Bartering Bric-a-Brac at Brocantes in SW France

Bartering Bric-a-Brac at Brocantes in SW France

This month's article is light and funny, and possibly useful for those not trained in the art of dealing with those passionate 'brocantiers' and 'amateurs antiquaires' or to find a present for friend who's moving in a new house and having a crémaillere party. It's perfect if you fancy a read in a shade or a terrace on a hot day in the south of France.

Do you enjoy a good old browse? If so, you’ll be among friends here in France. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a vide grenier (garage sale that literally translate to ‘empty the attic’) or a brocante (flea market); browsing for a bargain is a national pastime. Many of our French friends are devotees, one of whom is especially keen.

Jean-Pierre visits at least one vide grenier or brocante weekly, pretty much all year round. He’ll return, bursting with stories of triumphant marchandage (haggling) sessions, regaling his long-suffering wife and anyone else within earshot with shaggy dog stories. Bartering, it seems, is the essence of a successful trip.

Jean-Pierre has particular loves. Despite having no understanding of English, undaunted, he’ll forage among tome after tome until he finds a British gem. This will be added to his already enormous collection and cooed over. But never read. He also regularly adds to his thousand-plus collection of long-playing records. It’s a shame he doesn’t own a record player.

I love a rummage at our local brocantes too. Being a person who is easily impressed, and much to Jack, my husband’s dismay, I’m quickly persuaded by silky assurances from slick salespeople about brilliant bargains and must-buys. Like our eccentric friend, I rarely come away empty-handed. I have learnt some salutary lessons at these events, the first of which occurred at a vide maison.

Vide maison sales are slightly different. They take place at a person’s home, often when those concerned are moving and want to get rid of surplus goods, or in the case of the one we attended, the previous owner had passed away, and the family decided to clear the house.

It was one of those few occasions when Jack came with me. I expect it was nervous tension since everything from the kitchen sink to the garden urns was being sold, all the things he knew I would probably find irresistible. And I did. As Jack clucked menacing irritations about budgets, I joined the crowd, gushing over charming cracked china, pictures and fusty furnishings.  

I finally spotted the very ensemble I didn’t realise I must have: a lovely cottage-style kitchen table and chairs. After a somewhat confusing bartering session, I bought the furniture for a great price, or so I thought. It wasn’t until we’d carted the ensemble home that we noticed the wiggly free gifts. The oak was alive with woodworm. It took Jack a while to get over the shock.  

My most recent exposure to the foibles of bartering took place at a brocante specialising in antiques. My pal, Sarah, loves the idea of winning a bargain and agreed to join me for an antique-fest. We arrived early, keen to peruse the exhibits. There were all sorts of exciting goodies, ranging from pictures to tableware, fabulous ironmongery, lamps, glassware and more.

My eye was immediately drawn to the antiquarian book stall, where I had a reverse Jean-Pierre moment. It’s just as well my fluency with French isn’t up to tackling pithy literary works; otherwise, I’d have blown my modest budget in seconds.

We moved on to the china section, crammed with ceramics from different eras. Did I love the huge pheasant? No, not really, but I was sure someone would. Nevertheless, I did fall in love with a pair of Limoges plates. A hawk-eyed merchant spotted my interest and swooped in for the kill. I asked the price, and as I’d expected, the answer was horrifying. Despite almost persuading me that it was impossible to live without his timeless gems, after a couple of half-hearted goes at reducing the amount to a realistic figure, I turned down his generosity. We moved on.  

We had been there for about an hour, which evidently coincided with French-style elevenses. Bottles of wine appeared, and delicious-looking snacks were conjured up from nowhere. The aromas were intoxicating. Fighting back hunger pangs, the furniture section beckoned.

Fortunately, both our homes are furnished with rustic style pieces. Despite humming and hawing over several gorgeous occasional tables, even we had to concede that they would look incongruous next to our chunky chêne massif (solid oak) pieces.

A striking ornament caught my attention. Naively, I started to examine it and was immediately ambushed by a trader.

“Madame, are you interested in my lion?”
“It is a dramatic piece, monsieur.”
“It is splendide, madame, extremely ancient. Do you want to buy it?”
“Oh, no, thank you. I was simply looking.”
“But you will love it. Everyone does.”
“Do they?”
“Let me tell you the price.”
“Really, there’s no need.”
“Luckily for you, madame, the lion is on sale today. Can you guess how much it costs?”
“Um, no.”
“Bravo! Les anglais, you are always so timid about money. But I see that, really, you do want to know.”
“Honestly, I…”
“Yes, there it is. I knew it. My lion has been reduced, for today only, from 4,400 euros to 2,300 euros. Voila! Madame, this is your lucky day.”
“Goodness, that is still very expensive!”
“One cannot put too high a price on perfection, madame. Shall I wrap it for you?”
“Oh, no, monsieur. Goodness, definitely not, thank you.”

In a frightfully English fluster, I hurried away to rejoin Sarah, leaving monsieur adding a consoling tot to his brandy. She gave me a nudge.

“Fancy having a look at the gorgeous chest of drawers over there?”

I looked at the seller parked next to Sarah’s chest of drawers. Wine by his side, he was scanning for customers, eager to wow all-comers with his goods and chattels. Intriguing though his drawers looked, I was bartered out.

“Um, no thanks. You go. I’ll check out the rugs instead. There’s nobody around over there!”

Mille merci Beth, it made us smile ... For more lovely France related stories, make sure you check Beths books and blogs, all about country living in her estate and her adventures in south west France, check out her website here.  If you too are looking to move to France to start a new life or looking for a holiday home, then please get in touch.