Beautiful decrepitude.

I’d booked a basic hotel in a town not very far from Bagnoles, near a vide-grenier early the following morning. The hotel proprietor had called to say she would be unexpectedly absent that night, so would I mind letting myself in. She regretted that her restaurant would be closed but informed me there was a pizzeria nearby. The hotel restaurant would have been the better option! I was greeted suspiciously as I went in to the pizzeria. Diners spoke in hushed voices and no one raised their eyes. But the pizza was fine, and I was tucked up early, ready for a 5am wake up.

Parking in a muddy field in the drizzling grey dawn I noticed English number plates on a van nearby. Walking towards the straggling line of stalls I bumped into three characterful and spirited English dealers I know. They had arrived a critical few minutes before me and had caught most of the early worms, but I came away with two folding wine racks, each would hold two hundred bottles. The man told me, emotion in his voice, that he was clearing his father’s house and these racks had just been taken from his father’s cellar.

A woman, bundled up against the weather, had propped crates of cauliflower against a wall, arranged neatly in rows and glowing creamily in the dank morning. A hand written sign announced that they were “Choux Fleurs de Bretagne.” But there was not a lot else to raise my adrenalin.

I drove on east towards the Perche region. A long allée of trees led to the spectacular ruins of the chateau at La Ferte Vidame. I made a couple of stops nearby. A butcher’s block table with enormous drawer on metal runners and a chestnut farmhouse table boosted my morale. Tomorrow was the deballage at Chartres.  I usually stay in a budget hotel near the Parc des Expositions which offers a clean room and a basic dinner. In the dining room that evening I found I knew half the diners by sight, if not to talk to.

The organisers of the deballage had tightened up entry. Chain link fencing surrounded the site. Non-professionals were strictly not admitted and entry was now by pre-purchased identity card only.

As with the other big fairs no dealing is permitted before 8h. At Chartres buyers are allowed into the site to scout around, to glimpse what might be stacked on a trailer or through the open door of a van, or simply to gather around one of the coffee stands. But at 8h begins another wonderful trawl around stalls displaying the stained and unwanted, full of curiosities and beautiful decrepitude.

I’m not sure why, but I found myself buying five thigh high, eighteenth century fielded wall panels. They would look wonderful installed in the right place but not something that was going to fly out the door.

An eighteenth century fauteuil was next. The dealer offered me a second one, with the silk stitched with small blue flowers. The back had suffered water damage but was beautifully upholstered, and the seat was in a sorry, thread bare state. I sometimes think I am starting a home for abandoned furniture!

Next came a dirty and discoloured oil painting of Montmartre. It was by a reputed artist and it was dedicated on the back: “A Monsieur Louis, en souvenir affectueux.” Signed and dated Montmartre 1951.

A large watercolour of a windswept autumn landscape had a certain wild grandeur but with its dark brown frame and mould marked mount it looked forlorn. With a new mount and the frame painted though it would look much better.

I fully admit to be being seduced by two large 18th century portraits – of a delightful couple with gentle eyes – he holding a cello with an opened letter lay by his hand, she holding the viewer calmly in her gaze. I tried but I couldn’t walk away. I had no thought of buying these portraits, but I started to talk to the two smiling dealers and, well, I did buy the portraits. I’m so glad I did as I loved them, and I left Chartres happy.

Even more Brocante shops had sprung up along the Nationale between Chartres and Le Mans. Old depots, cafés and farm buildings had been repurposed. With regular dealer markets at Chartres and Le Mans on consecutive days, a parade of white vans from A to B was a predictable sight.

I was looking forward to meeting up with Therese and her husband, Thierry, for dinner at the hotel in Le Mans. They were driving down from Normandy. They had been in the business for many years. Thierry, always no nonsense and forthright, said, “But of course, people may begin by selling watering cans, enamel coffee pots and tea towels – but one cannot live from that during a whole career!” He used an expression new to me: “un miroir aux alouettes,” literally a trap with mirrors for small birds who are attracted by the light but then are caught. “It’s one thing to get into antiques,” he said, “but entirely another to gt out!”

I didn’t find so much at Le Mans next day. Sometimes its like that. But there is always room for a few more tea towels of course. A long oak dining table on cabriole legs did catch my attention. It was upended onto my trolley and I made my way back to my van slowly, avoiding potholes.

“That doesn’t look very good for your back Madam!” An English chap saw me trying to load the table into Nelly and came over to help. He was a dealer based in France and gave me his card. A fortuitous exchange.

Driving up to the ferry that afternoon I noticed the antiques shop in Falaise had its blue shutters firmly closed, with a For Sale sign outside. The lady must have retired. And the Depot Vente just before Argentan that had had a jolly market barrow full of flowers outside was now all gone. Everything always in transition.


Leave a Reply