Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton

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Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton

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Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A journalist's account of shadowing an experienced antiques dealer as he buys, sells and tells her about the pros and cons of the market. Written from an American perspective.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 326 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Penguin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780143121053

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For some time the bookshelves in the high street have been awash with titles on identifying, valuing and trading in antiques. This is nothing like that. It is basically an account in which the author, a university lecturer in creative non-fiction, shadows dealer Curt Avery as he travels in pursuit of buying and selling antiques across America, setting up his stall or visiting auctions. As he does so he tells her about the pros and cons, the lucky finds and the pitfalls, and what motivates people like him as he seeks to make a living in a precarious but fascinating profession where every day might bring forth some wonderful new (or old) discovery. Before continuing any further, I should stress that this is written very much from an American perspective, so some mental adjustment is required for any reader who has been introduced to the subject by ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and similar other British TV series.

Somehow, while reading this I kept thinking of Lovejoy, the likeable rogue as portrayed in the comedy drama series of that name by Ian McShane some years ago. This book reads almost like a novel in places, as the author describes the regular routine of packing up the van and waiting to set up his furniture, pottery, paintings and everything else in a sale at some unearthly hour in the morning, then describing the other drivers who are doing the same thing, and recounting the conversations she and Avery have with other dealers as well as prospective buyers. It’s a precarious trade, full of traps for the unwary, but at the same time a way of life in which there are marvellous discoveries to be made. You win some, lose some.

In the course of these narratives she also touches on the history and origins of the flea market, the French marche des puces from mid-nineteenth century Paris; the impact of fakes and forgeries on the market; the impact of eBay on the business; and great obsessive collectors throughout history, from Oliviero Forza, a fourteenth century Venetian merchant, to artist Andy Warhol, who on his death in 1987 left a five-storey Manhattan townhouse with possessions filling all but two rooms. At the same time, she discusses what it is that makes people collect, quoting St Augustine, What is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure. For some the thrill of the chase may lie in baseball or Pokemon cards, for others – I kid you not – it is going after celebrities’ half-eaten sandwiches (kept in the freezer, before you ask). One man in is forties has even collected his toenail clippings since he was a child (does he mount and frame them – we are not told).

On a more serious note, no book on such a subject can avoid the subject of how the economy has affected business. Even before the recession, she quotes Avery as saying, shops were disappearing, younger people were not coming into the antiques trade, and prices for eighteenth century furniture were dropping rapidly. A Sotheby’s specialist says that both cheap and great objects sell, but more middle-of-the-road items are suffering. Butter churns which were highly valued a few years ago are just not wanted these days. On the other hand, the market in vintage comic books is booming.

This is an entertaining book, but I would say its value is rather limited. At times it almost becomes little more than a description of sales – another day, another dollar, or a couple of thousand if you’re lucky. It will be of more use to an American readership, or a lover of Americana generally, less so for the British enthusiast. It will tell you a certain amount about the US market in a fun way, and if you want a lighthearted view of the trade, this will fill the gap. But anyone looking for a definitive handbook on dealing in antiques, or a guide as to what might be worth seeking out at the next major car boot sale, or even purchasing as an investment – always a notoriously fickle area, and even, more so these days – will do well to look elsewhere.

If his book appeals then you might enjoy How to Deal in Antiques by Fiona Shoop.

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