I woke up one morning this week and said…I miss antiquing.
How weird is that?
In our one-bedroom apartment, we certainly have no need for another item! We try to purge on a regular basis, donating to our local thrift shop or to Goodwill.
What I miss, really, is the distinct pleasure of a long, lazy afternoon wandering a flea market or indoor antiques mall — which two French verbs describe beautifully: fouiner (to nose about) and chiner (same, for old stuff).
Also — French again! — flaner,to wander without specific purpose. (Couldn’t find the circonflex symbol!)
I lived in Paris when I was 25, and every weekend I happily rummaged through piles of old lace and grimy bits and bobs at various flea markets. I have the happiest memories of looking for 1960s girl group records with my friend Claes, a gay Swedish journalist who was another of 28 foreign journalists spending an amazing eight months together in that city on an EU-sponsored journalism fellowship, Journalistes en Europe.
Claes died later of AIDS.
I still treasure the mix-tape he made for me.
A friend’s decanter…I love cut crystal!
Today I follow a number of vintage clothing and item-sellers on Instagram, like Ruth Ribeaucourt, an Irishwoman who married into a French ribbon-manufacturing family, and who is passionate about lovely old things, some of which she sells through her online Instagram shop, @the_bouquiniste.
As I’ve blogged here before, I really appreciate old things in good condition, items well-used and cared-for and which offer me — sometimes centuries later — more utility and esthetic pleasure.
We are lucky to live in central London and on a normal day I can get from my front door to the office in about thirty minutes if I catch the right train, perhaps slightly more if I don’t. I tend to give myself 45 so that I can walk at a leisurely pace to the train station and pick up a nice coffee if I feel so inclined. I pass a historic churchyard that’s typically filled with dogs on their first walk of the day, and a famed antiques market every Friday.
My transit time tallies to between an hour and an hour and a half a day. It’s exercise, fresh air, and usually I get an episode or two of a podcast in or a chunk of time on my current audiobook (which I listen to at at least 1.5x normal speed so this can really add up in a work week).
I miss it. Genuinely. This was prime “me time” and I miss the start of my morning that got my bloody moving and switched my brain on.
I make a beeline in almost every city I visit to its local flea market.
When I lived in Paris for eight months in my 20s, I went almost every weekend, and not only to the enormous and overwhelming Puces de Clignancourt, but to Porte de Vanves as well. (Here’s a helpful guide.)
In London last summer, I was up by 6:00 a.m. to visit the Bermondsey Square market, a small, courtyard-contained group of vendors. I bought a great hot breakfast from a guy making eggs and bacon, and sat on the edge of a cart to eat it.
Here’s what I bought, paying 10 pounds for a ceramic shard found on the banks of the Thames by a man who, like many there, is a mudlarker — someone who digs in the riverside muck and pulls out ancient treasures buried there.
I’ve been trying to research it, but so far, no success; guessing 17th century or so.
Here’s a great description of mudlarking from The Guardian:
Over the years I’ve eased buttons, lace ends, buckles, dress hooks and thimbles from the mud and plucked clay wig curlers, wooden nit combs, needles, beads and bodkins from its surface. I’ve even found a beautifully decorated gold lace end, with possible links to the Tudor court, lying on the mud just waiting to be picked up.
But perhaps the most personal objects are leather shoes. The anaerobic properties of Thames mud means that its treasures are cocooned in an oxygen-free environment, which preserves them as if they had been lost just yesterday. My Tudor shoe is a moment trapped in time, with wear creases across the top and indentations in the sole from the toes and heel of the last person to wear it more than 500 years ago.
In Dublin’s monthly flea market, I found a terrific mirrored small handbag from Rajasthan for 10 pounds and a fistful of heavy silver-plate forks for the same price. (All our cutlery is flea market material, heavy silver plate in a variety of early styles.)
I also scored a gorgeous fuchsia hand-crocheted sweater. Even if I decided it wasn’t for me, (and I re-sold it to a consignment shop), it wasn’t a huge investment.
In Toronto recently, I found a tiny 1930s Paris pin, with a dangling Eiffel tower, for $2 — and am still regretting passing up four gorgeous lilac engraved crystal glasses for $20.
Flea markets reward the decisive!
Toronto’s major flea market runs Sundays behind the legendary St. Lawrence Market downtown, held in a large white tent. It has washroom facilities and several very good places to eat, literally next door — including the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.
I really enjoy the banter and wisdom there — vendors are often also collectors, full of knowledge about the things they’re selling and generally happy to share that intel, even if you don’t buy something. (Um, not so much with some Paris flea market vendors, who have been downright snappish with me, même en français.)
Flea markets, the best ones anyway, bear witness to our material past — not only the gilded elegance we see behind museum glass but the daily household objects we once valued
or our ancestors did: typewriters, enamel, tin and copper cookware, porcelain and crystal and silver, delicately embroidered and crocheted linens, (old pillowcases and sheets and tablecloths are so soft and lovely!), early editions of books.
There are much beloved/battered old teddy bears and toys, handmade patchwork quilts and homespun blankets, wooden breadboards, buckets and piles of old coins.
You do have to be cool with crowds and being bumped constantly — and they’re best enjoyed without the responsibility of a dog or small children.
If you’re really serious about collecting things like silver (is it EPNS or sterling?) and jewelry, bring a loupe (a tiny magnifying glass) with you to read hallmarks.
Never denigrate the goods!
Almost every vendor is willing to be a bit flexible; ask, very nicely, “What’s your best price on this?” Or “Would you take (name a price maybe 10 to 20 percent lower) for this?”
Are you a fellow flea market maven?
Which ones have you enjoyed — and what did treasures have you found?
So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.
I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)
Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:
— It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets
— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring
— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below
— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.
Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:
The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.
The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.
I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.
I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.
He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.
I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!) — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.
Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.
Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.
I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.
While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.
If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.
Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each ($51 each.)
Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.
I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.
London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.
I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.
I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.
Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.
My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)
If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the price — when it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.
Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.
I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.
If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.
Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)
And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.
I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.
Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.
New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.
The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.
The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.
I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)
The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.
I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.
I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.
This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.
A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.
Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.
I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.
Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.
We’re only passing through.
In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.
My home, a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript 1960s red-brick building in a northern New York City suburb, is the beneficiary of most of my time, energy and creativity. It’s always been like that, wherever I live.
I love to putter, paint, make things, design and build bookshelves and windowboxes, find antique frames to hold my drawings and photos.
For me, home is truly where the heart is. When it’s calm, clean and pretty, my world is complete.
I planned to leave journalism in the mid-1990s and become an interior designer, and studied at The New York School of Interior Design. I loved it and did well. Then my marriage suddenly blew up, so starting a whole new career was no longer practical.
Here are some of my inspirations and ideas:
Always include a few lovely old things. Unless you’re dedicated Modernist, it’s soothing and grounding to include some older pieces in the mix, whether textiles, glass, china or furniture, whose weathered surfaces and patina, curves and inlay and engraving add lovely details and shapes. I bought four rush-seated painted ladder-back chairs, two black, two light green — now about 150 years old — at a country auction in Nova Scotia in 1985 and shipped them home to Toronto by train. I still love them. You can find many great things at thrift and consignment shops for pennies. Once you learn the difference between blown and molded glass, silver plate and sterling, reproduction and the real thing, you’ll score some seriously affordable loot.
Re-purpose! Antique textiles can be re-used as pillow covers, bed and table linens, a folding screen. I use battered old wooden tool-boxes to hold my bedside needs, the TV remote and use a square wooden seaman’s chest to hold all the ugly cables, plugs and extension cords that keep our house functioning. A lovely hand-blown or cut crystal decanter can hold dish soap, juice, vinaigrette.
Invest in polish, rags, tools, Goo-gone, steel wool, paint. Many of the nicest things in my home sure didn’t arrive pristine, but needed sanding, painting or cleaning. (Goo-gone, a liquid available at hardware stores, will get rid of the leftover adhesive from an old sale sticker, for example.) I recently spray-painted some basic red clay pots a gorgeous glossy navy blue to match my ceramic pots of the same color.
Read books for inspiration. I have a terrific collection of auction catalogs, and hardcover books on design, antiques, art and decorative arts, from Asia, Mexico and Europe. I dip into them occasionally for sheer visual pleasure — and fresh ideas. I love The Well-Worn Interior, with some exquisite photos of homes in Ireland, France, England and even New York City.
Go abroad, even just visually. Even if your budget hasn’t room for a trip to Bangkok or Paris, there are so many great websites and books and magazines full of ideas. My favorite design magazine is The World of Interiors, a British publication, followed by the various editions of Cote Sud, which focus on on regions of France. The French and English are masters of elegant but laid-back beauty, full of ideas you won’t find in an American magazine. I also like Canadian House & Home. I love this British website for amazing textiles and wallpaper.
Small items can have a huge impact. A perfect, tiny frame; some fresh flowers in a vase; a fragment of lace on a pillow cover; a silver or glass or brass candlestick. Splurge on super chic or costly designer fabric for one or two small throw pillows. Give your eye somewhere lovely to land. Check out antiques fairs, art supply stores, flea markets, garden supply centers, Etsy. I recently scored a perfect, round, gold metal Victorian picture frame about 5 inches in diameter for $20 at an outdoor antiques show. A creamy white frame, on sale from Pottery Barn, now holds a sepia photo of my great grandfather, with sepia cursive writing wrapping paper as the mat on which it lies.
Perfection is boring! My hand-woven white summer rug, (found in a Quebec antique store), needs some repair. It’s old and that’s OK. While you want your home clean, sweet-smelling and tidy, matchy-matchy perfection is a surefire style killer. Think quirky, charming, curvy. If everything in your room is a pale neutral, add a pop of scarlet or yellow or black. Especially black. If every shape in a space is a square or rectangle, consciously add a few softening pieces — a mirror, a demilune table, a throw rug — that are circular, oval or curved.
Use your scissors, camera, printer. Photos can look strikingly different — better! — in black and white or sepia. Look for old magazines, ads, postcards, signage. Anything can work as art if you use it, frame it, and hang or display it well.
Color! A hit of terrific color (scarlet, lime green, turquoise, white, black) in a throw pillow or accessory can punch up a sofa, chair or bookshelf.
Flea markets and antique shows are your new best friend. Take cash in small denominations and a check book and an open mind. I need nothing, but am always up for adventure. My last flea market tour, (the Sunday market at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall), netted me a gorgeous pink glass compote I gave away ($10), a tiny silver-plate engraved cup ($10, now on my desk holding pencils and pens) and a huge swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.) Score! The silk now perfectly covers my folding screen (the one I made).
Multiples and scale matter. Items in threes are more interesting than a pair. If you’re going to have one…of anything…make it huge or tiny. Put related items together. Mix it up while using similar color, tone, pattern. Our bedroom wall has two sepia-tone female nude photos, each framed in gold, hung together.