Monday, May 25, 2009

Where to Catch Fleas

Chic Parisian style-setters love treasure hunting at the city’s centuries-old flea markets

I go to Paris as often as possible, and always in late May-early June, when summer is tentative and fresh. On weekends, unless I’m staying with my friends William and Jean-Louis at their chateau near Chantilly, I head to the flea markets. Yes, the exchange rate is gruesome, and shipping antiques is a thing of the past, but prints, table décor, linens, porcelain, old photos, paintings, and decorative treasures can always be squeezed among your underwear in your luggage.

Paris flea markets are crackling with energy at 7am on Saturday and Sunday mornings and this is the time to catch rare treasures.

I start antiquing at Porte de Vanves, a friendly and lively weekend outdoor flea market on the southern periphery of the city.

Among a jumble of impromptu stalls cluttered with crystal decanters, may be framed etchings, rickety Thonet chairs, artists’ easels, gilded ceramic bowls, rare art books, African carved masks, terra cotta bowls, delicate porcelain cups, and dubious groupings of oxidized hardware and murky faux-Rembrandt paintings. At the Porte de Vanves market, prices are very gentle.

The motley but promising merchandise at Porte de Vanves arrives Saturday morning at sunrise from all over Europe. This is an informal market, and antiques and vintage objects are “in their juice”, a French expression of admiration which means they have not been restored, sorted, cleaned, edited or repaired. They arrive straight from an estate sale or a small-town antiques fair. It’s all offered at the lowest possible prices with friendly haggling expected.

The art of the Paris flea market is to know specifically what you love - art books, white ironstone, watercolors, old Hermes handbags, Quimper ware, or fine etchings, perhaps. Experienced flea marketers can glance over a table of junk and find the fine silver boxes and astrolabes they collect.

When you know what you seriously desire, you can zero in on the perfect ceramics, candlesticks, dusty old volumes and prints, and monogrammed bed linens, an art school charcoal nude. Polite bargaining obtains the right price. The object of desire is wrapped in old newspaper, and you can head off in search of more loot and small luxuries.

Parisian connoisseurs, Belgian artists, and American designers come to Vanves summer and winter, quickly by-passing tables piled with old cameras, bundles of dusty drapery fabrics, torn library books, broken shop fixtures, beyond-repair kitchen utensils, and mediocre Chinese porcelains.

Beneath the sycamore trees, you’re likely to bump into French film directors and actors, Miu Miu-wearing Japanese teenagers, pipe-smoking German professors, French students, London art dealers, famous Russian set designers, San Francisco couturiers, and a colorful band of rich and impecunious and passionate collectors who may elbow others as they dig for treasures. It’s wise to carry a light bag, so that hands can be free to scavenge.

Antiques dealers also roam this flea market, and once they’ve purchased tables, chairs or chandeliers, they’ll polish them up, fix the wonky leg or chipped seat. Their re-sale price will be considerably higher.

After two or three hours at Vanves, it’s a quick Metro or taxi trip to the Puces de St. Ouen at Porte de Clignancourt on Paris’s northern periphery. This is the classic, centuries-old flea market and one of the largest in the world with around 3.000 permanent stalls.

The chic stalls, and the ones that attract discerning New York interior designers and artful dealers from San Francisco are those at the Marche Paul-Bert and Marche Serpette (with 130 dealers). These covered and open-air stalls offer superbly-edited furniture in all styles, Thirties mirrors jostle with rattan chairs, vintage crocodile luggage, delicate watercolors, Art Deco glass, massive armoires, old radios, Scandinavian and Belgian garden furniture, fountain pens, and old terra cotta flower pots. Stalls are stacked with Aubusson tapestries, charming old postcards from the turn of the century, Baccarat crystal, Sevres porcelains, and the pseudo Jean-Michel Frank consoles and plaster lamps and chairs that are all the rage.

Stalls are mostly permanent, and are numbered (not named) and most merchandise at Serpette and Paul-Bert markets is hardly ‘flea’. For some dealers, this is their starting point before setting up shop on the much pricier rue de Seine or rue Jacob. I love this enclave and from years of experimenting, seldom broach other markets (except sometimes when I’m frugal, I go to Jules-Valles.) It’s very congenial, and sometimes I’m finished by lunchtime, and other days (especially in spring) I linger on until perhaps 4 or 5 pm, chatting to the dealers, catching up.

On sunny days, dealers pile their tables and chairs and bronze lanterns and wine glasses along pathways. It’s a friendly free-for-all where wrought iron gates and delicate Italian mirrors stand cheek-by-jowl with Dutch portraits of uncertain ancestry, trays of old soup spoons, vinyl records, fusty fabrics, and a king’s ransom of gilded bibelots and gew-gaws.

At lunchtime, dealers bring out their homemade salads and couscous, wine and sandwiches, and gather for a communal meal, to gossip and commiserate, play cards. Serious collectors wander at will and pick through shelves of books and drawers full of bent silver.

Through the labyrinth of stalls, the collector walks in a pleasant haze. It’s a visual feast of ormolu and silver gilt, stone columns, monumental vases, mercury glass, faience, church pews, telescopes, parasols, and haute-couture costume jewelry.

Fatigued, dazzled, and finally happy with a bag full of small finds, the enthusiast heads back to Paris.

Treasures and junk jostle at the outdoor Marche Paul-Bert at the Marche aux Puces at Clignancourt. Among the day’s offerings may be garden furniture, plaster busts, handcarved armoires, Provencal pottery, crystal, lace, linens, vintage photography, Limoges plates, slate tables, Sevres urns and Swedish painted chests.

All photographs by DIANE DORRANS SAEKS


It is fast and adventurous to take the Metro to these flea markets. A taxi is speedy and direct. Note that the merchandise, dealers, and quality change dramatically from day to day and from season to season at all flea markets. One day at the Porte de Vanves or Clignancourt can be brilliant, with one stall after another stacked with superb and sparkling objets d’art and quality furniture. The following day can be dull and uninspiring, with churlish dealers, closed stalls, junky offerings, and grabby and crabby collectors.
Head out early, with optimism and a goal. Meet friends. Chat to the dealers, ask about their wares, and in the process learn to love the French heritage, decorative arts, and Gallic culture. Stop for coffee or lunch at one of the cafes and bakeries near the flea markets. A salade Nicoise, a croque-monsieur, an apple tart and a glass of Evian taste superb when you’ve been wandering through flea markets since dawn!

Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen at Porte de Clignancourt
At this oldest and greatest of the classic Parisian flea markets you’re likely to see Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, New York designer Vicente Wolf, and top San Francisco interior designers like Steven Volpe, Stephen Shubel, Candra Scott and Richard Anderson, Myra Hoefer, Kendall Wilkinson and Vaughan Woodson searching and buying. Most of the stalls are permanent and the goods at some markets are of the highest quality.

Style pilgrims head straight to the rue des Rosiers and the Marche Paul-Bert ( 96 rue des Rosiers) and Marche Serpette (110 rue des Rosiers) and if they have time walk to the serpentine Marche Vernaison (99 rue des Rosiers).

Style tip: start with a café crème at 20, rue Paul Bert, at the bar of the Paul-Bert café (shoulder to should with the dealers). Fortified, walk past the side-walk dealers to La Petite Maison, half a block along rue Paul-Bert. It’s unsigned, and hidden behind a hedge. Stephane Olivier offers a cabinet of curiosities of statuary, natural history, oddities, the rare and the poetic. Don’t miss.

Every season, and every day is different at these markets, and collectors expect surprises. I’ve been there in the heat of summer, with no-one else around. I’ve wandered around in the snow—magical. I like the chic outdoor stalls along the inner perimeter, where women dealers editor and style tiny booths and stalls with monochromatic rigor.
Among the best stalls at Paul-Bert and Serpette are long-term dealers selling Swedish chests, the finest vintage jewelry, antique Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and vintage Hermes scarves , Venetian mirrors, provincial kitchenware, delicate watercolors, Provencal ceramics, fine crystal, Art Deco dressing tables, cane chairs, cameos, rare posters, turn-of-the-century postcards, dingy-but-charming oil paintings, vintage couture dresses and jewelry, and venerable white embroidered table linens. When you discover something you love, buy it on the spot. It won’t be there later.

Lunch and watch the goings-on at the Paul-Bert café. The cuisine is serviceable, including hearty French pot au feu, seasonal salads, and OK selections of wine.

Open Saturday, Sunday, Monday 8am-7pm. Insider tip: if you are a dealer or decorator or supremely confident and serious about collecting, you can venture to Clignancourt on Friday morning, dealers’ day. Be very low-key, ask prices only, and you may find treasures before they’re picked over.
Avenue J-H. Fabre and Avenue Michelet, and rue des Rosiers, St-Ouen.
Metro: Porte de Clignancourt.

Marche aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves
One of the oldest street markets, with over 200 vendors, This is a relaxing neighborhood in which to spend hours poking through antiques you can probably afford. Old chairs, 18th-century etchings, embroidered textiles, paintings, Hermes belts, silver-gilt mirrors, and kitsch all tumble from the backs of dealers’ trucks and vans from as far away as Rome and Brussels. Some (most!) of the furniture,oil portraits, cabinets, garden chairs, decanters, vases and other household goods are probably not as old as the dealers claim. Everything, in dealer parlance, is always “late 18th-century” but just how many chairs and tables and mirrors could Louis XVI and friends have sat on? Be very sceptical about “documented’ dates, and judge the style, the rarity. Bargain in a friendly manner--this is a very low-key place and prices are extremely fair. Dealers want to sell. Insider tip: Sunday is often best, because on Saturdays, dealers have been out in the countryside picking over estate sales, chateau attics and fairs.

Open Saturday and Sunday, and Monday 7am-1pm.
Porte de Vanves, Porte Didot, 14th arrondissment.
Avenue Georges Labenestre and rue Marc Sangnier.
Metro: Porte de Vanves.

Marche aux Puces de la Place d’Aligre
This is a small, impromptu, grab-bag neighborhood flea market adjacent to an outdoor vegetable market. Dealers set out odds and ends of varying quality and odd charm. Only for true flea market aficionados looking for unedited, vintage-in-the-raw. Go early in the morning to find bric-a-brac, cooking utensils, odd lots of furniture, books, vintage clothing, textiles, rugs--depending on the day and the season. After pocketing a lamp or glassware for pennies, head (on Sundays) to the rest of the marketplace, which is like an African souk, scented with coriander and mint. Taste Portuguese ham, wines, breads, and Spanish products. Closes 1pm.

Place d’Aligre, 112th arrondissement.
Metro: Ledru-Rollin or Gare de Lyon.


Grant K. Gibson said...

Your photos are DIVINE!
I love both of the photos of the mirrors and how we can see you taking the photo. PERFECT!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Grant--

The images capture a moment. Placement, style, collections and quality at the Paris flea markets are always in flux. There are always antique mirrors--and there I am.
I've been at the Paris flea markets in the snow, when the weather is so cold it seems to freeze your brain. I love them, too, on hot summer afternoons when dealers are snoozing on the sofas, their dogs are lying around (dog days), and no-one is around. It's Paul-Bert and Serpette I love the most, for their style, their tasty dealers, and a certain sense of quality and directions and trends in taste.

Brillante Interiors said...

I had to read the post twice so much I loved it...I have been to those places several times but next time it will be a different experience thanks to you. I am now looking forward to a post on Venice, since I have already seen beautiful images of you there. I am so glad to have found this blog. Magnifico!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Thank you!

The key is to go directly to Marche Paul-Bert and Marche Serpette.
Sometimes, with a dealer or decorator friend I might tag along as they scope out Marche Vernaison or Mache Jules-Valles, but I've never found anything there.
I do traipse upstairs at Marche Dauphine to find vintage photography and prints--which are easy to transport home.
Print out my tips and save for your next time in Paris.
For me these Paris flea markets are an ongoing exploration, research--and adventure.
Happy trails!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Speaking of Venice--watch for a surprise post next week, with more to follow on hotels, excursions, and other treats.
I was recently described by a Venetian friend as 'a best friend of Venice' which is a fabulous compliment. I do love Venice and never tire of it. T

Brillante Interiors said...

Thanks for your further advice on Paris.
Venezia is magic and surreal at times and I can't wait to be there again in September for La Biennale(when I'll be at my house not far away).

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Watch for new posts on Venice, the Veneto and travel this week.

I will be in Paris over the summer and will post more news and tips on flea markets.

Happy days, DIANE