Curt Avery is the fake name of the very real hero of “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money,” which is too bad. Because after whipping through Maureen Stanton’s utterly engaging, heavily researched account of her old college buddy’s life on the yard-sale flea-market antiques-show auction-house circuit, I wanted to invite myself into his multi-state universe and hang out with all those dealers, collectors, sport shoppers, decorators, scholars and especially the pseudonymous Windsor chair restorer whose brilliantly altered and repaired pieces have fooled a number of top antiquarians and museums.
For collectors — meaning anyone with more than four vintage lunchboxes or a home crammed with Majolica ceramics — “Killer Stuff” rings as true as a 17th-century bell. For their loved ones grown weary of living amid, and possibly climbing over, countless objects to which they have no emotional ties, this book may shed light on the hunter-gatherer instinct that Avery, and millions of others, possess in spades. (His long-suffering wife has a real job, which provides the family with health insurance.)
Avery’s gateway drugs were century-old bottles he and a pal dug up in his back yard as kids and sold at bottle shows. (The author helpfully includes a brief history of trash collection in America.) He didn’t plan to become a dealer — though accepted to Yale’s physician assistant program, he did not enroll — but the self-taught lover of Americana had a good enough eye to make a go of it after years “being on the scene, gleaning tips from other dealers, working at an auction house for minimum wage [and] studying obscure reference books.” Stanton herself grew up “dump picking” alongside a mother fond of discarded rotary phones.
If that passion sounds peculiar, consider that actor Nicholas Cage and rocker Mick Jagger were into shrunken heads; President John F. Kennedy went for scrimshaw carvings; Imelda Marcos owned 500 bras, one of them bulletproof, in addition to her 1,060 pairs of shoes; Napoleon collected books; Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet collected Napoleana; and urologist John Lattimer “literally collected Napoleon” by acquiring the Corsican’s penis, allegedly “snipped off by the priest who administered last rites.” In 2009, the Association of Collecting Clubs Web site listed 6,000 groups whose objects of desire range from airline spoons to Zippo lighters.
Martha Stewart Living, a part of the omnivorous collector’s empire, can shape the collectibles markets, notes Avery, while eBay, today’s godsend for buyers, is a disaster for some dealers. “Any idiot with a computer and an attic full of stuff can sell on eBay.”
Stanton salutes Avery’s enduring fantasy, “when there before him that object sits on a table or shelf — the lottery ticket, the ‘retirement piece,’ the ‘super-best,’ the Holy Grail, and he knows it.”
Me, I just want to find Curt Avery.
Annie Groer , a former Washington Post staffer, writes about politics, culture and design. She is at work on a memoir.
KILLER STUFF AND TONS OF MONEY
Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America
By Maureen Stanton
Penguin Press. 326 pp. $26.95