A French fancy: How to find vintage treasures in France's flea markets

Inject some je ne sais quoi into your home by scouring the brocantes for pieces that will make any interior stand out

Brocante, 18 février 2017 sur la place Garibaldi à Nice, France. (Photo by Jean-Pierre BOUCHARD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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The brocante is something of a cultural phenomenon in France, derived from a French verb that means to deal in second-hand goods. Together with associated marche aux puces, trocantes and other markets, there is a potential treasure trove of vintage homeware and furniture that can be acquired at knock-down prices in France.

This summer, while visiting the Languedoc in southern France, I took up an offer of a day's guided tour of local brocantes to see if I could score a little French style of my own. Katie Jackson and her husband, Ian, moved from England to rural Languedoc in 2013 when they acquired a former monastery, the Domaine des Montarels. The vast property has commanding views of the vineyard-planted landscape near the historic small town of Pezenas and some of the buildings on the site are mentioned in records dating back to the 10th century.

The couple had 10 guest bedrooms and connecting living areas to furnish for their holiday-letting business, plus their own private apartments, so Jackson fast became an expert at spotting bargainous treasures with five-star potential. She now offers to share her wisdom with guests on a tour of local brocantes and flea markets, guiding them to hidden gems while also lending a little French-language expertise to help push price negotiations along.

Former monastery Domaine des Montarels, expertly furnished and accessorised by Katie Jackson. Courtesy Katie Jackson
Former monastery Domaine des Montarels, expertly furnished and accessorised by Katie Jackson. Courtesy Katie Jackson

Pezenas is a pretty and historic town with narrow streets of townhouses dating back to the 16th century. The area hosts a number of upmarket brocantes and antique shops selling a wide variety of goods ranging from bric-a-brac to investment antique pieces. It's a great place to browse, but it's geared towards tourists and dealers, so Jackson takes us to brocantes farther afield in the surrounding areas where markets are more eclectic, prices are better and the experience more hunter-gatherer. "Be prepared to rummage and look beyond what's immediately in front of you," Jackson says, "and you may strike gold."

We find French bed and table linens with hand-worked monogrammed embroidery, and damask tablecloths and napkins. There are weighty linen sheets that could be used as upholstery fabric, be repurposed as curtains (try a little screen or block printing for real signature style), or used to dress a bed in layers with handcrafted lace accents for a little retro romantic style.

Look out for vintage glassware, either cut glasses or grouped bottles for a display. This is my particular weakness. I find six perfect hand-cut Champagne coupes at a car park brocante, bought, I was told, from "une maison bourgeoise" – a comfortable home.

Spot Limoges porcelain, which has been produced in the area around the city of Limoges since the 18th century
Spot Limoges porcelain, which has been produced in the area around the city of Limoges since the 18th century

I carefully cradle the glasses, cocooned in bubble wrap and linen napkins, in my handbag for the entire flight back to the UAE. Anything sipped from glassware this beautiful is immeasurably enhanced and I use them almost daily, even for water.

Elsewhere in the brocante, blue and white dinner sets sit next to tea serving equipment, plates and crockery. We also spot Limoges porcelain, named after the French city in which it has been produced since the 18th century, during which time it superseded Paris as a centre for porcelain production.

For paintings and artwork, look beyond an old grimy mount or broken frame and you'll end up with old prints or paintings that you can reframe in a modern style. Or, look at the frames themselves – where artwork may be damaged beyond repair, you can ditch the painting and use vintage plaster frames for mirrors or alternative artworks. You could consider grouping empty frames together to create a striking gallery wall. Chipped gold-leaf plaster frames can also be brought back to life with a little gold turpentine wax applied with a finger or a soft cloth.

A pair of early 20th-century bird globe lamps on marble plinths for under Dh200
A pair of early 20th-century bird globe lamps on marble plinths for under Dh200

Lamps and lighting are also worth looking at. I find a pair of early 20th-century bird globe lamps on marble plinths for under €50 (Dh205). Chandeliers and other architectural salvage such as carved doors, church pews and stained glass panels can also be sourced at brocantes. Copper cookware, saucepans, pot warmers and other kitchen goods are available in abundance at a fraction of the price of similar, new pieces in retail stores. The metal can be professionally polished if you can't face the task yourself, although a scouring sponge, a little elbow grease and various home-made recipes involving lemon juice, tomato sauce, white vinegar and salt is a recommended cleaning strategy.

France's former connections to Morocco are also on display at the brocantes we visit, as we wander past hand-worked brass and copper, as well as plenty of rugs. And, of course, quality furniture at a low cost is plentiful. Everything from large carved armoires to marble-topped chests of drawers and bed frames are on sale. There are dark wood pieces that can work in contemporary interiors when used as feature pieces in isolation or when coupled with modern furniture. If dark wood is not to your taste, though, a coat of Annie Sloan chalk paint can transform the piece into something more classic-looking. Jackson, for example, repurposed and repainted some marble-topped chests of drawers for the bathrooms of Domaine des Monatarels. It's also possible to create a stylish and robust vanity unit when you add a basin and plumbed taps to such pieces.

An Art Nouveau style oil painting bought for €20
An Art Nouveau style oil painting bought for €20

Once you're suitably stocked up with newly purchased old wares, it's time to find a way to take them home. It may be possible to pack them with your luggage or send smaller pieces by post, but for everything else, a more formal shipping arrangement will be required, and it will cost you. But while a French upholstered bed frame can be bought for €30, a similar bed in the UAE is likely to cost more than Dh10,000 when bought new. So in the long run, you'll still be saving money.

For homes in the Emirates, it's more about accents and injecting a little French style, rather than trying to recreate the entire interior of a 14th-century grand chateau within your apartment or villa walls. Not only do brocante finds offer something unique and beautiful for your home, with a side of history or interesting provenance, but they also provide you with a story of adventure and discovery to take home, too.

Tips for taking on a French flea market

This vintage swing seat was bought by Katie Jackson for just €200. Courtesy Katie Jackson
This vintage swing seat was bought by Katie Jackson for just €200. Courtesy Katie Jackson

1. Go early and go with an open mind. You need imagination to see the potential of a grubby copper fish pan that could find a new life as a polished planter for succulents.

2. All things are negotiable. Haggle and don’t be shy. You won’t get a deal unless you ask for one. Jackson emphasises that it’s important to bargain hard, especially if you’re making several purchases from a single venue. But also remain polite and try not to appear eager.

3. If your French-language skills are lacking, a smile and a notepad and pen to discuss pricing may help to seal the deal (numbers are universal, and so is pointing).

4. Advances in artificial intelligence mean Google Translate has come a long way in recent years, offering light-speed English-to-French and French-to-English translations. Invest in a local sim and data package and you may oil the wheels of commerce more rapidly than with a paperback French dictionary.

5. Be prepared to take cash to outdoor markets and carry it safely. Brocantes in fixed indoor locations will generally be in a position to process credit cards, but for seasonal pop-ups that won’t always be the case.

6. If you’re looking at curtains or larger pieces of furniture, take home measurements and a tape measure with you to the brocante. Guessing is rarely ever accurate and if it doesn’t fit, it’s not a bargain.

7. Factor shipping or excess baggage costs into your purchase. Regular postage for smaller items is probably the most cost-efficient – check customs requirements for the UAE, but generally, second-hand goods don’t attract taxes at the same rates, if at all. Fixed-venue brocantes and dealers may be able to advise you on companies for shipping larger or several items.

Where to go

Inside a brocante in Pezenas
Inside a brocante in Pezenas

Three brocantes we visited in Pezenas were:

La Trocante Narbonne
Address: 14 Avenue du Champ de Mars, 11100 Narbonne, France
Phone: +33 4 68 41 84 89

Brocant du Tarueau 
Address: 21 Avenue Jean Focault, 34300 Béziers
Phone: +33 4 67 01 21 21

Emmaus Servian
Address: Lieu Dit la Bassouille RN 113, 34290 Servian
Telephone: 04 67 39 17 67

There is also a brocante puce every Saturday and Sunday in Bezier on the Route de Pezenas.

To learn more about Katie Jackson's guided tours, visit: www.domaine-desmontarels.com

For more on regional summertime brocantes, visit: www.brocabrac.frwww.infobrocantes.com and www.vide-greniers.org