January 16, 2016
When we dream of visiting Paris, we conjure images of well-balanced Bordeaux wines and flaky croissants, twilight strolls along the Seine, Eiffel Tower views, afternoons spent in cozy neighborhood bistros–and plenty of time to wander the city’s fabulous flea markets. Which is why when we heard that antiques expert Barbara Milo Ohrbach, the author of such best-selling books as The Scented Room and Antiques at Home, was planning a trip to Paris’s marches aux puces to research her new book, A Passion for Antiques, we tossed our manners to the wind and begged to tag along. Graciously, Barbara agreed to give us an insider’s look at her favorite Parisian flea markers.
Since most of the markets take place on the weekend, we flew out of New York City on Thursday night and arrived in Paris early Friday morning. This gave us a day to shake off any lingering jet lag, have lunch at a brasserie, and explore Paris on foot. To make the most of our time at the flea markets, Barbara recommended we visit the Puces de Vanves and Marche du Livre Ancien on Saturday. Sunday morning, we made a quick stop at Marche d’Aligre before moving on to the city’s largest market, the Puces de Saint-Ouen (also known as Clignancourt), for the balance of the day.
Before leaving home, we’d each packed a collapsible duffel bag in our luggage so that we’d have plenty of room to stow any portable antiques and collectibles we picked up at the markets. (If you’re searching for something large, established shipping companies, like Camard, have offices at most major markets.) Though a few dealers accept credit cards, most prefer cash. Objects more than 100 years old are not taxed, so it’s wise to request a receipt with a date and description to clear customs. And if you haven’t spoken French since high school, no worries: Nearly every taxi driver, waiter, and antiques dealer we met was friendly, helpful, and spoke some English.
A good night’s sleep on Friday assured that we’d arrive at the Puces de Vanves by eight o’clock Saturday morning–when the vendors at this outdoor market start unloading their trucks and before the crush of midmorning crowds make browsing challenging. Tables chock-full of oil paintings, Bakelite jewelry, transferware, Victoriana, vintage furniture, and collectibles dating from the 18th century to today line either side of the walkways. Feel free to ask for a better price if something catches your eye; if the dealer knows little English, communicate with him or her by typing your offer on a calculator.
Our next stop was the antique book mart, the Marche du Livre Ancien. Situated under a cast-iron-and-wood pavilion within walking distance of Vanves, this market features 60 or so dealers with neat displays of rare books, first editions, leather-bound volumes, children’s classics, and vintage maps. We found a palm-size 1930 French prayer book with an embossed cover and marbled end papers for $5. Before you leave, head across the street to Max Poilane, a bakery famous for its dreamy palmiers, miniature pound cakes, and crusty rolls.
We skipped Sunday breakfast and chose instead to make a petit dejeuner of clementines and flaky pastries as we marveled at the white asparagus, frilly butter lettuces, raw-milk cheeses, and tall stacks of colorful cut flowers at the atmospheric Marche d’Aligre, a daily food market that hosts a 20-odd-dealer tag sale on Sundays. After perusing the collectibles–LPs, china, costume jewelry, silver (we found a dozen 1940s fruit forks for $20)–order a cafe creme at Cafe Tabac, a bistro across from the flower vendors, before heading to the Puces de Saint-Ouen.
A warren of alleyways and stalls large enough to house 12 markets and some 2,000 vendors, the Puces de Saint-Ouen, or Clignancourt, was an all-day affair. Ar Barbara’s favorite market here, Marche Paul Bert, we saw everything from exceptional European case goods and Louis XV tables to wire fish traps and cast-iron cake molds from Alsace. After Paul Bert, we explored the covered Marche Serpette, which deals mostly in upscale furniture and decorative objects, and Marche Biron, a two-aisle bazaar loaded with porcelain, Art Nouveau lighting, fine silver and jewelry, and rare antiques. Later, we tackled Marche Vernaison, a 300-stand walk-through that carries small collectibles, linens, and ephemera. We found some of our best bargains here, including a c. 1870 Venetian frame with gold leaf and mirrored inlays for $45, evocative 1920s French postcards for $1 each, a pair of Victorian linen pillow shams for $30, and a rare 1790 cotton batiste shawl with embroidery for $35-proving once again that patient antiquers nee d never go home empty-handed.