Street market treasures

Antique stalls in street markets are a comparatively recent thing. Since collecting first became a popular pastime in the 1950s, stalls offering a motley assortment of antiques - perhaps more correctly described as bric-a-brac - have proliferated among the fruit and vegetables. Though they have been with us for only a few decades, these markets are well established as a source for collectors, and as an irresistible attraction to browsers hoping to find a treasure among the jumble. Many people have difficulty in bringing themselves to bargain for an item. In countries where bargaining is expected, stall holders are positively disappointed if the asking price is paid without a decent struggle. The informality of the street market provides an excellent opportunity to practice a little bargaining technique. Anything from the aggression of the ``you-must-be-joking'' approach to the winsome ``oh-I-love-it-but-I-couldn't-possibly-afford-that'' might be tried out.

In London, the few street markets that cater solely to antique dealers and collectors tend to start business very early. This usually excludes the casual onlooker and confines business to the professionals. Although a street market is not the place one would expect to find great treasures, it has happened, and it is the possibility of finding one that keeps buyers coming, even at 5 a.m. This is the time every Friday that a really keen buyer should head for the Bermondsey Antique Market, just off Tower Bridge Road. No worthwhile items are around after breakfast, and by midday even the rather humdrum leftovers disappear.

New Caledonian Market is just across the road and keeps similar hours. Stalls are piled high with items that our parents gladly discarded. But care is needed to sort out the good from the bad. Victorian magnifying glasses or letter openers abound, but most of the handles began life as a carving knife or a pickle fork.

Of course, for antiques or bric-a-brac, Portobello Road at Notting Hill Gate has become possibly the most famous of all street markets. For the antique collector it really comes alive on Saturdays when about 2,000 stall holders take to the streets. If you do not know where Portobello Road is - and it is tucked away - just get to Notting Hill Gate and you will find, from about 7 a.m. on, a steady stream of bargain hunters all heading in the same direction. The dedicated hunter will be on the scene at the crack of dawn - but beware, bargains are the exception, and many items can be quite expensive.

The hazards of the street market should not be underestimated, but neither should they spoil the fun. Guarantees of authenticity are not generally available so the buyer should beware, as the old maxim advises. The buyer should especially beware of hidden repairs, of sets or pairs that do not really match and that are not noticed until too late, and, of course, of the pickpocket. The successful buyer should go to a street market alert, subdued, and badly dressed!

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