Antiquing in France
All over France, you’ll find barns, small shops, fairs and village sales full of antiques
—from old oak farm tables to church pews and farm tools to linen.
This is antique shopping, French-style, and the challenge is to know what to look at first.
Ask the Experts
Investing in a statement antique piece requires expert assurance, which is why I’m in Saint Omer—at Naninck and Lengaigne, an influential family-run antique dealer on Rue François Ringot, who specializes in 12th, 13th and 14th-century antiques. It’s run by Philippe and his son Jean-Luc Lengaigne. The ground floor of the shop consists of a number of rooms showcasing not only their impressive collection of antique furniture but also silverware, ceramics, tapestries and oils on canvas. On another floor, through some dark and dusty rooms and behind a large metal door on wheels is a hidden staircase leading to a restoration workshop where an upholsterer painstakingly restores a 14th-century chair, respecting traditional methods. Elsewhere in the massive building are rooms filled with rolls of period fabric, another with embellishments and accessories to tszuj up drapes and upholstery.
Walking from room to room Mr. Lengaigne (Snr.) shares antiquing secrets. “Mirrors and glassware in French markets offer great value,” he says. “But avoid buying silver as it’s more expensive in France. Also, Wedgwood is a tourist trap: it’s out of fashion and overpriced. In France, drinking glasses would only set you back €10 apiece. If you are buying glass for investment purposes, look for pre-war Lalique items, as this means they have been designed and overseen by René Lalique himself.”
Spotting the Next Big Thing
Mr. Lengaigne continues, suggesting that when buying antique jewelry, I should stick with big name jewelry designers and, should my budget allow, I should go for signed pieces by major designers like Cartier, Tiffany or Van Cleef & Arpels.
“Rather than being tempted by what’s popular now, try to spot the next big thing; natural pearls went up dramatically a few years ago, now it’s Mediterranean coral’s turn.”
“You need to time your visit to an antique market—this is vital. If you’re on the lookout for something like silver or china, don’t buy from the specialist stall as they’ll be more expensive; and buy off-peak to get a better deal—lights, lamps, fireguards in the summer and garden furniture in the winter. But for real bargains, it pays to head to the French coast, hunting out the Brocante’s and Vide-Grenier’s which is a cross between a community garage sale and a flea market.”
Choose the Things You’ll Love
“Invest only in things you like and are happy to have in your home for years to come,” Mr. Lengaigne suggests. “Look for small, useful pieces with provenance such as Georgian and Regency desks—original untouched furniture that hasn’t been restored. Armoires are a good bet too. Many are given a shabby chic treatment where they are stripped back and whitewashed, but stronger, primary colors are now more fashionable, as is Art Deco. You can find some lovely clocks and tea sets and mid-century modern furniture too as their values are rising—but it has to be the real thing.”
Haggling with grace
Meandering through an Emmaus (a charitable movement represented across France) I found myself in a veritable treasure trove of recycled second-hand goods—furniture, bric-a-brac, long playing records, books and clothes, wedding dresses, cookers, fridges, electrical goods, French antiques and bicycles. I even spotted a pair of false teeth.
My brother once told me that buying antiques is all about what is available and what is accessible and outsmarting the seller. Should you have your eye on something special, remain blasé, and don’t look at the price. First, try to figure it out in your mind and think of a figure that you’d be prepared to pay. For instance, if it turned out to cost €100 you’d buy it. If it were €150, you’d wait until payday. If it’s €300, you’ll walk away. Keep your poker face on, then, ask for their best price before you reveal your hand. To seal the deal get the seller to reduce the price before you start negotiations. Above all, have a laugh—If you can haggle with grace, you can halve the price.
Recycling at its best
I recall my brother’s words of advice at Antiquities Falik in Pont-de-Briques (near Boulogne). I was ogling a door-sized mirror, circa 1910, which has an Edwardian look and a Rococo top to it. Falik’s house a variety of goods and do the flea-market “Brocante” thing, yet keep to current industrial trends in everything from furniture to chandeliers (like the immense Murano chandelier with touches of green, pink and yellow on display). But the mirror still held my attention—with its beveled glass edges and a few speckled spots, which is good as it shows it’s an original. The most important part of the mirror is where you see your face; if that’s damaged, it kills the value. I estimate the price around €500 and the seller asks €400. I walk away and return ten minutes later offering €350.
Antiquing introduces you to a diversity of objects – objects of authenticity and rarity; each piece with its backstory, a history that needs to be preserved and remembered. Buying antiques is recycling at its best.
Antiquing in France is an art. Speaking the language and knowing the local lifestyle helps when perusing the French countryside for antiques. Contact the local tourism board to arrange a specialist guide. In this instance, it was Saint-Omer and Pas-de-Calais.