July 30, 2010

Treasures by the Yard

Baltimore decorator trolls local yard sales and finds six bargain buys for $20 or less
By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore, July 31, 2010

Meg Fairfax Fielding might be a mild-mannered fundraiser by day, but in her spare time, she's The Junque Whisperer*, trolling thrift shops, auctions and yard sales for bits of unrealized fabulousness.Sun 1 On her blog, Pigtown Design, Fielding often shows off her bargain coups: the steel card catalog she liberated from Goodwill and turned into a home for shoes; boxes of silks and other imported textiles she scored for $5 at an auction; ivory cutlery she stumbled upon in France.

A few years ago, the xx-year-old Baltimore native who had been living in Wales, returned home and furnished an entire house with secondhand finds.

To see how she spots the treasure amid the trash, I asked Fielding if I could tag along as she hit local yard sales around Towson on a recent Saturday. I added a bit of a throwdown that I thought would have her shopping with one hand effectively tied behind her back: Nothing could cost more than $20.

Let's just say the budget constraint didn't faze Fielding. It takes more than a thin wallet and a 100-degree day to inhibit The Junque Whisperer.

Here are some of her finds that, with a little imagination and elbow grease, could make Pottery Barn jealous.

Chandeliersun4This didn't look like much, lying on the grass in a heap. But a closer peek revealed it looks an awful lot like the sort of simple, shaded chandelier that's on sale right now at Restoration Hardware for more than $400. Here — only $5.

Fielding said if she bought it, she'd spray-paint the body of the lamp in a silver or a chrome to give it a more contemporary feel. New shades would instantly freshen it. "It's a really classic-looking piece," she says. "It's not really going to date, and if it does, you can just change the shades again."

The trunksun5When Fielding pointed to this trunk, sitting on someone's driveway with a price tag of $8, I didn't really get it. What about that dowdy flower paint? How could that possibly look good — anywhere?

"It's a nice little cocktail table or a side table," she said, standing over it, giving it an intense assessment. "And there's storage. If you live in small house, you always want pieces with a dual purpose." To give it a designer look, she'd paint it all white or black, glossing right over those grandmother flowers.

Flatwaresun6I would have browsed right past the little case, hiding on a picnic table spilling over with doodads. Fielding made a beeline for it, popping it open to reveal what looked like a set of shrunken, yellowed spoons, forks and knives.

But looks can be deceiving. What it was, Fielding explained, was a canteen of Thai flatware made of bronze and teak. I searched online when I got home and found similar vintage sets selling for hundreds of dollars. At the yard sale, the whole service for eight was marked $10.

"It's just an interesting set," Fielding said. "It would be fun for a dinner party if you had a Thai theme."

Vintage tinssun2At one sale, there were a number of big boxes stuffed with tins selling for 50 cents each — someone was getting rid of her longtime collection. Though there were bigger ones, Fielding pulled out these because of their character. She advises people looking for worthwhile old tins to avoid anything with a bar code — it's shorthand for "new and cheap."

Fielding bought those pictured here and plans to use the colored ones as classy containers for her dog's treats. The brass one, which she purchased for 75 cents, will be used as a tea caddy. "I think they're decorative," she said. "The workmanship is something you're not going to find anymore."

The chairsun7If we're being honest, this furry piece was getting a few dirty looks at the sale. For the traditionally inclined, this isn't something that would make the living room cut. But to anyone who appreciates the midcentury modern, "Mad Men" vibe, this chair and ottoman — for just $20 — is a steal-and-a-half.

After a visit from an upholstery cleaner, this fur-thing might be an entirely new animal. For those who want to step it up even further, recover it in entirely new fabric with a vintage feel.   "I see it in a loft," Fielding said. "A hipster loft."

The birdsun3This piece is one of those love-hate items. Fielding felt the love. Especially for just $3. She thought the owl, which happens to be kind of trendy right now, as far as species go, could masquerade quite convincingly as a piece of blanc de chine — the shiny white Chinese porcelain. With a can of high-gloss white paint — hopefully that could cover the slightly creepy eyes — and a crisp new shade, Fielding considers it "a pretty cool piece."

Yard sale tips
Meg Fairfax Fielding, the Baltimore Junque Whisperer and author of the blog Pigtown Design, has some advice for conquering yard sales:

  • Scout sales online at Craigslist. Look for multiple sales in one area so you can strategically hit more than one without much traveling. If housewares are what you want, avoid sales that mention baby clothes and toys.
  • Bring ice water. You don't want to stop if you get thirsty and you don't want to have to use dollars on water that could be spent on treasure.
  • Money is king. Bring cash — preferably small bills.
  • Train your mind's eye. "The biggest secret to yard sales is knowing what's good and what's not good," she says. "You have to educate your eye." She also says spray paint can't be overrated. It's "a thrifter's best friend."
  • Don't go in with expectations. "In all likelihood," she says, "You're not going to find what you think you want. You have to have a really open mind."

Images: Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun

* For the real Inner Junque Whisperer, click here!


  1. Congratulations on such a wonderful article! Baltimore gal does good!

  2. Great photo! I love it: "The Junque Whisperer" (cracks me up!!!).

    today's word verification: nonskier (you got that right)

  3. Fantastic article and fantastic finds Meg. You make us so proud!

  4. The Junque Whisperer! I love it!!

    Congrats, Meg, this is fab.

    (But please tell me the Sun didn't actually write "xx-year-old"?? I mean, come on.)

  5. What a fantastic- and fun- article! I wish that I lived close to you so that I could join the Junque Whisperer on some of her flea market expeditions :)

  6. GG... that was my edit! If you want to know how old I am, go hunt it up!

  7. Great article Junk Whisperer! Fun finds!

  8. We are kindred spirits.

    And do I have a place for you.

    Only, I've learned not to broadcast it.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  9. How fabulous for you! There is no better thrill, (maybe a preview of a good estate sale), than good publicity!

    Kudos to you, kiddo.

  10. Oh MegTown, I seriously hope to bump into you at a tag sale soon.

  11. The Junque Whisperer..I love it. What I don't love is the Thai bronze. I had a set of it when in Bangkok, and oh the continuous polishing. Ok with a full time maid or two but here....unuh.

  12. Great article Meg - Next up: the marketplace story - and lots more after that too i imagine.

  13. Great write up!! I agree: white or black paint works miracles on just about everything.

  14. So my mother calls this morning and the first thing she tells me about is an article about "a really impressive woman" and her estate sale finds- i was proud to say that i read her blog and had actually met her (you!)

  15. Love the article! I'd be so afraid if someone followed me around that all I'd find were used Bratz dolls and Corningware! I'd also add to dress down, don't gasp audibly when you find something really good (once witnessed a [well-dressed] young woman at Brimfield Gasp loudly, and run towards an item exclaiming to her friends "This is EXACTLY what I've been looking for!" The item was unpriced. The item was now $200 more than it was going to be...) Also, if you take a friend, remind them to please not lift everything off the table hold it in front of you and the seller and ask "Is this what you are looking for?" LOL! I LOVE your hat and determined expression...killer!

  16. What buys! I'd have bought the little chandelier. Nice article...should have mentioned the pillows you make with the material you find.

  17. Great article. Love the thai flatware - for $10! I'm in!

  18. Congrats on the article, I just read it in Parade and then logged on to find your blog. I look forward to following along! (I'm just outside Baltimore)

  19. This is great Meg! So happy to see you in print and tip of the hat on your finds.


  20. Great article and beautiful picture! I know you had great fun!
    And I love, love, love your hat. Nice to put a face with your name after all this time! Such a NICE face, too! So glad you shared the article!!!

  21. Not surprised :)
    Always enjoy seeing the stuff/treasures you find!

  22. Wow, I was out of town and missed this.

    What a wonderful write up! Congrats.


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