The most unexpected thing Celia Bergman ever found for sale at
a flea market was Bonnie Parker's finger. It floated in a wax-sealed,
alcohol-filled test tube, and looked like a wet cigarette.
“Got to expect a little wear
and tear,” the dealer said. She was somewhere between thirty-five
and sixty, and wore a faded T-shirt bearing an eagle, a flag, and
the words, NEVER FORGET. She laughed, and coughed, and sucked up
the last of her Sprite with a straw. “Isn’t that something?
Now that’s gangster memorabilia.”
Celia was also a dealer, though one
comparable to this lady as a cellist compares to a player of spoons.
She eyed the tube that held the finger, eyed the dealer, eyed the
finger. Like anyone who earns their keep by lobbing the past’s
shrapnel at those in the present willing, wanting, or anxious to
be hit, Celia could deadpan with the best when the moment of negotiation
“How’d your grandfather
dealer said. “Shot it off.” She glanced sidelong at
Celia to gauge her reaction. “He was one of the ones shootin’.
Can’t honestly tell you he was the one did the clippin’.”
The dealer pulled another Sprite from
a cooler and popped the top. “Pappaw was a Texas Ranger,”
she said. “Got his badge, if you’re interested. Beautiful
craftsmanship. Great condition. He wore it every day for thirty
years but if you didn’t know better you’d call it mint
in box.” She paused. “Texas Rangers material’s
Celia smiled. “In Texas.”
The field in which she stood, and
the dealer sat, was ten minutes south of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Celia’s plan was to reach the Ohio River by sunset, but as
was almost always the case, no sooner had she spotted the words
FLEA MARKET than she found herself rolling her car into yet another
field, lulled and comforted by the gentle patter of gravel raining
against the oil pan.
“Say you’re from New York?”
Celia nodded. “How are things now?”
“Normal,” she said, “considering.”
The dealer smiled. “Here’s
hopin’ it stays that way.”
Celia nodded, and reappraised the
finger. She was at least sure it was once attached to a real hand.
It appeared to have been cut rather than shot away, just below the
first knuckle, but that didn’t surprise her. If the dealer’s
story was true, Celia figured great-grandfather had whipped out
his jackknife the moment the smoke cleared and snagged a souvenir.
The natural response; indeed, almost two months to the day after
Bonnie and Clyde flew up to case that big First Farmer’s Savings
and Loan in the sky, the FBI ambushed the even more-wanted John
Dillinger outside a Chicago theater. Soon as the shooting stopped,
passersby ran into the street to dip handkerchiefs in Dillinger’s
blood, behaving as onlookers always behaved at killings, or executions,
be they in London, or Paris, or Rome, one hundred or four hundred
or two thousand years ago. They came. They saw. They grabbed souvenirs.
They collected, bottling history as it spills, the better
to savor once it mellows.
Dillinger had a lot of history to
spill. In twenty years Celia had been offered three such blood-soaked
shadows of cloth. She’d bought and sold two, the last one
in 1993. That time, she’d paid $1500 and immediately resold
it to a Boston collector for $5,000. Both of the handkerchiefs she’d
bought and sold were made of yellowed-white Irish linen, with hand-rolled
edges, bearing stains bittersweet chocolate in color and cracked
as a drought-webbed riverbed. Both came with notarized statements
attested to in period ink on period paper by Chicago policemen who
had -- she checked -- worked for the force in 1934, the year Dillinger
She’d have passed on buying
the third handkerchief even if it hadn’t borne the outline
of the Trylon and Perisphere, and read NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR
1940. Even so, Celia suspected the third handkerchief would eventually
find a happy home. Collectors never really care how people, especially
themselves, obtain the things they are compelled to collect.
And, when it comes to the relics of
the famous or infamous, imagined or actual, they care less.
The dealer lit an unfiltered Camel.
Specks of tobacco clung to her upper lip until she rubbed them off.
“What’d you say your specialties were?”
“Sex. Death. Books.”
“Got the bases covered.’
She brushed a horsefly away from her neck, and pointed to the finger.
“I’ll go three hundred on that. With dealer’s
The dealer smiled, and shrugged –
caveat emptor, however she might try to put it. Provenance
was often a problem when it came to body parts. Not always –
Beethoven’s liver has been on the market several times, most
recently the year Celia was graduated from Hunter. (She could still
quote from memory the catalogue description she’d read: “Shrunk
to half its proper size, leathery in consistency and bluish-green
in color, with bean-size nodules on its surface”). In that
case, which was the exception, demonstrable provenance was readily
Still, Celia knew, provenance ultimately
proves nothing. The histories of most objects have been artfully,
repeatedly, rewritten. Nearly all items locked away by collectors
or museums, be they Happy Meals figures, Modiglianis or two-headed
babies in jars, will one day be sprung. And when each finally hits
the street again it’ll be hard to know for sure whether the
piece up for grabs did time in a neighbor’s dresser drawer,
or some great-great-aunt’s Terra Haute attic, or the Chicago
Art Institute, or Vienna’s Museum of Electrocution.
Nobody ever knows what will appear
on the underground market when it comes to body parts of the famous
and (more often) infamous. At any given time there may be locks
of hair – George Washington’s, Carole Lombard’s,
Ted Bundy’s. FDR’s fingernail clippings. Marilyn’s
Kotex. Gallstones, kidney stones. Slices of brain, and other post-autopsy
variety cuts. Rock-hard lumps of excrement, celebrity coprolites.
Once Celia was offered a bag full of what were supposed to be Jean
Harlow’s baby teeth, but she declined.
In this field, she didn’t so
much mind the material sold as she did the potential purchasers,
though to be fair they differed from Beanie Baby ladies only in
the objects of their obsession. Celia usually – not always
– left what she came across in this area to parts specialists.
She knew dealers who knew dealers on the rarefied levels, the ones
who, so long as a customer provided not only money but the right
bona fides, could offer for sale such items as Napoleon’s
penis. Celia once saw a photo. It resembled a flat gray mushroom.
She’d heard it was now owned by a Russian.
Celia had a comprehensive knowledge
of her chosen fields, but ultimately she relied on intuition. As
she stared at the finger, she knew it might well have been Bonnie
Parker’s. But she intuited that she could buy Bonnie’s
finger that afternoon and come back a week later for another one.
“Thanks anyway,” she said.
“I’ll go two fifty,”
the dealer shouted. Celia continued walking away. “I’ll
throw in the badge.”
Halfway back to her car, Celia looked
at her watch. Almost three; she’d be lucky to make Charleston
by nightfall. A Holiday Inn overnight and then on to Lexington by
noon the next day -- that would do. That way, if she happened to
spot another sign, she’d still have time to stop.
Celia had her own pickers, who haunted
flea markets and garage sales and estate auctions; they were low-key
guys with hygiene that didn’t cause comment and eyes that
could size up a table or shelf in under fifteen seconds. When it
came to their work they were reliable, close-mouthed, and didn’t
miss or forget a trick. She could have let them do all the digging,
but it was impossible for her to pass a flea of any size. The compulsion
never dwindled, the yen never left, and the skill of plucking diamonds
from the mountain of cubic zirconium, once perfected, could never
(And when it came to finding such,
Pennsylvania was good as Oregon and far better than New England.
Celia sometimes imagined no one in the state had ever heard of eBay.
In Pennsylvania, not even professionals ever know for sure what
they might find – there is no end to the attics, basements,
barn lofts, church attics, back rooms and sun porches from which
remarkable items forever seem to be hauled.)
Celia and her pickers were good. They
found things not only in Pennsylvania, but in every other state
and several countries as well. In the past year, Celia had bought
and sold spectacular items in all of her specialties. Sex:
pornographic photos of Joan Crawford, a collection of 230 Tijuana
Bibles (including the only known copy of one whose story featured
Popeye, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a cow), an early 19th-century dildo
painted to resemble an arcing sperm whale. Death: a letter
on Cunard Lines stationery dated July 21, 1938 offering condolences
to the family of a man who had in mid-Atlantic taken a header off
the Queen Mary, a traveling mortician’s portable
cooling board complete with the usually-missing headrest, a set
of 19th-century embalmer’s instruments (which Celia thought
very much resembled 19th-century obstetrical instruments). Books:
The Dodo and Kindred Birds, Wilkins’s Mysteries
of the Great War, two inscribed Shirley Jackson novels, and
The Fall River Tragedy, the extremely rare contemporary
insta-book on the Lizzie Borden trial. (In a pre-20th century display
of the power celebrity begs to endow, after Lizzie was acquitted
of having murdered her parents, she bought as many copies as she
could find – her inheritance was sizeable -- and burned them.)
This was the second time Celia had
sold that particular copy of Fall River. “Who was
Lizzie Borden?” her first customer, the COO of Blurpz.com,
had asked her during the initial sale, a couple of years earlier.
As he appeared to be not much older than twenty-one she wasn’t
surprised he needed to ask. “The O.J. of 1893,” she
told him. He handed over the bills (Celia dealt only in cash, or
certified check) and happily dashed off with the book. Before he
had much of a chance to gather up more true crime titles, however,
Blurpz’s stock unexpectedly dropped from $70 to forty cents
a share. He had to sell the book back to Celia for one-fourth the
price, and she resold it for twice what he’d paid.
But if he ever again had the money,
and she ever again had the book, she’d have been pleased to
resell it to him, even if she had to remind him who Lizzie –
or O.J., for that matter -- was. When it came to customers, Celia
wasn’t a snob. She was more selective about what she sold
than she was to whom she sold it. In the class system of antiques
and collectibles Celia, a private dealer who didn’t advertise,
held a fairly lofty though not stratospheric position. Layered successively
below her were: private dealers who do advertise; specialists who
both deal privately and work antique fairs; specialist store owners;
the people who run what were once junk stores but are now antique
stores; flea market sellers; your neighbors, holding yard and garage
sales; your grandmother, selling her spare pencils on eBay; and,
finally, the guys in New York who blanket the sidewalks with broken
toasters, coverless paperbacks, chipped Star Trek: Voyager
mugs and jacket-free records with pie-shaped wedges of vinyl missing.
(Above Celia’s level were dealers
who sold only to specific customers, as well as the aforementioned
private dealers known only to other private dealers: the people
who could sell you Napoleon’s penis, or Jimi Hendrix's record
collection, or videotapes of Elvis having sex of a sort with his
co-stars, or the mechanicals of Beatles LPs, or Lee Harvey Oswald’s
In her chosen fields, Celia passed
on buying, and would refuse to sell, eighty percent of the items
that came her way. By doing so she ruled out potentially lucrative
areas of revenue, but that was unavoidable. You have to draw the
line, or lines, somewhere. One of her lines circumscribed World
Trade Center memorabilia, which ordinarily would – and did,
with most such specialists-- fit within, among others, the broader
category of Death. No less than three times a month Celia encountered
a freelance picker, a street-level dealer, a collector on the lookout
to trade what they had to offer. They’d sidle up to her at
trade shows or outdoor markets or auctions, muttering, frozen-lipped,
“Got some real stuff.”
She wouldn’t even look, any
longer. The first few times she had, she wished she hadn’t.
It was always the real stuff, all right. The last time Celia agreed
to look at what one of these characters had for sale, she found
herself staring into an attache case filled with flyers with torn-away
corners, each quickly posted in the hours and days immediately after.
Worked at Aon. Scar on left shoulder. Please call. With love
and thanks from Nancy Corday.
“Get away from me,” Celia
said. She drew her lines, and never crossed them.
At least, she hadn’t yet.
She continued toward Kentucky, the
items she’d pulled from stock for her new customer safe in
her bag on the seat beside her. Celia had been lucky for a long
time. There were always objects to be bought and sold. Always customers
trying to pursue their personal God, or gods, or demons, through
the agency of the objects they so desperately sought and which Celia,
so often, was able, and happy, to provide. Now the days when freshly-moneyed
clients constantly turned up, keen to burn off excess venture capital
on home décor, or one-of-a-kind gifts for a wife or brother
or co-owner (or himself – most, but not all, of her customers
were men), were over. Every month it was harder for Celia to believe
those days had ever been real.
Luckily, some people always have money
-- though like everyone else, they never have enough. But the ones
who almost think they have enough money are inevitably
the ones who do have enough to buy the things that everyone else
has to sell.
Thanks to her husband, Barb Carver
always had money.