The popularity of and interest in vintage collectibles follows fashions like almost everything else but among the thousands of items on offer at even the biggest sale, you can hone your search by focusing on knock-out pieces that will stand the test of time. Here are our picks for must-have treasures with enduring appeal.
Collect mirrors in all shapes and sizes. You can use them as trays on tables or to layer on a mantel. Bounce light through a narrow stairway with a gallery of mirrors. Hang art deco celluloid hand mirrors in a grouping on a bathroom wall. Make a decorative statement by leaning a large framed mirror against a wall.
Go for the lovely cream luster of unadorned white earthenware or opt for the decorative punch of a piece of transferware. Regardless of your preference, collecting ironstone is a satisfyingly aesthetic experience. By focusing on one type, you can build a cohesive grouping of unmatched pieces that are united by color. Display pieces as a collection or use them as receptacles in kitchen, bath, or bedroom.
- Midcentury furniture
With its simple lines and earthy materials, midcentury furniture can blend into almost any decorating style. Whenever considering furniture, test sofas, chairs, and tables for stability. Less-than-perfect upholstery can be replaced, but wobbles may spell trouble. Check veneered wood pieces carefully—any damage may be irreparable.
Pack a punch with old luggage. Large flat-topped trunks look great as coffee tables while a vintage humpback trunk offers storage capacity in a bedroom, family room, or on the porch. Suitcases can be adapted stacked as side or bedside tables, used for underbed storage, or even mounted as hanging cabinets. Choose sturdy pieces with unbroken hinges and clasps and intact linings. Check interiors carefully for mold or mildew. A overpowering musty smell may never really fade, no matter what methods you try—believe me, I speak (barely, while gasping) from experience!
- Architectural salvage
From the huge, such as porch columns and cornices through large, like doors, fireplace surrounds, and windows, to small brackets, grates, and doorknobs, old house parts can bring vintage character to a new home by augmenting its structure or decorating rooms.
A vintage chandelier will stand the test of time. If you find an old fixture with a good finish and a complete set of crystals in your price range, snag it! Check that the wiring is intact or can be repaired easily.
Signage and sign letters are highly collectible. Focus your search on one brand or type of product for signage. Look for one letter, one material, or mix and match for an eclectic type collection. For an accent that (almost literally) speaks to you, hang an old metal or wood advertising sign as a work of art or include a large metal letter in a grouping above a sofa. Place a series of letters on the mantel or shelf. Hang a less than perfect specimen on the porch or fence.
- Copper and Silverplate
Collect copper vessels and silverplated flatware and hollowware for service and decoration. Tarnished trophies, bowls, and urns bring a wonderful patina to bookshelves, tabletop, vanity, or mantel. Look for silver plated over a copper base or for heavier, and highly collectible hotel silver, which resists tarnishing. Copper cookware adds instant character to kitchens and breakfast nooks.
- Fabrics and Trims
Vintage trims and fabrics are a treasure trove for the creative DIY-er. Tablecloths, curtains, runners, yardage, and quilts in good condition make wonderful conversation pieces when used as intended. If you find lovely pieces that show stains, tear, or wear, they can be cut up for upholstery, pillows, lampshades, and even artwork. Vintage trims are ideal for adding character to plain linens, pillows, or window treatments.
- Obsolete gadgetry
Vintage fans, clocks, cameras, movie projectors, typewriters, and telephones may have succumbed to the digital age, but in their sculptural beauty, they’ve found a place in home decor. Line up a series of fans on a mantel. Set a vintage typewriter and telephone on a modern desk. Mass a group of cameras or clocks together on a bookshelf or table.
Top Tips from Flea Market Pros
- Snooze, you lose. Don’t hesitate if you see something you really want. Chances are, if you love it, someone else will, too, and you’re gambling if you leave it for later. Ask the seller for his best price or make an offer and be prepared to snap it up. I found a vintage watchmaker’s chair at the end of the day that I fell for but decided to think it over. Well, think about it is all I did that evening—the price was great, the piece had a wonderful patina, and I couldn’t believe I’d walked away. I went back early the next morning but the chair was already gone. I’m still annoyed with myself about that one.
- Stash some cash. While many vendors at larger sales will take checks and credit cards, paying cash may help when negotiating a price. Purchasing a quantity from one flea market vendor may also save you money. Bring lots of small bills, too—you don’t want to bargain with a seller and then ask her to empty her cash reserves changing a $100 bill for a $10 purchase.
- Look Lively. Don’t take anything at face value. Cast your creative eye at anything that gets your attention. If it’s not everything you want it to be already, could it be renewed with a coat of paint or a tinted stain? Would it work repurposed as something else entirely? If a little effort on your part can give an amazing piece a new lease on life, go for it. Just be sure it’s in good enough condition to hold up to your shenanigans. A loose screw is one thing, a popping veneer or cracked joint is quite another.
- Be prepared. If you’re looking for pieces to fit into specific spaces, come with measurements in hand. Is color important? Bring paint or fabric swatches, too. When large items are on your wish list, arrive in a vehicle large enough to transport them or be ready to work with a shipper. Throw a large canvas tote over your shoulder for carrying small purchases.
At large events, most vendors will hold bulky items for you for later pickup. Ask for receipts and store them in a coin purse. Keep a list in a small notebook of what you bought and from whom—we learned the hard way that it’s easy to overlook one vendor when you’re picking up from several spread over a big area.
Wear comfy clothes and sturdy shoes. A hat or cap and sunglasses are good ideas. Hydrate often and apply sunscreen as needed. Put your funds, ID, notebook, and cell phone/camera in a small cross-body bag that leaves your hands free but your valuables close.
- Hold out hope. It’s likely that you will see something you love that’s just outside your price range. Give yourself a sliver of hope by leaving your phone number and an offer of your highest bid with the vendor. That way, if he doesn’t sell it and doesn’t want to load it back up at the end of the event, you just might get a call. This won’t do you much good if you’ll be miles away by the time the sale ends so indulge in this practice only if you plan to stick around to the bitter end or live nearby.
It’s worth it to go back to a show on another day if you’ve got the time. Many vendors restock their booths and new things are always appearing. Don’t forget to peek along the outsides of the tents and under tables.
- Buyer beware. All sales are final and sold as-is at flea markets and estate or tag sales. Carefully look over anything you plan to buy and test pieces with working parts when possible.
We love flea market shopping so it was a task keeping this list to ten categories. We could have stretched the list to 15 easily with vintage toys, sports memorabilia, old books, barware, and paper ephemera. Are there other collectible categories you’d put it your top ten? We’d love to hear about it!
© Caruth Studio