The Thrill of the Hunt
For East Coast collectors, finding a hidden gem amongst the bric-a-brac at Brimfield counts as competitive sport.
Whether you’re looking for a 1950s Philco Predicta TV set, Civil War artifacts, a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk, or a chic silver Art Deco toast holder “liberated” from a seaside hotel in France, Brimfield is bound to have it—and then some. And for the hawkish dealers, eccentric curio hunters, and seasoned designers who flock to this tiny Massachusetts town by the thousands every spring and summer, finding those gems amidst the bric-a-brac is the ultimate thrill.
Indeed, the massive Brimfield Antique Flea Market that descends on sleepy Brimfield, MA (population: 3,694) for six singular days every May, July, and September is not for the passive treasure hunter.
The East Coast’s largest antiques and collectibles fair sees hundreds of regional dealers take over 12 acres of dusty fields around town to create America’s oldest outdoor antiques flea market. They put down basic tarps, folding tables, and canopy tents seemingly willy nilly on opposite sides of Route 20.
While some vendors present tightly ordered and curated selections, just as many, if not more, bring a complete smorgasbord of items, some of which you quite literally have to dig through to find anything of value. Yet despite being so scattershot, Brimfield attracts some of the biggest names in interior design and fashion. To wit: Entire runway collections have been known to be inspired by vintage Brimfield discoveries.
DP went to the fair’s 2022 opening day to survey its full, post-Covid return. Thinking of hitting up Brimfield’s July or September dates? Here’s a snapshot of what to expect. Happy hunting!
If antiquing was an Olympic sport, the deal hunters who arrived before sunrise on the fair’s May 10 opening day would be gold-medal contenders.
With headlamps affixed to their foreheads, the adrenaline-fueled doorbusters swarmed through the chain-link entry gate, wide-eyed and talking fast, as many vendors were still haphazardly unloading their goods onto patches of grass.
Yet even these early risers wouldn’t get to see some of the best pieces brought to Brimfield’s fields that day. “A lot of exchanging and trading happens between dealers well before each field opens,” explained nautical art and antique specialist Jeffrey Cobb.
“In the past, the antique-world mantra was ‘don’t buy it unless you can touch it,’ but because all the shows were canceled [in 2020], everyone went online and suddenly felt comfortable buying online,” Cobb added. “Now customers buy things on Instagram and just come here to pick it up.”
Prepare to gird your loins if you find yourself among the earliest attendees. “It can be cutthroat,” dealer Kerry Simler said as the morning sun beat down upon her eclectic selection of wares, a carved duck decoy and early-20th-century Necco candy tin among them.
The 38-year Brimfield veteran recalled a greater sense of camaraderie amongst vendors and shoppers in years past. She chalked up the more-competitive tenor to firm sellers and aggressive buyers.
While the day was clear and mild, a brisk wind had started brewing, threatening to knock over some dealers’ goods. The weather could have been much worse, though. Simler pointed out that “it’s rained torrentially a few times” in the fair’s 63-year run, turning those curio-filled fields into muddy tracts.
By now, the early set could be seen parading their prizes along the town’s two-lane country road, causing traffic in both directions to snarl ahead of the 11am opening of the Dealers’ Choice field. The pre-dawn start, combined with the sheer physical effort of traipsing items back to their cars, gave the crowd such a vacant and exhausted appearance, they looked like zombies from The Walking Dead.
Pro tip: Study the fair’s schedule ahead of time. Because the fields are run independently of one another, some, like Dealer’s Choice, open for one day only, while others open at staggered intervals to allow each sector its ‘debut’ moment.
Collectors Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani scurried quickly through the deal-hungry mob at the gates to scout one-of-a-kind pieces for their boutique Creel and Gow.
“People aren’t living in white boxes anymore, which makes fairs like Brimfield so great,” Creel observed. “It’s more about people collecting things and having interesting furniture and mixing antiques with modern pieces.”
Fritz Karch, the former Editorial Director of Collecting at Martha Stewart Living and author of Collected: Living with the Things You Love (Abrams; 2014), was spotted zig-zagging through the dusty Dealer’s Choice field, dressed in a denim work jacket and jaunty Lancaster County, PA-made straw hat.
The life-long collector expounded on how selling trends have changed at Brimfield in recent decades. “Vintage is big business here now,” he remarked, with Brimfield now offering the biggest and most varied selection of the fairs of its ilk. “A lot of [the interest] has come from New York fashion houses who travel here for inspiration.”
A forceful gust swept the field, causing a rack of clothing to crash loudly against the vintage pavilion. A poncho-clad vendor scooped up her stray négligées, lit cigarette dangling precariously from her pursed lips.
First-time vendor Meika Warren, owner of Another Man’s Treasure, braced her two overstuffed clothing racks as the wind picked up again.
Creatives from Anthropologie and Ralph Lauren had already been by her booth that morning, she said. “The RRL team bought a floral chiffon dress and an amazing 1920s Art Deco knit coat. It was cream with fur cuffs and a knit with a jacquard diamond pattern through it.”
Moments later, Warren’s dress rack blew over, causing some garments to come right off their hangers. She crouched down in her colorful patchwork overalls to collect her things and dust them off. A circa-1940s cotton dress was deemed a casualty, its bodice having been irreparably ripped and frayed. “At least it wasn’t the delicate lace and silk. That would have been disastrous.”
An attendee showed off his morning discovery: A clever 1940s flip-up brass reflector set designed to be placed behind a vehicle in a roadside emergency. “I’m a career truck driver and don’t know a lot about antiques, but I knew I had to have it,” he said.
In the Brimfield Acres North sector across the country road from the Dealer’s Choice field, estate liquidator and wholesaler Genevieve Celentano of Lebanon, NJ, held court on a lumpy mid-century Dunbar sofa (asking price: $100) plucked from an apartment on Fifth Avenue.
She ran through the distinct buying proclivities of antique-fair attendees throughout the U.S. She would know: Celentano is one of many Brimfield dealers who travel the country throughout the year to sell their wares from Texas to Georgia to Ohio.
“They like ornate and gilded stuff [in Atlanta], which we just can’t sell in New England,” she explained. “Texas likes big pieces, too. If we get a really big farm table, we just keep it for Texas and it will be gone in five minutes.”
This fair’s tastes are different. “You can’t go wrong with mid-century modern pieces at Brimfield,” Celentano continued, before motioning to a large mid-century abstract artwork leaning precariously on cardboard boxes and furniture pads.
Celantano discovered the unsigned piece in the West Village townhouse of fashion photographer Virginia Thoren who died, at age 97, in 2017. “The painting has been in the back of our warehouse in Jersey for years. I wanted to bring some mid-century modern art here, but never bothered to figure out who the artist is, so I’m offering it for $800.”
77-year-old Mary Campbell, who’s been selling a myriad of (mostly) estate finds at Brimfield for the last half century, was already packing up her collection of Native American woven baskets, primitive pots, and, randomly, a stuffed rooster, into the back of her minivan.
Schlepping a van full of items to the field at dawn only to return with pieces that didn’t sell appeared to have taken a toll on the Brimfield lifer. “I don’t think I’m going to do it anymore,” Campbell proclaimed with surly sensibility as she gazed out at the thinning crowds from beneath the brim of her pith helmet. “The number of vendors here is a fraction of what you saw in 2019. So much can be done online now. I’ll leave [the fair] for the younger generations.”
As the fair drew to a close, a young man looking worse for wear trudged beside a line of cars snaking sluggishly out of town. He was on a mission to retrieve the 1930s Singer sewing machine he’d purchased earlier for his friend, the Brooklyn-based denim designer Tarayuki Echigoya, who plans to use the vintage stitcher on contemporary creations for his Bowery Blue Makers line.
Curators and decorators from all over the country gathered at the Colonial-era Publick House’s cozy basement-level bar to trade stories of the hunt over well-deserved cocktails.
As she waited for a seat at the crowded bar, LA-based furniture and antique dealer Lorca Cohen discussed the inherent challenges of working in an industry in which there is no prediction of supply. She’d traveled across the country to fill a box truck with items for her Melrose Avenue boutique, The Window, open since 1999.
“[Brimfield] vendors buy pieces at estates or in various places, sell them here to me, and I offer them to my clients in a retail setting,” she explained. Her curatorial eye and overhead costs justify the higher prices she applies to the goods she brings back.
Cohen’s approach to Brimfield is almost spiritual. “I’ll do a sweep, something will catch my eye, and that thing will suddenly become elevated and the rest will blur,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get. It’s all about the discovery.”
Brimfield’s next show dates are July 12-17 and September 6-11, 2022. Visit brimfieldantiquefleamarket.com for full details, vendors, and opening times. For post-fair refreshments, head to Publick House, a popular gathering spot for the Brimfield set.
All Photos: Courtesy of Andrew Nodell