‘Brocantes’ and antique markets – a lucky dip in France’s rich history

One of the many words in French that have no equivalent in English is the verb antiquing.

Put it in an online translation site and it will come out as “hunted” or, more mysteriously, “antique.”

Find it in a whole sentence – We hunt in a flea market – and you get the idea.

A bargain hunter is a regular at flea markets – and I am guilty as charged.

Flea market is something of a generic term.

It may include an upscale antique fair and, at the other extreme, a flea marketa flea market.

At the same lower level is the garage sale (literally, “empty your attic”), which is the equivalent of selling British car boots, but without the soggy field, leaden skies and glum salesmen.

Wandering around a flea market is one of the great pleasures of living or simply visiting France.

Unless you’re a collector, the best approach is to think of this not as bargain hunting with specific items in mind, but as a marketplace-wide sound pot.

This is not what you are looking for.

This is what you may stumble upon.

After all, our word bric-a-brac comes from the French odds and endsmeaning “random”.

They are also educational.

Flea markets offer insight into the rich and layered history of France.

Among the busts and paintings, you’ll encounter the humblest household items – with all the scrapes, dents and knocks inflicted on them over decades of use and misuse.

Books can give you the dry facts of, say, The good times, but flea markets allow you to handle and, if you wish, acquire objects that belonged to ordinary people who lived through such periods.

The range of items is truly amazing, from bronzes to bedpans.

Over the past 30 years of visiting and living in France, I have acquired a collection of approximately two dozen items.

With Julie Andrews, I can truly say, “Those are some of my favorite things.” Each of them tells a story:

These are plates produced during the Revolution, retracing the stages of the execution of Louis XVI – like our coronation mugs but with a macabre twist.

It was a question of displaying them prominently, to make visitors understand in these times of casual denunciation that the owners had lost none of their Republican fervor. A snap (sorry, Louis) at €20.

Photo: Michel Delahaye

Like many old French tools, it’s beautifully forged, ridiculously over-engineered and a joy to handle. €10.

Photo: Michel Delahaye

As indicated by the holes around the belly, it was originally attached to a voluminous skirt which served as a hatpin and would have sat on a society lady’s dressing table. €20.

Photo: Michel Delahaye

When I looked closer, I realized I “got the story”: it was dated August 27, 1715 – six days before the death of the “Sun King” Louis XIV.

Photo: Michel Delahaye

A relatively modern ceramic bust of Napoleon, with a falcon’s nose and combed forward tuft. It was purchased not because I am an admirer of the Emperor, but for its uncanny resemblance to the current occupant of the Elysée Palace. €20.

Photo: Michel Delahaye

Incidentally, don’t overlook what is often dismissed as ephemeral – those stacks of magazines, usually stacked on the floor.

The advertisements – for cars, corsets and remedies for digestive disorders – offer fascinating insight into the pretensions and concerns of the upper classes.

Most striking, however, is the quality of the artwork.

One of the most popular broadsheet weeklies was Illustrationpublished for more than a century from 1843 to 1944.

Long after the invention of photography, it still employed graphic designers who, to cite just one example, were able to recreate, in detail and presumably from memory, a First World War battlefield.

As can be seen from my list, I have set myself a limit of €20 per item.

“Go with an open mind but a tight wallet” is my mantra.

How to make the most of a “flea market”

For more general guidelines, I consulted the most serious regular of flea markets I know – a retired friend who lives in a house that itself could pass for a three story flea marketthis is the number of elements covering each surface.

Pete, as I’ll call him (he’s a shy buyer), spends every weekend this season at ‘flea market ramp’. He is an occasional collector and has done some online trading.

He readily admits that he’s really just a sucker for finely crafted items at absurdly low prices.

If anyone knows how to get the most out of a flea market, it’s Pete. So…

Question 1: How do you haggle?

Pete’s advice is to speak French even if your fluency is limited: “At least know your numbers and memorize the important phrases.

Perhaps the most useful: What is your best price sir/madam? And, adds Pete, always be polite: Aggressive haggling rarely works.

It’s also worth remembering that merchants know what they paid for each item and therefore how much of the profit margin they can afford to cut.

As a reminder, some will stick coded labels of the price paid.

UK traders do the same. One of the standard codes is HONESTLADY, each letter representing a number from 1 to 10. Unfortunately, I never discovered the French equivalent!

Question 2: What is the best time of day to go “flea market”?

Professional antique dealers usually arrive before dawn as vans are unloaded to seize choice items at bargain prices.

Pete is more relaxed and arrives around 9:30.

By then, he specifies, second-hand dealers will have set up their stalls and will have displayed everything, but the potential competition, the tourists, will still be in their guest rooms Have breakfast.

Question 3: Is there a pattern during the day?

Absolutely. From noon, prices can become seriously interesting and traders more open to negotiation.

Some will compose work packages and highlight their reductions with handwritten notices.

So, in theory, the later you leave it, the better the potential deal.

According to Pete, this particularly applies to furniture and bulky items that shopkeepers would rather sell at a discount than bring back in the van.

The downside, of course, is that you may end up with no deal at all because, by the time you make your move, the object of your desire is gone.

In the end, it’s a fine calculation: it’s about determining the right moment – or, as even the French sometimes say, the right timing.

For the record, my own ‘the one that got away’ was a meter high ornate zinc insert for a mansard roof that would have made a wonderfully dramatic mirror frame.

Inexplicably, my wife did not share my disappointment.

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