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Beware of getting fleeced at summer flea markets

As summer advances upon us and the long-awaited vacation season opens, flea market vendors are gearing up for their prime season. Millions of Americans visit these open-air affairs each year. From California to the Carolinas, from Mississippi to Maine, the sight of rows of vans and merchandise-laden card tables is a well-known seasonal phenomenon.

This year, perhaps more than in any other in recent memory, a purchase from those open-air vendors may be fraught with hazard, at least for the neophyte antiques collector. Veteran observers of the antiques scene report that this seems to be a banner year for antiques reproductions.

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According to Phillip H. Curtis, assistant curator at Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del., glass forgery is approximately 5,000 years old. It and fakery of all forms of ceramics have continued right up to today, he notes.

The same can be said of all forms of antiques from metal to furniture, oil paintings to prints.

What has changed this year, according to many people who follow the antiques market, is that while many earlier fakes and reproductions were custom hand-made pieces, the market is now flooded with a wide range of mass-produced fakes and reproductions.

One has only to pick up any of the popular antiques publications, such as Connecticut's Antiques and the Arts Weekly, the Maine Antique Digest, or even the venerable The Magazine Antiques, and look in the classified sections or under reproductions and services to see the array of objects available.

Windsor chairs, country sofas, pencil post beds, tray-top tea tables, hutch cupboards, wing chairs, chair tables, Hepplewhite stands - those forms are the reproduction pieces made by only one Connecticut firm.

Coming under the heading of mass-produced reproductions are baskets, tin lighting devices, cast-iron banks and toys, bronze sculptures, jewelry, brass fireplace equipment, prints, and all types of glass and china.

Already observed this year at antique prices are these reproductions: fake Frederic Remington bronze sculptures that retail as reproductions for as low as 100; and totally new pieces of blown glass that are passed as old.

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The list could go on indefinitely. Calendar prints are put in old frames. Oil paintings have details added, such as ships flying American flags, Indians around the campfire, and so on. New iron objects are left out in the rain to rust. Glass and china pieces are sanded on the bases to simulate genuine wear.

Only rarely do these fakes and reproductions show up in the honest antiques dealer's shop. They usually are found at roadside stands, at yard and garage sales, and at flea markets.

One New Hampshire dealer summed up the situation at flea markets. ''I haven't seen a genuine weather vane at a flea market for two years,'' he said.

There are reasons for that.

Very rarely are guarantees given, or asked for, at flea markets. It's bargain time, and buyers take their own chances there.

The exception is the genuine antiques flea market run by reputable organizers. These shows usually charge an admission, and the dealers who exhibit are reputable business people.

Watch out for the weekly event in the parking lot, the little group setting up by the side of the road, the sellers who won't give a written sales slip and tell you they don't know what it is they are selling.

When that happens, it's a clear signal that the piece is probably not an antique. When a bargain is more important than a genuine antique, you will probably get a fake.

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