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History Hunting in the Great Outdoors

With the start of summer the antiques trade traditionally moves business outdoors. Fields, fairgrounds, and outdoor venues, dormant through the winter months, and some even longer due to pandemic restrictions and closures, are now popular destinations, once again, for antiques shows and flea markets across the country. Walk these shows and you overhear how thankful dealers and buyers are for this return to normal. Organizers report sold out vendor spaces and record attendee turnout; dealers share that this season is shaping up to be the best in years – even pre-pandemic! All this is proof that, even after a hiatus that drove many dealers and buyers to online sites, nothing beats the in-person shopping experience. It is, at its essence, the thrill of the hunt and active engagement between buyers and sellers that continues to fuel the outdoor antiques and collectibles marketplace.

The “Brimfield” shows, held three times a year in Brimfield, MA, provide a reliable read on the health of the outdoor marketplace, at least in New England. In May of 1960, Gordon Reid, an auctioneer, held the first Brimfield Show on his field, Auction Acres. As you will read in this re-printed article from a 1975 issue of Blair & Ketchum’s Country Journal in our July issue, dealers showed up on Gordon Reid’s field on a designated day in May, opened the back of their station wagons to reveal their wares, and people came from near and far to see what they had for sale. About 300 people attended this first show and word of the gathering’s success quickly spread. The following year, Reid added a second show in September and thus, what he unabashedly promoted as the “Greatest Antique Show Under the Sun,” was born. By the 1970s, the show’s popularity led to the expansion of antique shows and show dates on neighboring fields and the addition of a third show week in July. Today, “Brimfield” consists of over 20 individual “shows” along a one-mile stretch of Route 20. The shows attract 3,000-5,000 dealers over a period of a week and across all show fields and can draw in upwards of 40,000 show-goers from across the country and around the world.

During Brimfield show weeks I volunteer my time at the Chamber of Commerce Information Booth, a popular starting point for first-timers who will tell you Brimfield has been on their bucket list. The most commonly asked questions? “Where should I start?” and “Where can I find a dealer that sells xxxx?” The best answer? “ Start walking until something catches your eye and go from there.” It’s the thrill of the hunt – coming across something you didn’t know existed or thought you would ever want – that gets Fitbits up into the 10,000+ step range, and brings fans back year after year!

Outdoor shows such as Brimfield, and those held on fields and other outdoor venues across the country, are just one avenue for enthusiasts and collectors to satisfy their itch to hunt under the sun for new, old finds. As Judy Gonyeau shares in her article this month, “A New Roadmap to Buying in Person,” many of the tried and true opportunities for hunting are as popular as ever, and have returned strong post-Covid. Memorial Day Weekend kicked off tag sale season in driveways and front yards across America, Thrift Stores open for the season after a winter of accepting donations and consignments, and Churches and other organizations hold antique shows and rummage sales to raise money. The options for buying and selling in the great outdoors are numerous, but the intent remains the same: the thrill of the hunt.

Summer under the sun also brings out mudlarkers (someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value) and treasure hunters such as Ole Andersen who we interviewed for this issue, who dig up and source their own finds, never knowing what will be unearthed next. Andersen, who has an active following on social media and his own YouTube channel, spends his weekends with a metal detector covering public parks and the backyards of interested homeowners to find objects buried in some cases for more than a century. Here again, the thrill of the hunt – on land and in the water – has these hands-on treasure hunters actively engaged with the hobby, and their fans are excited to see what they’ll find next.

One of the most popular objects for mudlarkers, treasure hunters, and collectors is antique bottles, discarded in privies, thrown into the river, buried in landfills, and left where they were discarded. The market for antique glass bottles is experiencing a resurgence in interest, online at bottle auctions and at shows, and buyers have shown a willingness to place a value on something once discarded as waste.

Outdoor antiques and collectibles markets and shows have also received a big boost over the years with DIY shows such as Flea Market Flip, American Pickers, and Salvage Dawgs, and by celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Lara Spencer, who guide their followers through the experience and possibilities of the kind of active engagement that online buying can never provide.

We hope this issue inspires you to attend an outdoor show, drive around your neighborhood looking for garage sales, and look down to see what history has left behind. Happy hunting!