Drawn by the unsigned picture's colors — a turquoise sky, a shimmer of azure water and the doges' palace glowing pink in the distance — I was reminded of the work of 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner. Could it be an oil sketch for one of his great canvases? By the time I convinced myself later in the day that it could, the work had been sold — for $400. Turner or not, it was a nice painting, and my heart sank. I had failed to act quickly enough.
For most of the year, Madison and Bouckville are sleepy villages, strung out along a road edged by several antiques shops, a few old houses, some barns, a church and a cobblestone inn. It's familiar territory to us; we come to upstate New York to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the Washington area, where we live most of the year.
The buildings are surrounded by broad meadows behind which rise green hills, patchworked with farms. It's the kind of languid place where cows chew their cud all day long while reclining lazily on the grass.
Then comes August, and Bouckville springs to life. (This year's show is Aug. 21 and 22.) Almost overnight, a mown alfalfa field becomes an open-air bazaar, rivaling in its color, displays and busyness some of the tumultuous open-air markets I have seen in Turkey and Morocco.
The dealers, who set up shop the day before the opening, occupy booths and five tents 200 feet long and 40 feet wide each, arranged in neat rows on broad interconnecting "avenues." Mercifully, a map of the grounds comes with the $6 entry fee. It covers the full 100 acres, 30 of which are given over to the show itself, the rest to the free parking areas.
Despite the map, we got lost a couple of times and reoriented ourselves by a giant sign proclaiming "1,000 Dealers," hovering high above the grounds.
The show got its start in 1972. That's when Jock Hengst, a local who in his younger years had been a picker (the trade's name for someone who goes around knocking on doors and asking people whether they have any old items to sell), managed to persuade 35 dealers to exhibit their goods on a small airstrip near Bouckville.
The show caught on and grew so big by 1980 that Hengst had to move it to its current location, which he now owns.
Hengst prescreens the exhibitors — most of whom pay repeat visits — to ensure that high-quality standards prevail. They pay $195 for their spaces and thus don't need a huge markup on their goods to cover the rent. Any dealers who try to pull the wool over visitors' eyes with reproductions don't get invited back.
A shopper's oasis
Outside the show's fenced precincts, several hundred other sellers — Hengst refers to them as "piggy backers" — line both sides of a half-mile or so of U.S. 20, which links the two villages. With their goods spread out around them, they hawk real antiques, semi-antiques and downright fakes, as well as what all too often look like the tired leftovers of garage sales.
But here, too, there are bargains. Liet once paused to examine some casually arranged wares atop a card table and discovered six tarnished silver spoons from Italy ($15) which bore the ornamental crests of the country's provinces at the tips of their handles, and a sweet, little blue-edged creamer-and-sugar-bowl set dotted with tiny roses ($10) and dating to the 1860s.
We asked the dealer where he came across his wares. He explained that he had a job clearing houses of their leftovers after their owners' deaths.
Lifting the bowl's lid, Liet found a touching one-line note in an anonymous hand: "Belonged to my great-grandmother Emma."
The Madison-Bouckville Outdoor Antiques Show is but one of dozens, if not hundreds, of antiques shows that take place in the Northeast during summer. It's sizable — 26,000 attended last year's event — but it is outsized by the Renninger Extravaganza, in Kutztown, Pa., held in April, June and September. However, it is bigger than Massachusetts' Brimfield Antique Show held in May, July and September, Hengst says.
By focusing on a single weekend, the Madison-Bouckville show assures a concentration of antiques and collectibles.
Under Hengst's leadership, the townspeople join forces to make the event a success. Some direct cars to the temporary parking lots. Others run open-air "trolleys," pulled by antique tractors, which ferry visitors from the lots to the show grounds. Still others staff the food concessions and a few, atop a roving van, play catchy bluegrass numbers that circulate over the din of the crowd. Strapping youths stand at the ready to carry or drive oversize treasures — such as our dresser — to the parked vehicles.