Jon Bryant investigates the enduring allure of hunting for Provence antiques
More rewarding than lavender fields, longer lasting than truffles, less competitive than pétanque, hunting for antiques in Provence is one of the region’s great passions. We have found ourselves driving for hours just to gaze at some pearl-handled fruit knives or a porcelain bedpan through the window of a dusty antiques shop.
I like buying giant old boules, covered in scuffed hobnails and my wife looks for laced-fringed linen and crystal chandeliers. Almost every Provencal village has an antiques shop tucked down a side street. Some towns have a few but nothing can compare to the delights of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Twenty minutes east of Avignon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a revelation, the largest concentration of antique shops in France outside Paris. It has more than 350 permanent dealers spread across the town, interspersed with giant mossy-bladed waterwheels which push the Sorgue river along narrow canals.
The antiques trade took off there in the mid 1960s when a few dealers got together at weekends, having cleared out the contents of a few local chateaux. Today, with a busy Sunday market and thousands of bargain hunters, you need to know what to do and where to go.
After many Sundays there drifting around the stalls, we have refined our routine. We arrive at about 10am and sit in the Café de France across from the church. We head first to Le Village des Antiquaires de la Gare, one of ten antique ‘villages’ around the town. There, 100 or so dealers are gathered in a giant warehouse, sipping early-morning Côtes de Provence and discussing their latest deals.
We picked up a 1930s ‘club’ leather sofa there last year although it has now been taken over by our dog for his afternoon naps (he likes the smell of the spilled whiskey on the arms) and is home to a family of scorpions who use it as a duplex.
At La Gare and Le Quai next door you can buy medicine balls, old petrol pumps, gilt-framed mirrors and sets of crystal liqueur glasses. Farther along the avenue de la Liberation, you can find zinc-top tables, stuffed animals, Art-deco tea sets and the sort of chair Vincent Van Gogh would have rested his pipe on.
Merchandise in L’Isle sur la Sorgue ranges from high-quality antiques, notably furniture, to enamel signs for Michelin bicycle tyres and Pernod. Salvage specialists on the outskirts sell huge, wrought-iron frames, garden furniture and entire fireplaces. Over Easter and on Assumption day (August 15th), the number of dealers rises to more than 500 and they flow out of the town, setting up wallpaper tables covered in nearly-complete cutlery sets, curlicued manuscripts and initialled linen.
There are some excellent places to eat if you can lift your head away from the antiques. The late British chef Keith Floyd used to run a small restaurant in the town and today, L’Oustau de L’Isle, La Prévôté and Au Chineur are always full of dealers and clients.
Running along both sides of the Avenue des Quatre Otages are the enormous manor houses built from the proceeds of the silk, paper and crayfish industries in the 18th century. The shops here sell stone statues, silver trays, jewellery, porcelain and glassware.
Many of the antiques have come from Provence but in the Hôtel Dongier are two unusual traders.
Robert Juan arrived in L’Isle in 1998 and sells a selection of Buddhas, some large enough to join you at the dining table. “People see my shop and say, ‘At last, something different!'” Inside the doorway is a giant lacquered teak mask of Buddha for €2,800 and a 50-drawer Shondone tea and spice chest for €5,600.
A few shops further in is another oriental emporium, Le Patio, run by Colin and Danielle Reeve, full of impressive red lacquered chests and Chinese spice cabinets. It seems bizarre but “chinoiserie goes very well with Provencal furniture” and both dealers have done very well at L’Isle sur la Sorgue.
“To make sure you’re not buying a copy, look at the furniture’s feet which should be naturally scuffed. Original furniture will be made in elm which is very heavy [and now very rare] and reproductions will be oak which is a lot lighter,” says Reeve.
From Tuesday to Friday, ‘L’Isle’ returns to being simply a picturesque town in the heart of the Vaucluse and chineurs (hunters) have to look elsewhere in Provence.
The next port of call is Aix which has surprisingly few antique shops for its artistic reputation. Most of the good ones are dotted around the Mazarin quarter including Mazarin Antiquités on rue Frédéric Mistral where Paul Cézanne’s sister Marie once lived, recognisable by the child’s pram on a chain outside.
Muriel Escalle at Antiquités on rue du 4 septembre, just down the road has a stylish, floral Meridienne in the window, cabinets full of objets de curiosité and walls covered in Provençale school landscapes from the 19th century.
Despite the global financial crisis, she believes,“ the painting market is still buoyant, especially at the top end because you don’t have to include it as part of the wealth tax.”
If you like intriguing bric-a-brac and unusual knick-knacks, at QI Décoration on Aix’s rue Gibelin you can buy ancient Burmese jade rings, 19th century Japanese tea sets, Vietnamese gas lamps and old photographs of sumo wrestlers.
For larger objects, there are some salvage yards on the Route d’Avignon which passes by an antique hunter’s paradise at the Antiquaires de Lignane and Via Rosa roundabout. Via Rosa is currently selling an old-style, wooden-doored French refrigerator for €1,480 – perfect in any pantry.
Otherwise, it’s best to wait until the occasional summer Sunday when Aix, Avignon and St Rémy have antiques and second-hand book fairs or delay your search until September when Arles will host its 30th Salon des Antiquités at the Palais des Congrès. Here, eight days of dealers in ginger wigs holding Pekinese dogs and Sobranie cigarettes, sit at their stands surrounded by the glories of yesteryear.
At the last salon, I saw shrunken heads from New Guinea at Aloha Antiquités, a life-size steel bulldog, one of limited series of eight, for a little over €6,000 and giant, carved cherubs looking like members of the European Parliament.
Further afield there’s the Grenier des Puces just north of Marseille, Monday morning in Nice’s cours Selaya or even the fantastic Avenue du Verdun in Pézenas…. and at the other end of the scale are the usual car boot sales (vide greniers) which every village holds at least once a summer.
Get there early and look for that forgotten Rembrandt!
Provence Guru – The Insiders’ Guide to Provence, top tips:
Planning a trip to the South of France to hunt for Provence antiques, then we have a great selection of Provence villa rentals in the L’Isle Sur La Sorgue area. Have a look at our Provence vacation rental listings.
For a shorter stay why not pick one of our Provence boutique hotels, from Arles to Avignon and Aix to Aubagne, we have a wonderful listings of the best places to stay.
Eating out? Our Provence restaurant review section is full of recommendations, with the best places to eat and drink from Lourmarin to Lambec and Saint Remy de Provence to Saignon.
We also tour vineyards and rate the tasting experience, see our wine section.
And if you are planning a move to Provence then our lifestyle blogs give you a real feeling of what life in the south of France is like.
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