We’ve never met an antique we didn’t love and we’re firm believers that the hunt is just as fun and exhilarating as the catch. After all, when else can you negotiate with a smile, flirt like crazy and then sip a glass of champagne to celebrate your negotiating prowess? Keep reading for tips on how to buy antiques in France:
Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro who greets the vendors with a kiss on each cheek (make sure that’s Paris and not Provence, where three kisses is the norm), here are some practical tips to make your buying experience as smooth and professional as can be.
First, let’s nail down some terminology that we like to throw around. Smalls means exactly what it sounds like: smaller items that may or may not fit in a suitcase or carry-on. Silverware, china, small paintings and decorative items fit into this category.
Everything else are bigs: chairs, mantels, tables, buffets, big train station clocks, armoires and crackled painting of long-gone aristocrats. Un lot is a large mess of inventory from a single source and sometimes taking the moth-eaten armchair to get the Louis XV buffet is worth it. You’ll pay one price for everything in the lot and sometimes you just have to take the plunge.
Cash is king: If you’re shopping for smalls, cash is an absolute necessity. Not only does it give you greater bargaining power, but many vendors who sell smalls just aren’t set up for credit cards. So, we always bring a wad of small demoninations (French ATMs are so considerate and actually ask you how you’d like your bills)
Be prepared to bargain but don’t push the point: Most the vendors you’ll deal with do this for a living – and it’s not easy. Go in prepared to banter and bargain to the best of your ability, but we draw the line at being obnoxious. These guys are pros and they’ve seen hundreds of people just like us come through. We prefer to let it happen naturally – and time after time, we come away happy. Chances are, the vendor will not stray too terribly far from his price, but he’ll throw some extras your way that will make up for it.
And, if you have a bottom line, stick to it. We’ve politely walked away many times, only to have the vendor come after us to renegotiate. Win win for everyone.
A smile goes a long way: Just have fun! We love talking to the vendors, asking questions about their pieces and letting them be the experts. Most of them are. We love hearing the stories that come with each and every item (“oui, Madame, this is from a small chateau that was in one family for four generations. The great-aunt finally had to sell…”) The tales of life – good and bad – give these buffets, armoires, mirrors and chairs history and character. And we’ve found a little smiling and friendly banter can go a long way.
Know your stuff: Some dealers, especially in Paris, are world-class experts on their merchandise and that can be a little intimidating. So, a little crash course on which Louis is which and what Napoleon had to do with buffets can’t hurt (ooh, that’s an idea for a blog! Stay tuned.)
Ask questions: most dealers, especially in Paris, speak English so ask questions – even if it’s in sign language. You want to know how old the piece is and what the provenance is (i.e: where it’s from and what the story is). Sometimes the appearance can give you a hint: that gorgeous gray/green/blue paint is a pretty good indicator that the piece hails from the South. And, it’s not unusual to find an antique that’s been altered from its original state. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the tweaks may have happened more than 100 years ago.
The more you buy….the lower the price goes. We find most vendors are pretty fair and will reward you by lowering the overall price if you add more merchandise.
Dress the part: here’s some advice: leave the baubles at home along with the designer bags. Dress down and according to the weather. There’s nothing worse than having to be on top of your game when you’re freezing and wet. So, we pack toasty coats, appropriate footware (that means waterproof!), gloves, hats and scarves (and if it’s summer, we make sure we’re cool as cucumbers and armed with plenty of water.) And don’t forget some little energy-lifting snacks to tuck in your bag.
Get there early: markets and fairs start setting up at the crack of dawn. Beat the competition and plan on being there early. We love buying precious pieces as they’re being unloaded off the truck.
Come prepared: there’s nothing more frustrating than finding the dining table of your dreams…and having no clue if it will fit in the dining room. Come armed with a tape measure, reduced scale plans or dimensions of your rooms and a pad and pen for your notes. Have at least a vague idea of what you’re looking for but be open to spontaneity. We’re also compulsive picture takers and snap multiple shots of pieces we like. Believe us, after a day of chatting with 200 vendors and seeing hundreds of antiques everything blurs together by the time you’re sitting down to dinner.
Learn the language: do a little homework and learn your basic furniture terms like:
buffet a deux corps: a two-tiered buffet whose top is shallower than the bottom. The top will have doors made of wood or glass.
commode: a low chest of drawers with shorter legs usually placed against a wall.
enfilade: a long buffet with connecting cabinets.
gueridon: a small round table that was used for candles. We love them as drinks tables!
Have fun: we love buying! There’s a wonderful feeling of camaraderie that fills the air at fairs and markets and we love how the most important things are given priority: lunch and wine! We always end our buying trips in a state of being “absoluement crevee” (exhausted beyond belief) but exhilarated and full of funny stories. Along the way, we’ve filled a container to bring back to Huff Harrington Home – and we’ve made dozens of new friends whom we’ll gladly greet the next time.
Come with us! We still have a couple spots left on our Paris Buying Trips which starts in Paris on March 12th. We’d love to have you – and you may end up finding the treasure of your dreams and having the experience of a lifetime.