Now that it is pleasantly warm again, enjoying a big city flea market is a great way for a classics lover to spend a weekend. Especially in England, you may find exquisite antiques and high quality items rather than the poorly made or roughly used detritus of often found at smaller flea markets. In New York, the Brooklyn Flea Market has made itself a name as an attraction where you can find interesting goods as well as great people and delicious street food. The same is true for Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Paris, or any other metropolitan area.
When I was in London last fall, I visited the Spitalsfields Flea Market and was positively surprised. As such, I wanted to introduce you to the market and encourage you to find flea markets in your area. Even if you don’t live close to a large city, it pays to keep your eyes open for events like the Oronoco Gold Rush, in which this tiny southeastern Minnesotan town turns into a massive antique market every year in August.
What to Buy & What Not to Buy
Unlike remote auctions at Christie’s or eBay, the advantage of a flea market is that you can actually touch, see and inspect the merchandise. So, if you know what you are looking for and have done your research beforehand, you may be lucky enough to come across a vendor that does not know much about their items.
For example, I was once able to snap up a whole set of Goyard luggage. I recognized the pattern, closely inspected it for authenticity (an issue you should always be prepared to deal with at flea markets) and was able to purchase them without giving away my level of expertise. On another occasion in Hamburg, I was able to buy a group of Montblanc fountain pensfor only a few Euros. My other inexpensive successes include solid 18K cufflinks, spotless Christian Dior gloves, and rare vintage magazines with fashion illustrations.
If you are into interior design, flea markets provide lots of unique inspiration. It’s easy to find a range of interesting pieces such as heavy gilded mirrors, racks of antlers, mounted animal heads, original paintings, lamps, wooden furniture…the list goes on. These things are usually fairly priced and it’s easy to see the value in their condition. On the other hand, I would be more careful with expensive art or wristwatches. At first glance what might be considered a steal may eventually turn out to be a fake, but with some background knowledge you should have fewer problems.
Unlike cufflinks or tie pins, wristwatches are often faked, and popular models like the Rolex Seamaster are often copied to near perfection. In that case, you have to be very careful if you spend a lot of money with a traveling vendor you may never see again. If you are interested in precious metals in any form, it pays to learn how to identify real gold and silver by sight and their markings. Silver, for instance, is often found at flea markets, and there is a big difference between solid silver and silver plating. Learning the hallmarks of the products you’re interested in – especially foreign ones – will serve you well.
It certainly pays to have expertise, otherwise the rare tortoiseshell desk set turns out to be made of horn or even worse, plastic. Also, be aware of overpaying for items. Sometimes vendors have products of famous brands in very poor or broken condition or simply good fakes. However, they don’t know enough about it to charge accordingly and ask for premium prices.
At the Spitalsfields Flea Market, they had beautiful old uniforms that would have made great pieces of decoration. Alas, my suitcases were already full. However, the snacks and baked goods were delicious and people were fun and friendly. I expected to see sausages and more basic food, but they had everything from Caribbean stews to various baked goods and Swiss Raclette cheese to Turkish olives.
After my late lunch, I was surprised to see a sign that read BESPOKE TAILORED TWEED. As you might well guess, I had to inspect the shop more closely. Although the rack had everything from off the peg dinner jackets to custom tweed, it was particularly fun to focus on the Savile Row pieces. It was like physically sorting through the history of that famous street! They had suits from Anderson & Sheppard, Timothy Everst, Dege & Skinner, Tommy Nutter…
It was a lot of fun to see and compare the varying silhouettes of the different houses and eras all in one place. Nutter jackets had wide lapels, with a lot of belly and a good amount of shoulder padding. Everest was trimmer with narrow lapels and a different cut, buttoning point and details, such as the pocket flaps. My observations could go on and I was sorely disappointed not to take anything home with me.
Regardless of your expenditures, a trip to a nice flea market will not only be fun but also very informative and educational.
What are your favorite flea markets and what items did you find there? I look forward to reading your replies in the comments.