Brimfield antiques show is a social equalizer

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Times, they are a-changing.

Having just returned from the Brimfield show, I can’t help but make note of the differences between the 1999 and 2010 shows, the only two I have attended. The changes came as a shock.

During set up on the first day, there was an audible buzz of excitement and anticipation. The weather forecast portended a good crowd. And for the most part the weather held, but the crowds came and went quickly each day. I can’t blame the attendees, however. While the weather might have been fine, the merchandise for the most part, was not.

Gone were most of the high-end dealers I remember from 1999. The dot com bust hadn’t hit antiques dealers yet, at least not enough to notice. Gone was the Sheffield plate displayed as far as the eye could see. Gone were the fine oil paintings from old master wannabes. Gone were the tents filled to the brim with antique furniture waiting for a new home.

Silver jewelry was in abundance; tawdry items made overseas for nickels on the dollar (notice the word nickels vs. pennies). Vintage clothing and accessories were plentiful, as was costume jewelry, both high and low end. But there were far too many knock offs and not enough authentic Chanel to suit me.

Primitives were plentiful, but because I’m not into old farming implements or country antiques, these tents were bypassed.

By the end of the second day, the grumbling started. “Lots of tire kickers,” I heard over and over. “No one’s buying,” became the common lament. Some spoke about giving up their storefronts because the overhead was eating into their meager profit margins. Others swore they were cutting down on shows, planning to set up only close to home.

Dealers began breaking down by 3 p.m., opting to cut their losses rather than try their luck the next day. Many left earlier than they should have. Repeated requests made through a public address system for dealers to stay open until 4 o’clock went unheeded.

Haggling became a contact sport. Spotting a Victorian-era pin cushion tagged for $85 and offering $65, the dealer snatched it from my hands, screeching “I won’t sell it for that!” 

Prices were all over the board, with no rhyme or reason. Tramp art items were sky-high with tagged prices at least three times what I thought reasonable while mid-19th century solid wood furniture in pristine condition was practically being given away. For those willing to walk the fields for comparison shopping, money was saved.

Decorator and architectural salvage pieces sold briskly and were hurriedly wheeled away in little red wagons. The odd and unusual were also carted off with much excitement. I saw a college aged male wielding a wooden exercise pin identical to one recently seen on an episode of “American Pickers.” The thrill of the hunt was alive and well, just not as abundant as in 1999.

The most interesting item wasn’t an antique or collectible however, but an overheard snatch of conversation between a dealer and buyer. The buyer was from the United Kingdom and he stated, “I’m glad to see you Americans are finally becoming as socially evolved as we Europeans, with your new healthcare plan.”

“Socially evolved?” Reminiscent of the infamous “Exorcist” scene, heads spun. Although we were inside one of the crowded pavilions, for a few seconds all went silent. Before I could blink twice, the Brit was surrounded by half a dozen people who vehemently took him to task. He’s probably still scratching his head wondering what it was he said to offend so many! Recounting this event made for interesting chit-chat while sharing a picnic table with strangers during a quick lunch break.

In a way though, the Brit was right. Antiques shows are the great social equalizer, when new $3 silver bangles can share space with Art Deco diamond rings set in platinum. At any given moment, you could be rubbing elbows with a pauper or a multi-millionaire. 

As for me, I had a good show finding two dozen pieces of antique jewelry and a Victorian footstool for $60 that will be repurposed, achieving the same result as that over-priced pin cushion. I met vendors with whom I hope to do more business, learned about solar energy systems from a bored but dedicated husband and vowed to return next spring, because Brimfield is after all, still Brimfield. ?

Melanie C. Thomas has nearly 20 years of experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa.


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