Canny antiques hunters on the prowl in London know that they'll find better bargains at the street vendors' than in the shops. Cannier ones bypass the central London markets (Portobello, Camden Passage) in favor of a dawn raid at Bermondsey, across the Thames. But the canniest of all go even farther afield, to markets in Birmingham and Newark-where the London dealers themselves buy their wares.
The Birmingham Antiques Fair, a one-day event held about every six weeks, is fairly small, so you can easily be back in London by mid-afternoon. Birmingham is about 100 miles northwest of London. Since the first train from Euston Station wouldn't get me there early enough for the best bargains, I took the chartered bus that the antiques dealers use. It makes several stops around London; the last pickup is at 5 a.m. Once on the road, the dealers and I envision Birmingham's mammoth selection-those of us who are awake, that is. While some dealers snooze, others pass around thermoses of coffee and tea and regale one another with tales of the damask lampshade or the iron candlesticks that got away. At 6:55 sharp, the bus pulls up to the grounds and everyone leaps to attention. Once off the bus, we scatter in different directions. The official opening time is 7:30, but there's nothing to stop anyone from going in earlier (admission is free) and snapping up goods as they're being unwrapped. Before a box of dozens of glass flowers can make it to the table, one of our group collars it. (Back in London, each flower will sell for nearly the price of the entire lot.)
Meanwhile, I get my bearings. There's a large hall lined with several hundred stalls; also a small outdoor shopping area. Each stall is the size of a few card tables, so the fair can be covered easily in three hours, quickly in two. Apart from a few oddities, such as an eight-foot colored-glass lantern, the goods are portables of every variety, and I do mean every. China and glass are plentiful, as are toys, jewelry, fabrics, and many things that could be described as objets d'art, if you wanted to stretch a point. "You won't find another like this,"one dealer said, touting a stuffed iguana that had been shaped into a mandolin-and who could disagree?
To be sure, there is a fair amount of junk (I shrank from the china Snoopys, but I hear they're big with the Japanese). I also spotted some high-priced rarities like a dainty mechanical toy cyclist for $3,000. The majority of items, however, cost between $35 and $165, with quite a bit available for less. My first purchase was a bread knife, sensibly labeled bread on its handle and with a price tag of £9 ($15). When I waved it at the owner, she startled me by smiling broadly and saying, "That can be had for seven pounds."
Bargaining wasn't always so easy, though, in part because some of the items were quite mysterious. "What's this?" I asked one stallkeeper, who countered with "What do you want it to be?" When they're shopping, many of the professional dealers will simply demand, "What's your best price?" but I could never bring myself to say that — certainly not in an American accent to an old lady presiding over a few woebegone teddy bears. If you're a soft touch, better not stray too close to the lowest caste of antiques sellers, who can't afford to rent a stall. They set up outside the fairgrounds, simply laying out their goods on old blankets. Many of them have appealing young daughters, such as the one I asked to show me a velvet bag with an ivory frame and a chain handle ($22). When I handed it back, she looked stricken and asked meekly, "Don't you like it?" Lunch options are practically nonexistent. You'd be wise to steer clear of the food stalls: the pork sandwiches are dripping with grease, and the local delicacy, french fries with curry sauce, is definitely an acquired taste. As it turned out, my shopping appetite was all that mattered. It was whetted by glass model boats, crocodile-covered binoculars, and French enamel cigar dispensers. But it was more than satisfied by the purchase of my knife, as well as a beaded evening bag ($33), a pair of cinnabar brocade cushions ($50), and a china bread box in the shape of a San Francisco brownstone. I'm keeping the price of the bread box to myself, because it's hard to convince anyone it was the best bargain ever. I was still contemplating that notion on the bus ride back, and I assume the dealers were doing the same with their purchases.
The Newark International Antique & Collectors Fair, held six times a year, is on a different scale altogether from that of Birmingham. This two-day event (admission pass $20; valid both days) is the largest antiques fair in Europe, with 4,000 stands, many the size of an entire shop. Newark, 108 miles north of London in Notting- hamshire, is where dealers and clever consumers can make use of their specialized knowledge. Sellers arrive from all around Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Though you can get to Newark on the dealers' bus (the same one that goes to Birmingham), it doesn't arrive early enough, so you might consider renting a car. The drive takes three hours from London; look for signs for the Newark Showground. Two friends who recently did just that were lucky enough to spot four Arts and Crafts chairs as they were being unloaded from a truck. My friends paid $330 for the chairs, threw them in the car, then drove back and resold them that afternoon to a London dealer for $745. If you drive, you must arrive before seven; early birds not only get the juiciest bargains here but get in, period. If you come later, it can take more than an hour to park. In contrast with Birmingham's, though, Newark's dealers are hardened professionals, so fantastic bargains are unlikely after the first wave of buyers. You come to Newark not so much for the deals as for the enormous range and variety.
While the first day consists of highly focused frenzy, the second is a more relaxed outing; customers are likely to be provincial families looking for home furnishings. I heard one dealer tell a northern woman, "Three of these sold for a thousand pounds at auction not long ago.""Aye,"she said, unimpressed. "People pay daft prices at auction, don't they?"
Although tabletop wares are in abundance, there are plenty of large pieces of furniture and interesting garden ornaments, including stone spheres two feet around. (Shipping firms are on hand to get these home.) Though I found most of the furniture dull, I was enamored of certain items that I hadn't seen at Birmingham: crocodile valises, shop signs, old fishing reels, and five-foot-high model yachts.
The most important thing to keep in mind at Newark is not to overdo it. After hours of seeing stalls that stretch to infinity, you can find yourself staring at a model zeppelin or a French meat safe and thinking, "Why does that exist?" from which it can be a short step to "Why do I exist?" followed by a complete existential breakdown. Seek regular refreshment at the food stalls (but if you're at all fastidious, bring your own lunch), and make sure you're dressed properly (it rains frequently). Last year one shopper spotted a damascene bowl priced at one-tenth its value. She spun around to free her heel from the mud and turned back to see someone else snag the bowl. Which goes to show that however canny you may be, antiques hunting is, in large part, a game of chance.
Londoner RHODA KOENIG contributes to Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, and the Sunday Times of London.
After Antiquing . . .
You should be done shopping in a few hours, so you'll have time to grab a bite to eat and check out some sights before heading back to London.
Birmingham There are two pleasant, moderately priced restaurants downtown, just minutes by taxi from the market. All Bar One (43 Newhall St.; 44-121/212-1227; lunch for two $50) and Primitivo (10-12 Barwick St.; 44-121/236-6866; lunch for two $50) both serve excellent pastas and sandwiches. Afterward, stop at the nearby City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to see its collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Rossettis, Alma-Tademas). You might also want to explore the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which displays works by Manet and Degas.
Newark The town itself is of little interest, but for one of the best meals in England, take the London-bound train to the next stop, Grantham, and catch a taxi to the hamlet of Great Gonerby, where you'll find Harry's Place (17 High St.; 44-1476/561-780; lunch for two $75). In their pretty Georgian house, Harry and Caroline Hallam serve scrumptious dishes like baby roe deer in Madeira sauce and Calvados souffle.
Upcoming Birmingham dates: March 12, May 14. For a schedule, call the fair's information line (44-1782/595-805). Upcoming Newark dates: April 7-8, June 2-3. For a schedule, call International Antique & Collectors Fairs (44-1636/ 702-326), which also has information on other fairs throughout Great Britain. For information on the dealers' bus from London, call 44-171/609-0475. Round-trip to Birmingham costs $25; to Newark, $45.