Sure the South of France has loads of hidden treasures, but where do you find them?Read on for an authoritative guide, from east to west.
This scenic bourg in the Vaucluse has more than 300 full-time dealers, many cheek by jowl along the Avenue des Quatres Otages. Most stalls are open on weekends, Mondays, and national holidays.
Start at La Maison Biehn (7 Ave. des Quatre Otages; 33-4/90-20-89-04;michel-biehn.com) for exquisitely stitched 18th- and 19th-century Provençal textiles. Just behind Biehn's house is a cozy community of 40 dealers, L'Île aux Brocantes (7 Ave. des Quatre Otages; open Sat., Sun., and Mon.). Stop in to see Denis and Cristine Nossereau (33-6/08-82-63-05) for a look at antique mirrors and frames, then head over to Bernard Roux (33-6/80-01-61-48) for his collection of handsome banquettes with woven-rush seats. Mémoires d'un Âne (5 Ave. des Quatre Otages; 33-4/90-20-63-15) is a must for 19th-century fauteuils, walnut commodes, and handmade reproductions commissioned from the shop's originals. After you've finished exploring the Avenue des Quatre Otages, drop by Le Village des Antiquaires de la Gare (2 Ave. de l'Égalité; 33-4/90-38-04-57), the oldest and largest (more than 100 dealers) of the arcades. It's a trove for every kind of vintage piece imaginable: Deco furniture, pharmacy jars, coffee grinders, and romantically rusting garden furniture. Stop at Le Mas de Curebourg (N. 100; 33-4/90-20-30-06; mas-de-curebourg.com), a stone farmhouse emporium on the Route d'Apt, stocked with rustic 18th- and 19th-century painted armoires, vintage straw hats, and colorful regional pottery from Apt.
At noon, join locals at Le Café du Village (2 Ave. de l'Égalité; no phone; lunch for two $50) for a bistro lunch of steak frites in the lively courtyard. For a more upscale meal, Le Jardin du Quai (91 Ave. Julien Guigne, 33-4/90-20-14-98; prix fixe for two $107), serves market-inspired dishes (such as veal chops with fresh figs, or roast tuna on grilled red peppers) at tables on a shady garden terrace.
Twice a year (on August 15 and during Easter weekend) the number of dealers swells to almost 600. On all other weekends, arrive early—no later than 8 a.m.—for the best merchandise, or come on Sunday, the flea market day. Don't forget to bring cash!
The convivial Marché à la Brocante in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon takes place every Saturday morning on the Place du Marché, below the 13th-century Fort Saint-André. There is always a tempting assortment of merchandise, from lovely vintage boutis (stuffed quilts), monogrammed towels, and printed fabrics to Art Deco jewelry.
Vendors display their goods on portable tables under striped umbrellas or simply lay out their offerings on drop cloths. Collector Martin Stein, owner of the landmark hotel La Mirande, in Avignon (4 Place de la Mirande; 33-4/90-14-20-20; la-mirande.fr; doubles from $510), is a regular at this marché, and buys up antique frames for their beautiful panes of hand-pressed old glass.
For a true local experience, have a late breakfast of oysters, sea urchin, and white wine straight from the fishmongers' stands at the market entrance.
Historic Arles, once a large Roman encampment, is the most purely Provençal of cities in the area. Famed for its beautiful women, "Les Arlésiennes," its Roman antiquities, and its bullfights, the city has inspired both poetry (Frédéric Mistral) and some of Van Gogh's more famous paintings. Most stalls are open Tuesday through Saturday, with shorter hours on Monday.
Frédéric Dervieux (5 Rue Vernon; 33-4/90-96-02-39;dervieux.com) shows handsome furniture such as sculpted armoires, as well as smaller items, including a dainty walnut verrier (glassware cabinet). A short walk into Le Vieil Arles, the city's Old Quarter, leads to Antiquités Maurin (4 Rue de Grille; 33-4/90-96-51-57; antiques-maurin.com), brimming with rarissime 19th-century Apt plates and platters, and gilt-framed mirrors from Beaucaire.
On the first Wednesday of every month, there is a delightful brocante (secondhand) market stretching along the tree-lined Boulevard des Lices, Arles's main promenade.
Fly into Paris Charles de Gaulle and catch the RER (regional train) to a TGV railway station for the 2½;-hour ride to Avignon. Then rent a car on-site from Avis or Hertz.
If you want to make sure you are buying authentic Provençal antiques rather than reproductions, look for pieces crafted in honey-toned golden walnut, pearwood, or linden; for mirrors, cherry; and for humble pieces, painted pine. Floral carvings, some with lacy ironwork, characterize pieces from Arles.
Focus on the richly hued indiennes, or printed cottons inspired by 18th-century Indian designs, that were fashioned into quilts called either boutis (plumped with cotton) or piqué (classically stitched). You may also come across old toile, originally produced in Aix-en-Provence.
The town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, two hours east of Avignon, produces the best-known pottery, with a signature style of white glaze over red clay with polychrome designs that feature revolutionary slogans. You'll also see mixed-clay faïence, ocher-glazed earthenware, and Art Deco–style plates. The reasonably priced Vallauris faïence pottery has a bright, contemporary look, with a retro edge that includes fish motifs.
This material, a legacy of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish ironmongers who migrated north, adorns homes throughout Provence. Look for rustic lanterns, candelabras, weather vanes, whimsical door knockers, and, if you're willing to ship your finds, garden furniture.
Here are some smart tips for shipping frames, fabrics, and other antiques.
Make sure the merchant provides a receipt that indicates the item's manufacturing date. If the piece is more than 100 years old, there will be no required taxes in most cases.
Antique buyers have several options when shipping their items home. They can use the French government postal service, other popular international shippers (UPS, FedEx, DHL), or shipping companies that specialize in antiques and fine art, such as Exteriors Packing & Shipping (33-4/9259-0590; Exteriors.net) and MARI Transports Internationaux (33-4/9397-4663; Transports-Mari.com).
Shipping by boat is usually less expensive, but keep in mind that the price of getting your piece home is still determined by its size and weight.
Contact the shipping company you plan to use before departure. This allows you to establish a relationship with the company and to learn all the necessary details.
M. Richard of the Nice-based MARI Transports Internationaux offers this advice for avoiding one common error, "If you can carry it, don't ship it." -Kyle Dyer