Guide To Buying At French Flea Markets

By Natalie Woods - April 13, 2018

A Tailors' Dummy - one of my all time favourite flea market finds.

We’re fast approaching that time of year when my feet start to itch and the warmer weather turns my attentions to France.

For me - the enjoyment of buying antiques abroad is as much about the experience as the thrill of finding unique vintage treasures at a bargain price.

Chandeliers glisten in the hit sun at the Marché Aux Puces, Nice, France

It’s quite intoxicating to browse through stalls under the back drop of Nice’s colourful old market whilst listening to live, easy jazz or feeling the warmth of the sun on your face within Avignon’s ancient walls.

Marché Aux Puces in Nice's colourful market square 

Now that I’ve (hopefully) piqued your interest for vintage treasure hunting abroad - I must tell you that I’m not a professional buyer. If I were; I’d have to take into account the cost of my flight, food, accommodation, car hire, fuel and shop overhead costs. 

The best time of year to go ‘vintiquing’ in France is April to September (maybe early October too if you’re visiting the South). Most flea markets are open all year but It’s not much fun browsing stalls in the freezing cold and rain.

Industrial chic: Vintage black metal suitcase
Flea markets are referred to in France as ‘Brocantes’ (smaller markets that tend to be more local) or ‘Marché aux Puces (larger markets). In Belgium they are ‘Vide-Greniers’.

Industrial chic: Vintage French fan

Antique shops in France tend to be much more expensive than the flea markets but are always worth a look.

Before you start buying:

  1. If you’re really serious about picking up some bargains - go early. I arrive between 07:30 and 08:00 and spend the day. The markets are usually open until 4pm although some close at midday.
  2. Stay calm! Being surrounded by so many exciting treasures in one place can be overwhelming and set you into panic buying mode (I do this). **Breathe** remind yourself what you’re looking for and take it slow. This is about laid back browsing, after all.
  3. If you really, really love something and it’s a decent price  - buy it. It’s likely you will end up disappointed if you go back later. French flea markets are no place for indecision.
  4. Take cash broken down into smaller notes (exact money makes negotiating easier) but be aware that there are pick pockets in some of the bigger markets. I keep my money in a flat storage belt worn under trousers). You can buy them here. This means that I can browse with both hands and without worry.
  5. Bear in mind how much shopping you can realistically take home. If you have hand luggage, you’re in trinket territory (although - I got a soupière, a clock face and a sunburst mirror home in my hand luggage).
  6. Be careful about buying taxidermy or banned items. If you’re flying; don’t buy knives, swords etc. Cutlery will be an issue if you only have hand luggage.
  7. Pack parcel tape a bubble wrap in case you buy something delicate.
  8. You can take hand luggage on the outbound flight and only pay for hold luggage on the return. If you plan to do this; pack a folded duffel bag into hand luggage.

You’re now ready to start buying!

My 7 tips for vintage bargain buying success:

1.     Memorise a few French buying phrases. These common buying phrases spoken with confidence will hold you in good stead:

How much is this please? quel est le prix s'il vous plaît or combien cela fait-il s'il vous plaît ? Can you go cheaper ? Pouvez-vous aller moins cher. 

What is your lowest, lowest price, please? Quel est le denier, denier prix, s’il vous plait? Or quel est le prix le plus bas et le plus bas?

OK, I want to buy it. ok je veux l'acheter. 

Thank you but that’s too expensive for me. Merci mais c'est trop cher pour moi.

I want to think about it. je veux y penser.

2.     Memorise numbers 1-300 and then in the hundreds so you know how much is being asked. 

This is a good video lesson 

Or written lesson here

3.     Take a little pad and pencil - if you’re not 100% sure how much the vendor said an item is, ask them to write it down. Remember that the French draw a cross through their number ‘7’. Don’t mix 1 and 7 up!

4.     Negotiate - I take between 50% and 30% off the price and negotiate from there. 

5.     Have the exact amount of cash you want to pay in your hand. Show that you have it and you’re ready to buy. 
6.      Be confident but charming - smile and laugh. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ even if you’re not happy with the price.
7.      Take good look at what you are purchasing – carefully touch it, check the back, turn it over. I’ve been burnt by bad flea market purchases simply because I didn’t look properly. Take your time.

You can pick up unusual vintages treasures at bargain prices in French Flea markets; such as this
antique camera.

Lovely vintage linens

Find anything to suit any style in French Flea markets; from industrial chic café lamps to country brocante-esque straw hats and fruit baskets.

I’ve found quite a few vintage bargains at flea markets; large confit pots, soupières, an antique decorative horse, mirrors, a tailors’ dummy, picture frames, tiny pocket watches and all sorts of other trinkets.

Here are just some of the French antiques I’ve hauled home in hand luggage:

I paid €20 for this vintage French Soupière 

I paid €120 for this beautifully gold gilded sunburst mirror (I broke it walking back to the hotel). 

You won’t just find French items at the Flea markets. You’ll find antiques from all over Europe,
Africa and India. This one wasn’t cheap but I really, really wanted it. I paid €175.

These darling Shoe Lastes line my stairs. I paid €15 for each pair.

I literally dug this large French confit pot from under rubble and paid €12 for it. It was full of mud and filth and I washed it in our posh hotel bath. My travel buddy was unamused!

After buying this Tailors' Dummy in Nice, I had to get the bus to a hardware store to buy a screwdriver to take it apart. The bust went in hold luggage, the feet in hand luggage and Dug pretended that the wooden pole was a walking stick. All so that we could get it home. The lengths I will go to...

My travel and buying buddy once managed to fly a side table Home from Nice in one piece. It cost her €10. Turns out we weren’t that clever. The additional luggage cost was €35.
French antiques sold in the UK will (justifiably) cost much more because the expense of sourcing them is huge, as are the overhead costs. 

Good luck and have fun negotiating for vintage treasure!

I’d love to hear about your flea market finds, tips or questions in the comments section below.

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