Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America

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by Maureen Stanton
     
 

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One dealer's journey from the populist mayhem of flea markets to the rarefied realm of auctions reveals the rich, often outrageous subculture of antiques and collectibles.

Millions of Americans are drawn to antiques and flea-market culture, whether as participants or as viewers of the perennially popular Antiques Roadshow or the recent hit

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Overview


One dealer's journey from the populist mayhem of flea markets to the rarefied realm of auctions reveals the rich, often outrageous subculture of antiques and collectibles.

Millions of Americans are drawn to antiques and flea-market culture, whether as participants or as viewers of the perennially popular Antiques Roadshow or the recent hit American Pickers. This world has the air of a lottery: a $20 purchase might net you four, five, or six figures. Master dealer Curt Avery, the unlikely star of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, plays that lottery every day, and he wins it more than most. Occasionally he gets lucky, but more often, he draws on a deep knowledge of America's past and the odd, fascinating, and beautiful objects that have survived it.

Week in, week out, Avery trawls the flea and antiques circuit-buying, selling, and advising other dealers in his many areas of expertise, from furniture to glass to stoneware, and more. On the surface, he's an improbable candidate for an antiques dealer. He wrestled in high school and still retains the pugilistic build; he is gruff, funny, and profane; he favors shorts and sneakers, even in November; and he is remarkably generous toward both competitors and customers who want a break.

But as he struggles for a spot in a high-end Boston show, he must step up his game and, perhaps more challenging, fit in with a white-shoe crowd. Through his ascent, we see the flea-osphere for what it truly is-less a lottery than a contact sport with few rules and many pitfalls. This rich and sometimes hilarious subculture rewards peculiar interests and outright obsessions-one dealer specializes in shrunken heads; another wants all the postal memorabilia he can get. So Avery must be a guerrilla historian and use his hard-earned knowledge of America's past to live by and off his wits. Only the smartest survive in one of America's most ruthless meritocracies.

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money is many things: an insider's look at a subculture replete with arcane traditions and high drama, an inspiring account of a self-made man making his way in a cutthroat field, a treasure trove of tips for those who seek out old things themselves, and a thoroughly fresh, vibrant view of history as blood sport.

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Editorial Reviews

The Wall Street Journal
These detours add depth to the narrative, but the sheer volume of digressive material becomes a distraction, and Ms. Stanton struggles to identify a clear thematic, intellectual or narrative arc in Mr. Avery's activities. Thatcher Freund's excellent 1993 book, "Objects of Desire," which Ms. Stanton cites with admiration, might have provided a model: Mr. Freund narrated the history of three valuable antiques, discussing their manufacture, historical use, rediscovery and eventual sale at auction. A similarly tight focus on a few incidents or objects might have helped Ms. Stanton eliminate some of the sprawl in "Killer Stuff."

But perhaps it's appropriate that a work about the antiques trade should include a bit of decorative clutter. Ms. Stanton captures the lower and middle echelons of the business with great skill, and her diverting and wholly unpretentious book makes a fine companion for a day at the beach—or a weekend spent treasure hunting at Brimfield. —Mr. Lopez is editor at large of Art & Antiques.

Kirkus Reviews

A tour d'horizon of the world of antiques, from flea markets to antiques shows to high-end auction houses, with a brief stopover at eBay and theAntiques Roadshow.

Before Stanton (Creative Nonfiction/Univ. of Missouri) reconnected with her pseudonymous old college friend, "Curt Avery," who had become a professional antiques dealer, she was "the self-anointed Queen of the Flea-Market Dollar Table." Like many Americans, she was on the lookout for an appealing bargain and just as happy with an inexpensive reproduction as the real thing. When she and Avery met again in 2000, she agreed to fly across the country to attend an auction where some old bottles that he coveted were on offer. He asked her to be his proxy bidder while he hid at the back and signaled his bids. This was her introduction to a fascinating subculture, which she calls "the 'flea' realm." Over the years, she attended many fairs and flea markets with Avery as what she calls a "participant observer," getting up before dawn to help him set up displays, grabbing food on the run and camping out next to his truck at night. "The greatest reward of trailing Avery," she writes, "has been to rekindle my fascination with history." Stanton writes about the thrill of spotting a pair of late-18th-century sugar snips mixed in with a pile of tools, and learning the history of opium bottles, which were produced in the millions until the 20th century, when the sale of opium in grocery stores was prohibited. The author learned to truly value these objects—which preserved the collective memory of a past way of life—and to value the craftsmanship they embodied.

A treasure-trove of a book, especially for would-be antiquers.

Annie Groer
Curt Avery is the fake name of the very real hero of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, which is too bad. Because after whipping through Maureen Stanton's utterly engaging, heavily researched account of her old college buddy's life on the yard-sale flea-market antiques-show auction-house circuit, I wanted to invite myself into his multi-state universe and hang out…Not since Larry McMurtry's fictitious rogue "Cadillac Jack" has there been such a charming emissary from the world of the previously owned.
—The Washington Post

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594202933
Publisher:
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
06/09/2011
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.36(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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