Last year, an acquaintance let us in on a great secret--for those that love antiques as much as Remi and I do but don't necessarily have the budget to fulfill our dusty dreams, there is an an event worth exploring. Every two to three months, antique dealers come from across Europe to sell their wares at the Montpellier déballage, or "unwrapping". Montpellier is perfectly placed with easy access from Italy and Spain--both are only a few hours away by car--which brings an especially cosmopolitan mix of sellers. As the sale is normally reserved for professionals to the trade, the prices are up to four times less than what one would pay in a shop. Buyers fly in from across the globe. Russian, American and Lebanese accents overlap incessantly.
Now, we are not professionals, though I do one day dream of opening my own store as well as including antiques in our next gallery. But if you talk the talk and walk the walk, you are welcome to browse with the pros. Of course, my being American both helps to get me in the door but also insures that any prices that are quoted to me will be much higher than normal--I must be wealthy after all if I am American! So Remi and I have developed a system when we are interested in something where I will discreetly wander away while my Frenchman asks "how much?".
So what can you find? Truly, just about anything that your imagination permits. The most important dealers fill out six football-field size halls, each slightly specialized in a style or provenance. I have a fondness for the Marco Polo Hall, where the most outrageous pieces are usually found. A medieval iron chandelier the size of a compact car? Check. A salon set worthy of Marie Antoinette? Take your pick. Museum quality paintings of a heart-breaking beauty? Yes.
Admittedly, I felt a bit awkward taking photos, obviously a bit of a no-no as this is no place for tourists and you never know exactly how these pieces came to be here. But I did sneak a few, mainly to send to Brooke Gianetti, whose incredible design blog, Velvet & Linen, is as inspirational as it is charming. I knew that she would appreciate the patina on these Queen Anne's.
Outside, the sellers are less formal, as is proven by the delightful smile seen below. Gosh was I crazy for these two golden bergères with a delicate but unfussy needlepoint in the back. The paravent, or folding screen was also a striking piece--it is unusual to find Art Nouveau in the South of France. I would have happily taken the lot home!
So what are les tendances? What is in fashion right now? Yes, there is often a theme or two that all of the vendors seem to be pushing. During our last visit it was still life's of post-hunt scenes with rabbits and fowl. This go round there was a great prevalence of anything religious (surprising as I thought that was a trend that had already come and gone) and random architectural elements (as seen up top). There was also more high end 70s pieces--can't say that interests me in the least! As always, the American buyers were snapping up all of the gold leaf mirrors they could find--many taller than I am.
The déballage starts early in the morning and finishes up by 1pm--part of what adds to the excitement. If you want something, you have to act on it right away. For Remi and I, there is little that we could ever afford even at the professional prices but what a plaisir des yeux--a treat for the eyes. After we have seen the lot, we retire to people watch, no, not at the Champagne Bar (yes, there is one) but at the deliciously unhealthy stand where we wolf down grilled bratwurst sandwiches stuffed with salty fries! Luckily, it is a lunch that we only have a few times a year. This being the edge of Provence, a gentleman also discreetly offered black truffles for sale out of a cooler as well. Perhaps a seller that had had a particularly good morning would splurge on them...
In the back hall, the moving companies carefully put stickers on the pieces that had been sold and scribbled their destinations in floppy notebooks. From there, it was fun to think of where they would go--all over the world. To store windows or direct into clients mansions. What a wealth of culture we have here in France. It really is something. And do you know what was boxed up with the others? That gigantic iron chandelier!