I don’t know if you guys remember but you know how I hate little crappy brocante, tchotchke, bric-a-brac, knickknack give a dog a bone type of flea markets? Well, I do. I don’t like to search for “junk.” Let me tell you, there is a difference between junk and accessories. My favorite part of decorating a house is the end when you start accessorizing. Accessorizing takes time and energy and just the right eye. My mother, the master of vignettes, and I find this the most enjoyable part of decorating a home.
So, armed with some birthday money, off to the fleamarket I went. Living in Paris with limited square footage, limited surface space and a limited budget for that matter, I need to be very choosy. My caregivers cost a fortune and I cannot just buy every little thing my heart desires which fucking sucks. However, I decided today that I would treat it as a challenge. I had €200 to spend and I wasn’t leaving the fleamarket until every last euro was gone. Mission accomplished.
Now, let me state for the record, I know a thing or two about antiques and negotiating/bargaining. I’ve been doing this my entire life. When I was about five years old, my grandmother and her friends had a little fun bored housewives antique store called The Flea. They called themselves the fleas. I have been “in training” since then. There is definitely an art to flea marketing. Here are some rules…
Make a commitment, wake up early and get to the fleamarket at the crack of dawn.
Have cash ready. Bigger, more professional flea markets will accept checks and credit cards but usually cash is king. Use small bills because dealers always pretend like they don’t have change.
Be polite, but don’t act too interested.
Nonchalantly, look the piece over. Open it up, turn it over, inspect for damages, look for stamps to show provenance… Demurely make it look like you know what you’re doing.
When you ask the dealer the price of an item, counter offer with exactly half of that and negotiate from there. Be willing to walk away (but I always come back later).
Look poor. Don’t go to a fleamarket with your Hermès bracelet or your big fat diamond wedding ring. I don’t even like to go to a fleamarket with my pretty boy husband because he just looks rich. It’s so annoying and just his presence costs me money. Overall, it’s better if it’s just me in my wheelchair with my caregiver. We probably save 20%. Oh my God, how awful of me… But it’s true. Today I wore my breathing machine strapped to a face so I looked extra pathetic. Don’t judge, I also get stared at 90% of the time like I am the elephant man, so a little discount is fair game.
Take photos of everything. You can use them later for inspiration and at the end of your fleamarket day you can look back through your camera roll and see if there’s anything you just can’t live without and then you can go back and bargain your little heart out. The end of the day is when you get your best deals.
Dress in layers, take a big insulated thermos of hot chai with vanilla soy milk, take a hat and sunglasses and go tinkle before you leave because the last thing you want is to be searching for a clean restroom at a goddamn fleamarket and by the way that doesn’t exist. Always take a rolling cart… The kind the little old French ladies use for groceries… Who cares if you look like a dork. You need to be hands-free and this way you can buy more stuff. I always take a little bubble wrap and/or newspaper for the delicate items. Dealers usually never have tissue or bags so it’s best if you prepare yourself because you don’t want your new treasure to break. Don’t stop for food… You don’t have time for this. Grab a croissant and eat as you walk, fatso.
Have a general idea of what you are looking for. Today I knew I wanted little seaside landscape paintings because I’m trying to curate a whole collection for a specific wall in my apartment. Be ready to think outside of the box because nothing’s going to be perfect. Keep your eyes open because you never know what will inspire you. Try to draw on everything you’ve ever been inspired by… Every house that you’ve loved, every shelter magazine editorial that gave you goosebumps, every Pinterest board that you have pinned, every museum and art collection that you have loved etc. Have a color scheme in mind but also be willing to accept a pop of color.
Don’t be a slave to size. Sometimes something completely over scale is awesome. Sometimes something small but truly unique is awesome as well. Just don’t have too much small crap or too much big crap. You need to have a mixture.
Buy what you love and you will always find a home for it. Ignore your detractors. For example, my husband cannot and will not ever see the value of a little chinoiserie black lacquered box and I couldn’t care less. March on with confidence.
Don’t not buy something just because it has a little flaw. Flaws make pieces unique.
I always like to keep mental file box when I’m going through a fleamarket. One dealer may have 5 dessert plates in that blue and white pattern that you love and another dealer may have three of the same. Take photos and remember what’s what and where it is so you can go back later to put your collection together. For some reason, I can’t remember my friend’s birthday (sorry, Susie) but my God, I sure can remember which booth I saw that provençal polychrome vase. It’s both a blessing and a curse. :-)
Don’t forget to enjoy the local flavor. I love fleamarket people. I truly do. I love the crabby gentleman dealers with four-day scruff, a handrolled cigarette hanging out of their mouths while they speak with a slight whiff of the previous evening’s red wine bing. I love the older French women dealers who reluctantly sell their hand dyed linens as if they’re giving up their two-day-old baby girl. I love the coffee ladies who walk up and down the aisles, singing and selling their home made coffee for one euro. I love the straight out of central casting Frenchman playing the piano or accordion to the tune of La Vie en Rose. I also love the “ladies who lunch” who slum it in the 14th arrondissement fleamarket and return to their hoity-toity 16th arrondissement apartment with all of their hard bargained treasures. Most of all, I love the dogs of the fleamarkets especially my favorite, Teckel à poil dur.
So, with all of that being said let’s take a look at the spoils of my day.
My first purchase was this little gold hand. The dealer said it was used as a monogramming stamp with wax. Originally €25. Sold to me for €15. I thought it would be nice on top of a little stack of books or on my little sidetable next to my picture frames.
Next up, a typical blue-and-white double happiness Chinese ginger vase/jar. I have literally had hundreds of these in my life. Remember when I told you my secret source for these in Los Angeles? I know their value, I know where they’re from and I know that there are literally billions of them in the world. These are not rare but apparently in freaking Paris they are. I have never seen one in France for under €150. I have never paid over $50 for one in ‘merica and for some reason I refuse to pay more than €50 in France… So, I don’t have one. This dealer today wanted €200 for it. I rudely offered €40. She proceeded to tell me that they were “antique and rare” and I proceeded to want to punch her in the face for lying… To a girl in a wheelchair for God sake! :-) I had to walk away from this booth because it was going to get ugly. (I still want the jar though but, on principle, I will wait until I find one for €50.)
Next up I found a little stand that was selling crappy little watercolors. If you know what you’re doing and you have a good eye, these watercolors can be great little finds. I never care if these little painting are framed or unframed. Original price €100 each. Sold to me for €60 for two. Congratulations accepted. I’m going to start a collection of these for a certain wall in my apartment but until I have the whole grouping, I decided to put one of the paintings behind all of my perfume bottles and the other one on my bedside table behind my shrine to Gracie.
I absolutely loved this heavy duty silver tray. I thought it would be perfect for my tea parties with my blue-and-white Monet tea set. However, it was €150 so I had to walk away. Remember, my whole budget today was only €200 but I will probably forever think about this tray and wish I had bought it for the rest of my life.
Next up I saw this fantastic gilded sunburst. The dealer actually looked like she lived inside of her van so I thought I was going to get a good price for it but low and behold she said it was €350. WTF! I offered her €50. She was not amused.
At the last booth on the first aisle, I spied something that I thought would be perfect on my living room fireplace mantel. Something about it reminded me of Picasso and his bull paintings and my summers in Mallorca, Spain with my friend, Diandra. I knew I had to have it. It was unusual, unique and a good size. The dealer wanted €150. Ugh. I had to walk away but I knew I would be back at the end if I had any money left. Guess what? It’s mine. I waited until I had seen every other booth and then I decided that yes, I still wanted that Picasso bull. Luckily, it was still there and I knew I needed to do some hard bargaining. As usual, I rudely offered €50 yet was denied. I put on my puppy face and the dealer came down to €120. Not good enough yet… I gave him a look of, “but I’m just a poor girl in a wheelchair.” He came down to €100. I reminded him that ALS was terminal and he came down to €80. Sold! I really think this ALS is going to start to work for me. :-)
We decided to take a hard left and go to the junkier section of the fleamarket. This is the section where all of the dealers look like they stole everything out of their aunt’s apartment. It’s rare that you find anything good in this section but I spied with my little eye something super fantastic… This soldier’s helmet with red plume. I just loved it. My husband just rolled his eyes. I thought it would be perfect on my other fireplace mantel in the dining room. The dealer wanted €50. I knew that was a good price but being the bitch that I am, I offered €25. My luck had run out at this point and his lowest offer was €40. I accepted and I am now the proud owner of a worthless helmet according to my husband. I think it looks great and he can suck it.
My last purchase was a feel-good purchase. My grandmother always had an identical black lacquered chinoiserie box on her coffee table for as long as I can remember. Here’s the best part… It was only €20! I didn’t even haggle because that would just be rude. It’s mine now and I could not be happier. See, it just goes to show you that a little can go a long way. Not everything has to be expensive to be magnificent!
There are a few pieces that I was sad that I had to leave behind… A gilded mirror that was €450. A chic little set of black handle oyster knives. An oversized mortar (missing the pestle) that I thought would look great with a little plant but it was €80. The chic 1930s gold flower sconces that were too expensive and another beautiful black lacquered chinoiserie box that was €120 and a few other things. Boo-hoo. Take a look…
What a wonderful day! These flea markets are one of the reasons why I love living in France. Decorating a home is all about the curating and juxtaposition. Even if you are on a strict budget, it is not impossible to have a chic little apartment. Keep your eyes open, your mind out of the box, and create a “whole look” that has a lot of style without breaking the bank. It’s okay to splurge on the important pieces like a mirror, a sofa, a rug, a painting, or a table etc. but it is also so easy to give your apartment real character with all of the accessories that you had to work hard for through a little leg work, a lot of bargaining and some elbow grease. Deal with it, it’s called life.
*Something you don’t know about me? I did this today also…
My boring balcony before...
My boring balcony in process...