Lynn Yaeger's New York Obsession (2008)

Let other people spend their off-hours developing their backhands or learning Urdu—my idea of a good time is chasing down, haggling over, and occasionally purchasing faded art deco carpets, wormy armoires, buggy copies of vintage magazines with names like The Modern Priscilla, 18th-century rings woven from the hair of dead people, shredded flapper coats, chipped Clarisse Cliff teacups, and various other items left over from the years before the Second World War.

I don't know why this stuff haunts me so much—as with all obsessions, it could take a lifetime to probe the unconscious fixations and desires that leave a person who is unmoved by a mint-in-box Lava lamp swooning at the sight of a saggy gladstone. And, anyway, who has time for analysis when there's shopping to be done?

The first time I went to the 26th Street flea market I couldn't believe what I saw: people forking over hundreds of dollars in a parking lot. But later I learned the secret behind their confidence, which turned out to be the most boring and obvious secret in the world, which is really no secret at all: connoisseurship or—as everyone's parents put it during those endless formative years—studying.

Unlike other kinds of shopping, where connoisseurship won't do you much good—learning as much as you can about Prada shoes won't lower their price—studying antiques can result in a sleeper revealing itself to you, whispering, "Buy me," from under an avalanche of junk.

It's easy to learn about antiques in New York. We may not have country auctions where you can bid on a box of mysterious garbage for a quarter, but we're the home of places with magical names like Sotheby's and Christies', Doyle and Phillips, auction houses that are veritable museums, only their shows change almost daily and the exhibits are for sale. Every auction is preceded by something called a viewing, staffed by auction-house employees whose sole purpose in life is to pull things out of cases, turn furniture upside down, answer annoying questions, and otherwise accommodate your every whim. (They have no way of knowing you have no intention of bidding.)

Of course, one does get sick of just looking. When it's time to buy, there's nothing like the outdoor weekend markets on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea (though a few of the old lots have already been replaced by apartment towers, and the whole market is threatened). A number of floating shows also alight in the greater metropolitan area—pick up a copy of the free New York City's Antiques News from a street box in the 26th Street area for listings. Twice a year, in November and March, there's the incredibly exciting (well, for me, anyway) Triple Pier Expo on the Hudson River that sports 600 dealers. And if that's not enough, there's something called Atlantique City, held in a hideous New Jersey convention center and featuring about 6000 dealers (most of them talking to each other about their latest eBay forays), that you can get to easily by taking the gambling bus from Port Authority.

Once you're feeling a little more confident about your field of interest (it wouldn't hurt to read a book . . . ) there are tonier venues where you can show off your knowledge. The antique jewelry booths in the diamond district, 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, offer a real s/m experience—the dealers are rough, the pace is swift, nobody suffers fools, and the merchandise is an ever shifting assortment of everything from Fabergé cigarette cases to broken Rolexes to pathetic wedding bands, mixed in with a healthy helping of fakes and reproductions. Madison Avenue is scary in a far different way, as are the specialty shows at Park Avenue's Seventh Regiment Armory, which feature crusty European dealers, hefty admissions, and armed guards.

But even these places, so frightening at first glance, often house experts who will respond to your tentative overtures with wild enthusiasm. After all, how many times do they meet another soul who cares about match safes or Honus Wagner cards or old copies of The Modern Priscilla as much as they do?


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