Antiquing in the South of France

Antiquing in the South of France

Akiko & Pierre
Akiko & Pierre
Always wanted a personal guide to the best antique-furniture haunts in the south of France?Lynn Yaeger goes straight to the source.

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.

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!"

Shopping tours with Judy Hornby (see below) start at $2,000 per person or couple, not including hotel. Shipping usually costs 35 to 40 percent of the purchase price, depending on size.

Judy Hornby Decorative Antiques 725 BANTAM RD., RTE. 202, BANTAM, CONN.; 860/567-3162;
Galerie de Pézenas Closed Sundays. 17 AVE. DE VERDUN, PÉZENAS; 33-4/67-90-16-97
Jean-François Paluzzano Closed Sundays. 27 AVE. DE VERDUN, PÉZENAS; 33-4/67-09-48-38
Le Grenier des Puces Closed Mondays. 130 CHEMIN DE LA MADRAGUE-VILLE, MARSEILLES; 33-4/91-63-36-39
Les Deux Marc Closed weekends. 48-56 AVE. FIFI-TURIN, MARSEILLES; 33-6/74-40-49-52
Massilia Toy Village Antiquaire Closed weekends. 20 AVE. FIFI-TURIN, MARSEILLES; 33-4/91-63-48-24
Outdoor Brocantes Fair Saturdays 8 a.m.-12 p.m. PLACE DU MARCHÉ, VILLENEUVE-LES-AVIGNON
Galerie Aux Trouvailles Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 12 LA PETITE MARINE, L'ISLE-SUR-LA-SORGUE; 33-4/90-21-14-31

Hôtel d'Europe DOUBLES FROM $165. 12 PLACE CRILLON, AVIGNON; 33-4/90-14-76-76; Hôtel de la Mirande DOUBLES FROM $358. 4 PLACE DE LA MIRANDE, AVIGNON; 33-4/90-85-93-93;

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