I don't think you can go wrong with things that have a little bit of age and character," Judy Hornby says, lounging on the terrace of her Avignon apartment. If you had any doubt as to her métier, you could probably make an educated guess by looking around her sitting room, which features railings salvaged from a 1920's hotel, bookcases that graced a pharmacy in the sixties, and a pair of Art Deco club chairs covered in jaunty cowhide.
An hour later, in the crêperie down the street, Hornby, who has realized the dream of generations of Francophiles—she lives part-time in Connecticut, part-time within the ancient walled city of Avignon—explains how she works: four times a year she combs the Languedoc countryside, searching out furniture and objets to sell at her shop back in Bantam, Connecticut. Lately the onetime model and clothing designer has added another job to her résumé: shepherding small groups of Americans around to her favorite dealers, acting as translator and expert, arranging for shipping, and, perhaps most important, demystifying the arcane rituals of the French antiques trade.
I have joined one such party, which consists of Judy; her husband, Jerry Larrabure, a vintage-watch specialist; and Guy and Sandra, who are taking a brief vacation from their three kids to furnish a big Manhattan apartment and a new house in Connecticut with what they hope will be dirt-cheap French-country furniture. For my part, I assure everyone that I am the antiquer par excellence, unflaggingly enthusiastic and completely inexhaustible.
Which is a good thing, because, though our trip is a mere four days, we're primed to cover a lot of ground. (Guy, Sandra, and I flew into Paris on a Wednesday and took the TGV to Avignon.) We're staying at the Hôtel du Palais des Papes, which Judy recommended because it's next to Avignon's historic Palais des Papes, within walking distance of her apartment, and inexpensive. Guy and Sandra, who score the honeymoon suite, think the place oozes character; my pokey room and the spotty service give me the blues. I long to have stayed at the Hôtel d'Europe or the Hôtel de la Mirande, two of the town's finest, but, alas, they're booked solid.
Our first day, we set off in Judy and Jerry's vibrant green Renault and head for Pézenas, a little town about two hours south of Avignon. Judy has tailored the itinerary to suit our tastes, as she does with all of her clients. This means interesting furniture for Guy and Sandra, quirky accessories for me.
Though Pézenas is children's-book charming and so authentically French that there's a busy boucherie chevaline, we're more interested in the winding Avenue de Verdun, which runs perpendicular to the main street and is choked with dusty warehouses piled high with everything from Victorian marble sinks to rusted 1950's kiddie cars.
Guy is in heaven, asking the shopkeepers a million questions. At a dealer consortium called Galerie de Pézenas, he zooms in on a crystal chandelier that looks like a Victorian flying saucer. "I don't know where the hell I'm going to put it, but I think we have to have it," he crows, before spotting an even bigger bargain: a pair of adorable Art Deco chairs for $300 with the original, if well-worn, upholstered seats. Judy insists that if he doesn't buy them, she will, and suddenly I want to have them too, but Guy saw them first. "Don't worry," Judy says, squeezing my hand. "We'll find a pair for you."
I don't find chairs in Pézenas, but within the hour a gentle guy with a big beard, the proprietor of the namesake Jean-François Paluzzano, sells me a jewelry box shaped like a doghouse and a Pierrot pepper pot. So what if these trinkets cost more, combined, than Guy's chairs?I have an eye for exquisite detail, I tell myself.
At noon sharp Pézenas shuts down for lunch, so we retire to a restaurant called Les Marronniers. We grab a table under the chestnut trees, and Guy gleefully talks about his purchases, extolling the virtue of bringing antiques into a house full of kids: "No matter how much they bang something up, who cares?It's beat up already!" Though we eat our delicious bacon-wrapped sardines and boeuf bourguignonne at an incredibly leisurely pace, I am ready to get back to shopping long before Pézenas is. I leap out of my chair every five seconds to see if the stalls have reopened, which even I realize is ridiculous since all the dealers are sitting around us, sipping their wine and clearly in no rush to get back to work.
They finally reopen (after four...), and we spend the next several hours looking at wicker settees and coal stoves and wrought-iron nightstands. I'm starting to flag a bit, but I don't want to let on. It turns out I'm not alone. The sun is setting when Judy says brightly that there are four more places at the bottom of the hill. Dead silence. Then Guy suggests we skip them and start back for Avignon. Sure, agrees Judy; tomorrow we're going to Marseilles, and there'll be plenty more to buy there.
The next morning we hit the road as early as we can all stand. (Around nine—the French are never in a hurry to get started, Judy says.) The car picks us up just next to Avignon's famous carousel, not yet rotating at this hour, though the glass-fronted cafés in the square are doing a brisk business in croissants and café crèmes, their classic round tables and wicker chairs already full of voluble customers. We get our coffees to go—not very chic in southern France—and start for Marseilles. Just outside town, we veer off into a vast lot filled with old shoes and broken toys. "This can't be the place," I whisper, but this wildly unpromising landscape, part of the Marché aux Puces, leads to a gold mine: our ultimate destination is a structure, sitting in the middle of the lot, that looks like an airplane hangar but actually once housed disabled railroad cars.