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Antiquing in the South of France

The hangar, called Le Grenier des Puces, is managed by Richard, who is obviously very fond of Judy and eager to make her party feel right at home. The minute he sees me, he tries to sell me a miniature club chair covered in bubble gum-pink leather, but I am more smitten by an enormous 1920's bed, with built-in night tables, that might have been lifted from an Ernst Lubitsch movie. It's $650, and Judy buys it at once, though she assures me she'll be happy to sell it to me. Despite the fact that its installation will require dismantling my apartment in New York, I am considering it.

At lunch, we sit down with the dealers in a white-tented café that is surprisingly elegant, considering its surroundings. Later Judy will grouse amiably about doing business in the south of France: "Everything takes forever! You spend hours at lunch and it's bad form to talk about business!" Indeed, each one of Judy's purchases—the bright orange, S-shaped sixties metal chairs; the banged-up forties rolling bar that needs just a bit of refinishing ("Darling, we can lacquer it!" I overhear Judy tell Jerry)—requires an intimate session with the dealer before papers are arduously drawn up.

Finally it's time to go. We're headed to Avenue Fifi-Turin, a half-hour away, clear on the other side of Marseilles. Judy swears she has never seen another foreigner there—in fact, the first few times she went, other dealers had to come along to show her the way. Unfortunately, the funky loveliness of Marseilles—the gray Art Nouveau buildings with their undulating, wrought-iron terraces, the crumbling fountains still spouting in ancient squares—is but glimpsed through the car windows. Fifi-Turin itself turns out to be strictly business: endless blocks of rough storehouses filled with antique furniture from the sublimely restored to the filthy and rickety. Here lots of prices are still in francs, making it hard to figure out how much things cost. (I have a moment of ecstasy when I think a rare commode painted by Dubuffetis only $900; it's closer to $15,000.)

After several hours of knocking around the humongous, never-ending parade of warehouses that make up Fifi-Turin—Judy buys everything from Art Moderne armoires to fifties mirrors—I am frankly more than ready for our promised bouillabaisse dinner on Marseilles's stunning if slightly raffish waterfront. (The food on this trip is so scrumptious that by the third day I am forced to put on an extra-baggy sweater.)

Nine solid hours of antiquing have me just about wilted, but Guy simply will not stop: he's cheerfully poking his head under tables to check their legs and trailing his fingers through the dust atop ancient bookcases. While he's dickering over a desk with a map of the world on it for his son, I revive momentarily when we pass a shop called Massilia Toy Village Antiquaire that features 19th-century dollhouses and vintage Tintin comics. Unfortunately, no one else has the remotest interest in this place. Still, as I consider a tiny tea set ($500), Guy and Judy try to be kind, employing a phrase I have heard them say to me or Sandra when they really hate something we admire: "It's fun! It's a fun piece."

The next day we stay closer to home base. It's Saturday, and there's an outdoor market off a two-lane highway in Villeneuve-Les-Avignon. The market may be unassuming, but you never forget for a minute that you're in France: not only does a medieval fortress loom from a cliff high above us, but there's a perfectly coiffed woman of a certain age, wearing high-heeled pumps and a tweed coat-and-suit ensemble that was surely custom-made, picking delicately through a filthy box of doorknobs.

And so what if everyone thinks the turn-of-the-last-century wall hanging I buy is "fun"?It starts to drizzle, and we settle in under trees and umbrellas for what Judy considers the highlight of the afternoon: a lunch of oysters that marks the traditional end of the market day. All the dealers and shoppers place their orders, the shuckers get busy, the wine starts to flow, and any comparison to shopping in the States vanishes in the mist.

Sunday is our last day in Avignon, and it's pouring so hard that the outdoor markets are out of the question. But before we take the TGV back to Charles de Gaulle for the long trip home, Judy has one more place in store for us. It's an indoor center featuring 20 antiquaires called the Galerie Aux Trouvailles in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This is where Judy recently snagged a Thonet nightstand. Five minutes after arriving, I spot an Art Deco Bakelite comb-and-brush set for $27 and leap at it; Guy is mooning over a pair of overstuffed white velvet chairs. Sandra senses danger and insists that we're going to miss the plane. Back in the Renault, the rain beating down mercilessly, Guy asks Judy wistfully if she thinks there are other markets that nobody knows about. Judy answers in a flash: "Oh, yes, in the north! I have heard there's really good stuff up there!"


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