- the seller was asking. (I later saw Diana Vreeland’s copy for sale at a price vastly greater, its rarity enhanced by her having written her name inside the cover.)
"Hollywood's Favorite Cocktail Book"
(including the favorite cocktails served at each of the
smartest star's rendezvous)
Not everything of course is rare or valuable. I collect Chinese hardwood stands, one ‘pattern’ in particular which has little Art Deco looking stair-step feet, and though they have become increasingly hard to find, I rarely pay more than $5.- for one, and I now have dozens. (Parenthetically, the Chinese believe that putting something on a stand is like a complement to the object.)
But of course, it is the ‘rare’ finds that tend to stand out in one’s memory. For example, the exquisite early 19th century Moghul miniature of a court beauty which I bought from a man who sneered at it as a print and smirked that I should pay $5- for it.
Then there is the service for six of a handsome silver flatware pattern (America Engraved, dated 1934, which I use constantly) which was sold to me by a woman who, when queried by a bystander if it was Sterling, said, "Naw--it's just silver plate" (never mind that each piece was clearly marked Sterling.) She then offered it to me for $10.- and who was I to argue with a lady?
I suppose it's splitting moral hairs to say that I am never the one to offer an absurdly low price when I know something is of value, but lets face it, when someone has set the price themselves it would require great moral character to offer them more than their asking.
Often of course sellers have an absurdly inflated sense of what something is worth. How many times have I turned on my heel biting my tongue so as not to say something dismissive.
My favorite recent experience was in a shop where a handsome Georgian mahogany secretaire was tagged "Queen Anne, c. 1780" or about 80 years off both date and style. Fortunately the echt Queen Anne black and gilt lacquer mirror-on-stand I bought at a recent house sale seemed to have caught only my eye, never mind that the original sale tag from one of the great Jackson Square antique shops was still in one drawer.
Queen Anne Mirror c. 1700
Mind you, I've been honing my eye most of my adult life, and while I can spot a piece of Biedermeier furniture a mile off, there are vast areas where I have no knowledge. I have colleagues who can identify the provenance of mid-century Scandinavian furniture like reciting the alphabet, and another friend will comment on someone's Rolex when I didn't even notice they were wearing a watch.
Museums are of course the great equalizer, for while you might identify a Pierre Langlois commode right off the bat, it isn't for sale even if you DID have the million dollars plus it probably cost.
English Rococo at its apogee
However I am perfectly content to do my 'old shopping' (as Elsie de Wolfe so endearingly called it) in flea markets and at tag sales (and of course on eBay, which is another story.) And it's probably a good thing I don't have deeper pockets with which to indulge myself as I'd definitely have to buy a larger house!
A friend teases me that I ‘occupy’ every inch of my house--and I do that. Between the books and the art, the furniture and far too many candlesticks, it's a pretty full house.
While I have decorated my rooms to please myself, people seem to respond to the atmosphere positively. And a lot of it (tho not all of it, mind you) was done on the proverbial shoe string--tho I will admit that I didn’t buy the English Regency chaise at the flea market or the Austrian Empire commodes at a tag sale!
However, to my eternal delight, I did buy the painting of a forest on fire at a Goodwill (in the early 1970s mind you) for $10.95, a painting which I much later identified as a copy of a lost work by the Russian artist Aleksi Kuz’Mich that had caused a stir at the 1893 Columbia Exposition.
Mid-Night Supper After the Ball
Lesnoi Pozhar everybody! (To be continued…)