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Bargaining the Brimfield Way

Behind The Scenes at Brimfield, The Largest Outdoor Antiques and Collectibles Market in the United States
Melissa Milgrom
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 3)

Felix Farenga, who used to rent a booth at J&J Promotions Antiques and Collectibles Show, is a case in point. "It happened so fast," Farenga says. "There were three people behind me that wanted these columns. If I didn't buy them, they would. So I bought them for $400 and sold them to the lady that was right behind me for $700. Later I see this guy carrying these columns. And I go, 'Oh shit! There's those columns--the lady sold 'em!' And she said, 'No. They're going back to Belgium. That's my husband carrying them.'"

The ever-changing consumer market determines the value of antiques. Nevertheless, it is still advantageous for dealers, much like archaeologists, to inspect the item for artist or manufacture markings, determine the quality of craftsmanship and materials used, and try to date the piece. With this in mind, it may seem odd that Farenga sold the columns before finding out their worth. Perhaps they were rare or valuable?

"I didn't want to carry them around," he says bluntly.

Pickers are another link in the antiques food chain. Selling to dealers rather than to the public, pickers have low overhead, perhaps only a van and some cash. Some pickers arrive at Brimfield with nothing but pockets full of cash, buy all their merchandise there, sell it later in the week and return home with nothing but pockets full of even more cash. One dealer sold the remains of his entire booth ("a nice portion, about 15 banana boxes' worth of stuff") to a picker for $6,000. Before the picker could resell the merchandise, he had to ask the dealer to help price items.

Rug dealers are the worst," a furniture dealer says to Ted, a rug dealer who comes to Brimfield from Pennsylvania. "Yeah, rug dealers are the sleaziest," Ted adds in agreement. "They'll dicker you and dicker you for an hour for $10 off of a $5,000 rug. And then you better watch what they write on the check." Without skipping a beat, Ted scans a rug another dealer parades before him, buys it and continues: "One rug dealer I know will promise someone $7,000 on the phone so that they won't sell a rug. When he gets there he'll point out the 'defects' and buy it for less. But he'll be the one who buys it!"

Always willing to dicker, Joel Schiff, a dealer from New York City, seeks unusual cast-iron cookware. He is primarily interested in plain, black metal items that you can cook in or eat or drink out of. The internal designs of waffle irons and cookie molds really grab him, but trivets, mechanicals and stove parts do not. Despite having only one leg, Schiff scrambles around Brimfield in search of Griswold skillets, ice cream cone makers and fruitcake pans. Known as the Cast Iron Man at Brimfield, Schiff stands out even more at the Triple Pier Expo in Manhattan, an antiques show generally held each March and November that, although more upscale than Brimfield, attracts many of the same dealers. When he clambers along the piers in a tricornered hat with a stuffed parrot perched on the brim, it is nearly impossible to suppress the image of him as a peg-leg pirate. "The creature requires too much pollution for Brimfield," Schiff says of the parrot. "It's much too healthy there."

Less flamboyant dealers mainly use their expertise to land a bargain. Take Stu Bramble, who traded in his beeper, suit and marketing career to become a postcard dealer. Bramble, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, spends a week in Brimfield buying and selling. He readily admits that he knows nothing about lamps or armoires: "I just do postcards. I specialize. Other dealers don't have the time to learn about them, so I can buy a $10 postcard from them for a dollar because I know what it's worth."

A certain camaraderie exists among the dealers despite their varied backgrounds, degrees of expertise and competitiveness. Dealers often rent the same booths seasonally in Brimfield, and strangers become acquaintances. Relationships develop, and soon it feels as if they are relatives who see each other three times a year. There is a tacit code of ethics. Dealers keep a watch out for the show promoters, making sure their peers don't get caught dealing before open hours or packing up prematurely. "I hate dealers getting hurt," one dealer says with emotion. Dealers share strategic advice on everything from booth appearance, to pricing (or not pricing) merchandise, to the viability of returning to the same show, or maybe trying another. If a dealer momentarily steps away from her booth, she may ask another dealer to mind the shop. Above all, dealers are salespeople who may lend a hand in the form of a pitch. Like a disinterested third party who happens to be an expert, the borrowed dealer may reinforce the original sales pitch. An even more devious ploy is to point out the defects of an item, which in the world of antiques translates into authenticity and therefore more value.

"I always think of ourselves as the last cowboys; a bunch of gypsies in the field," says Michael Bider, an auctioneer from Andover, Massachusetts, who is sitting in a cast-iron love seat on sale at his booth. He smiles in the shade of his baseball cap as if to say, "Really, I'm serious." Although his expression becomes sober, his outfit is silly. He and his associate, Paul Thurkelsen, both 44 years old, are wearing motley polyester sport coats and huge, tacky pendants. The outfits are good for business.

"There are many different types of dealers, many different personalities," Bider says. "Look at it this way. You go to a doctor's office. Doctors are more of a homogeneous group. They've all gone to high school. They all have [a degree] in medicine. Over here--just go down this field and ask a simple question, such as the educational background of the dealers. It's gonna be a real gamut. You're gonna have people who never finished high school. People who went to college. People with master's degrees. You can get into this business with $5, $500 or $5 million. And we all classify ourselves as antiques dealers.

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