A Flea Market Primer for Artists

As a reader of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine I’m sure you’ve noticed that many of our contributors incorporate vintage ephemera and embellishments in their mixed-media artwork. Old ledger papers, maps, rusty hardware, antique buttons and lace—it all winds up in their art in the most amazing ways.

Flea market books
Vintage books are perfect for collage projects. / Photo by Mark Elson

Etsy, eBay, and other online sites are great places to purchase vintage finds, but there’s nothing like the thrill of the hunt—I’m talking about the wondrous paradise called the flea market.

In my neck of the woods (the Northeast), spring marks the start of flea market season. This week kicks off the Brimfield Antique Flea Market, billed as America’s Oldest Outdoor Antiques Market. Located in a small town in Massachusetts, it stretches along a two-way road, with booths that seem to go on forever. It’s impossible to see everything in a day.

Flea market finds
Wouldn’t these cards look great on a handmade book cover? / Photo by Mark Elson

For an artist who loves anything old and worn and with a history, a flea market is heaven on earth. If you’ve never been to one, or haven’t been in a while, here are a few things to keep in mind as you chase down your prey:

• Bargaining is expected. Americans overall aren’t comfortable with bargaining, but I guarantee that after a couple of rounds you’ll feel like a pro. The general rule is to offer about 10 to 20 percent below what the seller is asking. Sometimes it’s a go, sometimes the seller sticks with the original price, and sometimes you meet in the middle. Suggesting a price that’s way below what the seller wants is considered an insult, and rarely ends well. Kindness is key. If you don’t like the price of an item or can’t afford it, simply thank the seller, smile, and walk away.

Brimfield Antique Flea Market
The Brimfield Antique Flea Market is a gold mine for mixed-media artists. / Photo by Mark Elson

• If an item is about $5 or less I usually don’t negotiate for it. However, if I’ve gathered several inexpensive items, I’ll offer a lower price for the bunch.

• Set a price limit and don’t go over it. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of finding something special, but you may regret going overboard.

• Conventional flea market wisdom says you’re not supposed to show enthusiasm for an item. Allegedly, if a seller knows you’re very interested in something, they’ll hold to their price, or even jack it up. However, I’ve found that the opposite is true. When I’ve let a seller know that I appreciate an item’s beauty or recognize its uniqueness, they’ve offered an even bigger discount. If a seller chose a piece it’s probably because they loved it, and want it to go someone who values it just as much. I can’t guarantee this will happen every time, especially on big-ticket items like antique furniture, but it has worked for me more often than not.

Vintage watercolors
Vintage art supplies can serve dual purposes. / Photo by Mark Elson

• Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Some of my best finds have been discovered at the bottom of dusty boxes and bins. Just make sure you pack some wipes!

• Flea markets are great places to find unique storage items for your studio or workspace. Wire baskets, vintage card catalogs, and ceramic pots are perfect for stashing ephemera, tools, and paints.

• If you leave an item behind thinking you’ll see if it’s there later, make sure you know where the booth is—ask the seller for the booth number or location. Flea markets, especially large ones, can be tricky to navigate.

• If you find a booth you like at a year-round or regular flea market, chat up the seller and let them know what you’re interested in. They may already have it, or know where they can find it.

• Some sellers put a lot of work into designing their booths, and I often get inspiration from vignettes or artwork I see. If you want to remember a set-up, ask the seller if you can photograph it. Most will say yes.

Flea market vignette
Beautiful vignettes serve as inspiration, too. / Photo by Mark Elson

• Do some price research ahead of time. If you’re after tin types or vintage linens, check the going rates on Etsy and eBay. You’ll be a more savvy buyer and negotiator.

• I may not immediately know what I’m going to do with everything I buy, but I only purchase what I love. I’ve learned over the years that if I buy something I’m on the fence about, it will probably sit in a box, never to be used.

I hope that you find some great treasures at a flea market near you! If so, be sure to share the art you made with them in our online gallery.

Looking for creative inspiration for your flea market finds? Check out these resources!

The Art of Expressive Collage by Crystal Neubauer
The Art of Expressive Collage by Crystal Neubauer
Mixed-Media Tin Pendant DVD with Jen Crossley
Mixed-Media Tin Pendant DVD with Jen Crossley
Storytelling with Collage by Roxanne Evans Stout
Storytelling with Collage by Roxanne Evans Stout
Upcycled Art Journal DVD with Kristen Robinson
Upcycled Art Journal DVD with Kristen Robinson

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