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The Knack

The Secrets To Working A Flea Market

Let Foundwell’s Mr Alan Bedwell and Paul Smith’s Mr Jack Bergamino show you how to hold your own in the world’s best fleas. Bon marché!

If you’re the sort who likes your décor and desk furnishings to be as full of character as your favourite leather jacket, you may have noticed the flea market has become a competitive, full-contact sport. Thanks to designers buying up vintage pieces for store furnishings and online market places hoovering up what once were local treasures, the days of picking up a Biedermeier chair after brunch with a meticulously prepared latte in one hand and a meticulously groomed greyhound in the other are fading fast.

So what are the items we should be going after, and more importantly, what tactics should a gentleman employ when going up against those with sharp elbows? To answer these and other burning questions we’ve consulted with Mr Alan Bedwell, the founder of the stylish antique emporium Foundwell, and Mr Jack Bergamino, a visual merchandiser for Paul Smith, on how to become the king of the fleas.

A passionate collector and dealer, Mr Bedwell is a seasoned professional when it comes to discovering eccentric and elegant items once forgotten but now covetable because of their craft and workmanship; “It’s a wonderful part of this business – the surprises that can sometimes await you at the next market,” he says, speaking from his over-stuffed apartment in New York where he currently does most of his selling appointments. “I buy all over the world but predominantly in the US and the UK. I also buy online – eBay is good for certain items – anything that’s not mechanical. There’s too much of a risk there.”

It may feel like a passing trend but for Mr Bedwell, the thirst for old-world authenticity isn’t likely to die down anytime soon; “The affection for weathered and vintage has always been there – it’s just gone under the spotlight more in the past few years,” he says. “For me there’s always been that guy who likes a vintage pair of cufflinks, an old belt or wallet. The increased attention on men’s style has led to increased attention on detail in men’s accessories and those unique, discovered elements are what give men their distinction or edge.”

So what’s hot now?

“We’re moving away from industrial and mid-century,” says Mr Bergamino who is often tasked with finding unique odds and ends for display at Paul Smith stores. “I can’t stop buying brass and copper items right now – the warm and clean lines are appealing and fresh.” For Mr Bedwell, it’s all about masculine objects that stand the test of time due to their utility; “There aren’t many great craftsmen any more. Sadly these skills are dying out. A flask was something most gentlemen carried at one time – a utilitarian object in their day, they had a purpose and yet were exquisite,” he says. “Rolexes were designed as workhorse pieces of equipment – the Submariner was made for divers to go diving with. I’m pretty sure most men that wear them now have never gone deeper than a hotel swimming pool – but that’s not the point.”

Read on for some essential insider tips, picks and tricks from those in the know…

Come prepared; to the seasoned professional, first-time flea shoppers stand out by a mile. “They’re the ones that roll up two hours late without any cash, any empty bags or any clue as to what they are looking for,” says Mr Bergamino. “Don’t be the guy that misses out on a pair of Louis Vuitton trunks because he was too busy having a coffee or talking on the phone to his mother.”

“If you are heading to a market in winter and it’s starting at 5am or 6am, you’re going to need a torch, maybe even a head torch,” says Mr Bedwell. Very few markets have ATMs on site so bring more than enough cash. If you are looking for larger items such as furniture then you are going to want to hire a van to take your haul home with you as trying to organise a courier on the day is a real headache and very costly. If you know the space you are looking to fill, take measurements or dimensions and write them down on your iPhone and take a tape measure on market day. Remember to also measure door frames that items will need to pass through – you don’t want to make all the effort to go to a flea, buy a dining table and then have to dismember it just to get it through your front door.

Consider it part of the hunt. Flea markets are early morning affairs that require serious effort and determination – so check the times and plan your arrival properly. “In the UK, buyers are able to access the market around the same time as the dealers,” says Mr Bedwell, “most places start at 6am or 7am – some people are setting up at four in the morning – that’s the time you’re going to pick up that Asprey hip flask or those Ercol dining chairs.” In the US things are a little more controlled. The public are not allowed into the market until a certain time, meaning dealers tend to do their key deals with one another before you get a look in. Some markets will allow you to pay an early fee though, so always ask in advance. “There is something to be said for turning up later in the day too,” says Mr Bergamino. “Sellers don’t want to pack anything away – particularly bigger items such as furniture – so it’s always worth a shot.”

Don’t dilly-dally. “If you are really on the hunt, then go on your own. You can move faster,” says Mr Bedwell. At particularly big or infamous fleas, such as Brimfield in the US (see below for details) it does pay to be in pairs and spilt up if there are certain things you know you are after. “I can scour a huge lot within 10 to 15 minutes if I need to,” says Mr Bergamino. “You can get a feel for the theme of stuff a vendor has very quickly. If that’s not the vibe you are after – move on.” Most pros do this fast scan technique, picking up key items on a first round, then going back around at a slower pace. “At the big fairs, you might have a team of people right behind you from the likes of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, kitted out with walkie-talkies, about to buy up a whole stall in minutes,” adds Mr Bergamino, “so don’t think too long on anything you really love. Chances are it won’t be there long.”

There’s too much risk in buying items you think might be valuable and sold on for profit. Gone are the days people make their millions by picking up an early Francis Bacon sketch from someone who’s none the wiser. “Just go with what you like,” says Mr Bergamino, “that way you are not stuck with stuff you bought in the hope of selling it on to make money.” Mr Bedwell agrees: “The whole nature of vintage finds and fleas has changed completely with the advent of the internet. Most people know what things are worth these days. You can inherit a watch from your grandfather not knowing anything about it, go online and within five minutes know the item’s complete history and the value of another one that sold at auction two weeks ago.”

Seasoned flea-goers instead recommend looking for unique and unusual finds that can give your home some character such as original artwork, mirrors and ornaments. “I pick up pictures that all have a certain theme, either in colour or subject,” adds Mr Bergamino, “as together they will make a great picture wall. I just finished collecting a series of 20 pictures that were all black, white and grey.”

“People see flea markets as an opportunity to be an arsehole,” says Mr Bergamino. “It’s insulting if people low-ball you on something that has an obvious value.” Mr Bedwell agrees, “I’m not very good at poker, so I don’t play games. I’ve been in this trade for years and I know what something is worth. My advice is to be honest, friendly and open to negotiation. If it’s out of your price bracket, thank them and move on.” A friendly conversation will be remembered, and may work to your advantage in the future, should you return to the same flea. “There’s a certain etiquette to this business. You develop relationships with vendors and get to know what their thing is,” explains Mr Bergamino. “I can get in touch with some of my key people ahead of time to see if they have anything cool – they get to know what you like. If you like their vibe, then get their email or number.”

Some rookie errors

JOB LOTTING

Don’t try to furnish your whole house or room from one market in one day. Chances are you will end up with a load of things that look terrible together or don’t fit properly. “Take your time building your collection of stuff,” says Mr Bergamino, “it’s much better to build it slowly, accumulate what you like and see what works.”

HASTY MISMATCHING

“Think of the fashion equivalent,” says Mr Bergamino, “matching your suit, shirt and tie together doesn’t come naturally to some guys. It needs to be learnt, to be studied. It’s better to stick with shades that work together, no matter what they are. I’m a grey kind of guy. I like to buy from the same palette.”

LOW BLOWS

While it’s always a good idea to ask whether the price is negotiable, it’s not cool to start an argument about it. Most dealers enjoy a little friendly banter but all of them hate to be insulted with an offer that’s less than half their price. Between 10 to 15% less is a reasonable ask.

The World’s Top 10 Flea Markets

“The mother of all flea markets,” says Mr Bergamino. “Because of its size, it’s best to know what you are looking for. Research prices and sellers in advance.” A must-see for any flea aficionado, Brimfield has been running for more than 50 years and takes place over six days, three times a year (May, July and September). Expect serious dealers and crowds – people travel from all around the world to attend.
brimfieldantiquefleamarket.com

“Very famous. Smaller than it used to be but good for objects, pictures and pieces with personality,” says Mr Bergamino. “I’m there almost every Saturday and Sunday morning.” Moved from where it once was in a garage, this was the place Mr Andy Warhol once spent a substantial amount of time walking about buying old records and clothing. Open sunrise to sunset, Saturdays and Sundays.
annexmarkets.com

A 45-year-old market that is home to more than 2,500 dealers every month specialising in fabric, second-hand clothing and Americana. Lots of designers source clothes here for inspiration. Every second Sunday of the month.
rgcshows.com

A picturesque, smaller fair that’s good for those that might find the bigger markets overwhelming. Up to 475 dealers offer an array of collectables – from antique glassware and pewter to Art-Deco silver and Americana sports memorabilia. Open every Sunday.
etflea.com

“One of the great racecourse markets – it’s a great size and you can find all sorts. A proper old antique dealing experience where people just bring their cars loaded with a vast array of items from either their own home or a house clearance,” says Mr Bedwell. More than 700 stalls. Every second and last Tuesday of the month.
sunburyantiques.com

An oldie but still a goodie, according to several dealers. “I still go to Portobello Market,” says Mr Bedwell. “Yes it’s changed but I know a lot of the people there, they keep certain things aside for me. There’s a French dealer called Claude there that always has great pieces.” Every Saturday.
portobelloroad.co.uk

Up to 1,700 stalls of goods ranging from fine china to original art work. A delivery service is available within a 30-mile radius. Tuesday to Wednesday, up to seven times a year.
iacf.co.uk/ardingly

Specialises in unique and named-designer 20th-century English and European antiques. Takes place over six days, three times a year.
decorativefair.com

A very large market that attracts between 120,000 and 180,000 visitors every weekend. Prior research on specific dealers to seek out is essential in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “It used to be utterly incredible. A friend of mine used to tell me, from vintage Hermès to Vuitton trunks. It’s not like that now but there is some great stuff there,” says Mr Bedwell. Every Saturday to Monday.
marcheauxpuces-saintouen.com

“Because of their long-standing obsession, veracious collecting of Americana and a general exquisite attention to detail, some Japanese dealers now have the best array of vintage denim in the world,” says Mr Bedwell. “Pre-sifted, itemised and detailed. A lot of buyers head there for annual vintage trips.” Set in the grounds of the temple, Kobo-san offers a mix of both antiques and new goods by local artisans. On the 21st of every month.

FOUNDWELL FINDS

  • Foundwell Silver-Plated Engraved Pin Tray

  • Foundwell Sterling Silver Anchor Key Chain

  • Foundwell Patterned Silver Tie Bar

  • Foundwell Engraved Silver Hip Flask