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Finding Art Treasures At Flea Markets

Updated on October 21, 2008

Paintings and Art at Bargain Prices


At one time I had a small antique business in an antique mall. I was always on the lookout for finding bargains at garage sales, thrift shops, estate sales and flea markets.

Flea markets seemed to have more to offer at affordable when it came to art. There are usually more choices and you'll find vendors who specialize in everything from paintings to pottery and unusual pieces. I have a solid copper antique inkwell in an art Neuveau design that I think is very beautiful. I'm sure I would have paid much, much more for it at an antique shop and probably wouldn't have it today. Antique malls have a lot of overhead and this is passed on to the customers. That's the way business works, but folks at flea markets usually pay only a small fee for their 8'x10' spot, so they can sell items for a lot less. They are quite willing to come down in their prices, hard cash is difficult to refuse, especially if you've been standing in the hot sun all day and thinking about having to load up all your stock and haul it home again. Usually you can find a price that both of you feel good about.

If you are searching for something rare or unique, arrive very early. Most flea markets open as early as seven in the morning, but to get the best stuff' or art, you will be more successful if you arrive a half hour before that. I'm not a morning person, so have rarely have done this, but I have seen artwork that other shoppers purchased that early and it is amazing and makes me try to get there earlier next time.

Take cash. Vendors rarely accept credit or debit cards and aren't very accepting of personal checks. Too many of them have been burned by checks, so I don't blame them.

Dress comfortably with good, comfy shoes. I avoid carrying a purse and wear cargo pants or a vest with many pockets so my hands will be free for handling and looking over items for sale. Bring a hat with a visor if the weather is hot and sunny, or a raincoat and umbrella if it looks like rain. Rain is the bargain hunter's best friend, as the crowds are smaller and the sellers a little more willing to bargain. I pack some food, but many larger flea markets have a concession stand or truck.

I also take a tape measure and a small magnifying glass to look for peeling or cracking of the paint from the canvas. Some crackling is OK in very old and excellent paintings, but you don't want to take a painting home and have all the painting peel and fall off a week later.

Don't be shy. Poke around a vendor's stall and look under rugs or ask them if they have any artwork. Quite often they still have loads of items in their vans or trucks and just haven't put them out yet. Ask it they have whatever you're looking for and you're quite likely to hear a 'yes!"

Look for quality items. There are collectors who actually want velvet and paint-by-number paintings, but you probably do not. Look for canvases stretched on good, sturdy wood frames. Look for a signature as well. This is if you're purchasing oil paintings. Watercolors should be signed (usually in the lower right hand corner) and matted and framed. Brown paper should seal the back. Preferably the frame will already have a wire hanger, not brackets. If there is not wire or there is a bracket, you can always add this yourself if the painting is really attractive.

The more important thing, of course, is that you like the artwork. It's no bargain if you don't like it, but think maybe it's worth something and ends up piled in your spare room.

Be open to all forms of art and you'll probably find some good stuff. I love finding good pieces of pottery or metal art. I once found a beautiful marble bust of a woman for five dollars! A number of years later I sold it for $400! I didn't buy it as an investment, but because I thought it was beautiful, but the income was nice too! I also have a copper ewer that is very primitive with a brass handle. It's beautiful and I found it at a flea market and paid only twenty dollars for it!

Staying late also has it's perks. Since I often arrive too late for the early bargains, I make up for it by getting great buys at the end of the day. Chances are a seller may be willing to give you a great deal rather than have to pack the item up and take it home. I'm not proud, I often check near and in the dumpsters before I leave. I found a very unique and interesting piece of pottery sitting next to the dumpster one day. It had a small chip that barely shows and had a price tag of ten dollars on it. When I got it home I realized it was a McCoy and fairly rare.

The most important thing about flea markets is to have fun and enjoy your treasure hunt. Go with a friend and make a day of it, happy hunting!



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    • profile image

      Ron H 9 years ago

      Good article Pat. I have been having a lot of fun buying stuff at our local auction barn on Saturdays. Takes time, but patience pays.


    • DarleneMarie profile image

      DarleneMarie 9 years ago from USA

      Great advice Pat. I am very drawn to old things...large and small. New things do not have the character that old pieces do!

    • princess g profile image

      princess g 9 years ago

      I love shopping at flea markets! I can find good stuff at thrift stores too.