- Expected Apr 21, 2020
An enchanting tale of the search for forgotten treasures at one of the greatest flea markets on earth.
Across America and around the world, people wander through flea markets to search for lost treasures. For decades, no such market was more renowned than the legendary Chelsea flea market, which sprawled over several blocks and within an old garage on the west side of Manhattan. Visitors would trawl through booths crammed with vintage dresses, rare books, ancient swords, glass eyeballs, Afghan rugs, West African fetish dolls, Old Master paintings, and much more.
In The Golden Flea, the acclaimed writer Michael Rips takes readers on a trip through this charmed world. With a beguiling style that has won praise from Joan Didion and Susan Orlean, Rips recounts his obsession with the flea and its treasures and provides a fascinating account of the business of buying and selling antiques. Along the way, he introduces us to the flea’s lovable oddball cast of vendors, pickers, and collectors, including a haberdasher who only sells to those he deems worthy; an art dealer whose obscure paintings often go for enormous sums; a troubadour who sings to attract customers; and the Prophet, who finds wisdom among all the treasures and trash.
As Rips’s passion for collecting grows and the flea’s last days loom, he undertakes a quest to prove the provenance of a mysterious painting that just might be the one.
In this thoughtful memoir, Rips (Pasquale's Nose) recalls New York City's Chelsea Flea Market, a legendary bazaar held in a two-floor garage that Rips visited each weekend for almost 20 years beginning in the early 1990s. "Many in the flea called me a collector. Those outside the flea, a hoarder," he writes. Among the treasures he found there are the Romanian film collection of pornographer Al Goldstein, and many examples of boli, a type of African tribal fetish art. Over the years, Rips developed friendships with "the pious society of the flea and its people," including Jokkho, the flea's grumpy gatekeeper; Paul, an erudite haberdasher; and the Diop brothers, who sold African art and antiquities. Rips's flea-market craze reached new heights when he acquired an unsigned and seemingly worthless portrait of a woman and became determined to know its provenance. His sleuthing revealed that the painting is an early work of postwar abstract painter and printmaker Sam Francis. He declares the portrait "a symbol... that the flea was something more than how others saw it." Though some of this work is about the birth of a borderline hoarding lifestyle, Rips doesn't suggest much about causes of his compulsion, nor does he offer more than a few obligatory quips about how his wife and young daughter live with it all. Still, his narrative is a wry and engaging ode to a bygone aspect of N.Y.C. culture.