Manhattan Stops Collecting Its Past
by
A flea market in Chelsea (rblfmr/Shutterstock.com)

When I was asked to give a speech in New York City last month, I proposed a Monday. I figured I could come in over the weekend and do a little antiquing in Chelsea. I don’t get up to Manhattan very often anymore, and for the last couple years I haven’t been able to stay with friends for free due to an arcane dispute over the building’s rules against Airbnb rentals.

I knew going to Chelsea wouldn’t be the same experience as it was years before. Still, I figured there would be some nice shops to visit and a couple flea markets to enjoy. It would be a relaxing way to begin my trip, a nice start before several days of meetings amid the latest UN General Assembly session along with the talk.

So I walked a couple dozen blocks from my Midtown hotel in beautiful fall weather. I planned to begin with a flea market lodged in a two-level garage. Merchandise ranged from junk to interesting militaria and fine antiques. I arrived at the spot and … nothing. There was no garage, let alone a flea market. I remembered the folk art wooden eagle, the fantastic French World War I propaganda posters, and military-oriented smoking memorabilia I had found there. For years I did business with a New Jersey military dealer, once taking the bus out to his home to check his wares. Nor was there the fine antique shop across the street that I remembered, the place where I had picked up a beautiful red glass dragon.

I was sure I was in the right place, but it had been a while. As I retraced my steps I stopped in the storefront that had been transformed from antique shop into auction house. Didn’t there used to be the flea a couple doors down? Yes, but the garage had been replaced with a hotel, I was told. And the store was simply gone.

But maybe there was hope: A few of the dealers supposedly had relocated to the outdoor market across the street. So I headed that way, deciding to first stop in the three-story mall across from the market. It had been transformed. A sizable number, perhaps a fourth or more, of spaces were now vacant. Others might as well have been. On one door was a note that the dealer was going to be away from July to November. Some spaces looked like they were rarely opened. Many of the booths were simply storage, filled with items from an upcoming auction. Sellers who before had carried an interesting inventory that always caught my attention, even if I didn’t buy anything, were gone.

I proceeded across the street to the outdoor flea market, which always had been the least productive in the neighborhood for an antique collector. I could see clothes and other sundries from the street as I approached and wondered at what appeared to be a temporary fence. It turns out there was a tollgate, with a $1 fee for entry.

A buck should be no big deal, of course, but the charge brought forth the wrong memories. Years ago one of the larger flea markets a couple blocks away had charged a dollar, but it was the best of the bunch. I could always count on finding something to intrigue and often to bring home. I didn’t mind paying to enter since the sellers were worth it. To have to pay the same to view the depressing detritus left over from the disappearance of all the worthwhile fleas was too much to bear. I turned around and headed back to my hotel.

At least I now know I no longer have a reason to come up on Sunday in the future. At least not to visit Chelsea. A process that once had occupied me for much of the day took less than an hour, without seeing anything that I had much interest in viewing, let alone buying.

No doubt, part of the problem is the dearth of collectors. In the main, the younger the generation the less interest in collecting “tired old sh*t,” as my late, long-time collecting buddy Steve called the stuff we sought. One issue is style: big clunky wooden furniture, even very nice big clunky wooden furniture, isn’t a fan favorite for millennials. And who knows what Generation Z will favor?

Another reason is the growing sense that more is less. It helps to have space to collect. How else to showcase one’s collection? One needs at least a bit of a financial surplus to buy things for one’s collection. It is harder to move, and follow one’s zeitgeist, if one is burdened down with the world’s largest accumulation of whatever. So why buy, say, the useless political tchotchke that I like?

Moreover, Manhattan real estate is just too valuable. Declining demand makes antiques something less than a great money-maker. And the alternative to a parking lot flea market is a new office building, which is what displaced my favorite flea market years back. I’d found interesting militaria, inexpensive chess sets, occasional eagles and raptors (statues and carvings, not the real things!), and other weirdly interesting things — such as brass and wooden “turtle ships,” oddly shaped vessels with an armored deck (hence the reference to “turtle”) used by Koreans in the late 16th century to turn back a Japanese invasion. With Korea a research focus for me, the models were just irresistible.

Other outdoor flea markets suffered a similar fate. This epitome of market capitalism — buyers and sellers ruthlessly bargaining over perceived treasures viewed as junk by so many other people, often including family and friends — yielded abundant anecdotes and friends over the years. Alas, all but the last market operating made way for supposedly higher and better uses of the land.

A nice multi-dealer building once sat just down the street from today’s three-floor survivor. It yielded some interesting treasures over the years, including a French military picture. But the building’s owner found a more profitable use, and the mall closed between my visits. I had gotten to know the manager, who moved to another store before really moving — to Florida, to be closer to her grandkids.

Over the years several large shops in the area closed. More disheartening was the loss of a couple of buildings hosting mostly Russia dealers, which had appeared after the Soviet collapse. They were a great source of commie stuff. Once distant and inaccessible, the remains of the Evil Empire were available for a few bucks. There were cigarette cases, propaganda posters, and chess sets, including a wonderful “communists versus capitalists” one, a modern knockoff of an extremely rare porcelain set issued in the 1920s in the USSR. I had to settle for the cheaper version, but finding it still filled me with great satisfaction. Especially interesting, though a bit too pricey to purchase, were original posters issued by the Bolsheviks and their opponents during the chaos of the Russian Empire’s collapse, liberal and Bolshevik revolutions, and civil war. It was as if I could reach back and both see and touch history.

Over time I got to know some of the dealers, learning from people who took their opportunity to jump over the downed Iron Curtain. I still see one couple whom I met during those early days; they sell at shows I attend. And they keep asking why Americans want socialism when people across Eastern Europe tossed off that yoke. I don’t have a great answer for them.

But an even more devastating collecting blow was when the 12-story Chelsea antiques building was turned into condos. With scores of dealers, the site offered as much variety as any outdoor flea market. And it was upscale, with some chess rarities, unusual bronzes, fine paintings, crystal eagles and hawks, and extraordinary miscellanea befitting moneyed yet discerning Manhattanites. I would take the elevator to the top and walk down, floor by floor, never failing to compile a mental wish list, often filled with items out of my price range. The building always was the highlight of my Chelsea raids. When the top 11 floors closed, my Sunday adventures lost the most important stop. Then the bottom floor went, I sensed the ugly inevitability of a disappearing antique trade.

Still I continued to visit. I started antiquing while in high school. My father was Air Force, and we were stationed in Great Britain. I would tag along with my parents as they wandered hither and yon, filling the car with ancient treasures. (I also made them stop at every castle we came across and made a pilgrimage to the Imperial War Museum.) My efforts lagged when I was in college and law school but picked up after I met Steve, who became my collecting buddy through a “pennysaver” ad for some chess sets he was selling.

We weren’t much alike, separated in age by a couple decades; in career by my ivory tower research versus his far more practical, and valuable, work as a deputy fire chief; and in philosophy by my libertarianism and religious faith compared to his middle-of-the-road politics and unapologetic atheism. We bonded, however, and his girlfriend (later wife) was glad when he stopped pressing her into joining him to drive all over the mid-Atlantic to visit dusty junk shops and hapless flea markets.

I started out mostly looking for chess sets but soon found a plethora of other interesting items. One of my favorites was a set of anti-League of Nations propaganda cards, apparently used during the post-World War I Senate debate over the Versailles Treaty. I excitedly showed the set to a colleague who was also interested in history, only to have him caustically respond, “You just had to buy it, didn’t you?” The answer, of course, was yes. And it only cost a buck. How could I not buy it?

Other bits of history included my turtle ships, a Civil War medical kit, and a framed photo of a German soldier from World War I, inscribed with the date when he had “gefallen” in “Frankreich.” There are cigarette cases used by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War and a silk memento of U.S. sailors who meandered about the Pacific in the late 19th century, listing their destinations. Prints of soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War, which yielded a united Germany. Simple “trench art” cigarette cases of Soviet soldiers during World War II. Impressionistic Soviet paintings of the fight against Nazi Germany.

Unfortunately, most of my collection is more consumable than investible. Antiques have not proved to be a good place to park one’s money. Still, I’ve greatly enjoyed the oddities that I found, which helped make real the history that I studied. The process of collecting, too, has been a blast, constantly heading off on a new bloodless hunt for whatever catches my interest. I have been at it for some four decades: in high school I started picking up British history items with money earned from bagging groceries, mowing lawns, delivering papers, and babysitting. I still have most of those early acquisitions.

But the eternal quest has lost its luster. Dealers I have known for years are retiring or moving. People I looked forward to seeing at shows stopped coming. Worse, Steve, my collecting buddy, is gone — I ended up as his executor, which meant selling hundreds of collectibles, many of which I’d been with him when he bought them. I failed to realize at the time that collecting had turned into one of my most important social activities.

But the hunting grounds are disappearing, as antique shops and flea markets close or move. That’s been evident in the nation’s capital and the Shenandoah Valley, which I used to visit often; Escondido, California; where my parents retired, and elsewhere — including Manhattan’s Chelsea. In the future my Sundays will be better spent doing something else somewhere else. Sadly, my three decades of flea marketing in New York City have officially ended.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

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