Market Value

Any shopping section of a Paris guide-book will confirm it: while the chic boutiques and classy department stores are not to be missed, to round out a truly Parisian experience you must visit its flea markets and second-hand antique shops. Nothing beats the rush, they say, of spotting that gem hidden in plain sight under a century of dust and neglect; an old family heirloom from the attic of a calloused-fingered French grandma is just waiting to fulfill its destiny by adorning your modern home.

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Yeah, I skip right over those sections.

But on Sunday as we brainstormed to find a pleasant married-couple activity, I realized that such an excursion would be a perfect fit: the designer in her would fawn over the vintage decorative aspects, while the Paris nerd in me would appreciate checking off another historical site from my to-see list. I had heard after all that the French term for these places, les marchés aux puces (markets of the fleas), is probably where the term “flea market” came from. Just add it to the long list of popular trends that Paris had a hand in inventing. At any rate it was time to see it for myself.

We went to the antique markets of Saint-Ouen which are just north of the city and considered to be some of the best in the world. Once you breach the cheap knock-off items along its periphery, the more reputable areas inside give a sense that you’ve stumbled onto an old treasure trove. We were immediately under its spell.

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The markets are arranged like a small village. A network of narrow pedestrian streets are lined with tables and large vendor stalls that tempt you from all angles. Our conversation consisted mainly of variations on the same theme: “Honey, look at that!” or “Wow babe, check this out!” or “Yeah that’s cool but you’re gonna love this!”

It became clear early on that the visit would be window-shopping only (the first chairs to catch my wife’s eye cost 1,000€ each), but that only slightly diminished the fun. She dreamed of constructing the perfect home interior; I indulged in the fantasy of discovering a long-lost Matisse or an original Declaration of Independence concealed behind the backing of an amateur painting.

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I briefly considered the piece above to be an overlooked original by Renaissance master Fra Angelico. Had I finally found my secret jackpot? The fact that it seemed to be a poster glued to a board raised some doubts. There was also the matter of a large sticker on the back listing the artist’s name and birth date for all to see. It was…also on a discount table selling for two euros. Maybe my life-changing hidden treasure moment would have to wait.

But another kind of fantasy was satisfied when I turned a corner to find I’d walked straight into the archetypal Paris dream. I had that odd feeling of distant familiarity that happens when you recognize a site from a movie…and this wasn’t just any movie!

Midnight in Paris St Ouen flea market

Midnight in Paris, a favorite movie of mine, was filmed party in these antique markets and I was tickled to find myself in the same spot. Not surprisingly the area was “charmed up” for the film shoot: the movie’s Oriental rugs and shrubs we see on the left were there to hide the public restrooms (which saved me twice during our visit), and the prop objects for sale in the movie look almost ridiculously idealized compared to real life. But hey, that’s movies. Here’s a shot of mine to compare, showing the same red awning:

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With that pleasant moment acknowledged and absorbed, we continued our search for old and interesting things. The variation of items was impressive: tiny delicate objects, large imposing ones, art and sculpture, furniture and animals — as much as your eyes and imagination could ask for.

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My wife rediscovered her childhood love for croquet when she saw a vintage set in a window display, and I imagined the joy on the little French boy’s face when he first received the old go-cart adorning the roof of vendor’s stall:

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In this market you could furnish yourself with the necessary parts for whatever project you had in mind, whether it be a Gothic facade for your apartment…

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…or a classical sculpture garden (complete with urinating cherub fountain).

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Some objects invoked stories of the Parisian past in my mind. What sorts of tawdry scenes did this lamp-post once illuminate? How many old bottles of French wine did that basket of corkscrews open? How many dapper gents in their Sunday best strolled the boulevards of Paris with those canes in hand?

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After killing several hours and spending too much on armfuls of discounted tomes at the nearby bookstore, I had become a believer in the antique markets of Paris. But our eyes, stomachs and feet were asking to call it a day so we couldn’t stay any longer. Just before exiting, one more item caught my eye — a tantalizing reminder of all those treasure-finding possibilities:

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I started to approach it for a closer look, searching for tell-tale signs that it might be an authentic —

“Honey let’s go, it’s getting cold,” my wife reminded me.

It was true. I was too tired and hungry and was carrying too many books. My life-changing art discovery would just have to wait for another day.

*The Saint-Ouen market is large and made up of several smaller markets connected to each other. In order to avoid the bad stuff and focus on the nice areas shown here, I recommend the Paul Bert and Serpette areas, where most of these pictures were taken.

40 comments

  • This is what my dreams are made of, literally, I have dreams of walking through attics or rooms of treasures. Thanks for the tour through a collectors play land. And yes my heart skipped a beat in the movie Midnight in Paris when they walked through the market….lovely.

    • Thanks Margo, glad you liked it. I’m not an antiques guy by nature but I have to say we had a great time. At times it felt like walking through a really interesting museum. I’m happy you stopped by!

  • J’adore, Mr. Frye! This is like a fantasy come true. To be complete, there would be no shipping of treasures back to the States; just having them moved to my Paris apartment. Thanks again for a delightful distraction.

    • Ha, sounds like you’ve run through this fantasy in your mind more than once Jarrett! Can’t say I blame you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I had a hard time limiting the amount of pictures — too many cool ones to choose from!

  • BRAVO!!! You’ve done it again, Corey — you’ve whisked me away to Paris. And to a spot I’ve never seen! What a truly wonderful post. My only disappointment is that I can’t somehow walk through my screen and directly into the scene you describe. Beautifully written and photographed.

    • Thanks Heather. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, we should take you up there next time you’re in town. As always, your kind words are appreciated. I’m glad you liked it!

  • Oooh I must add this stop to my Paris list. I am not sure if I should keep reading your blog before my trip or hold off since I will only have a couple days in Paris?;). Have you ever been on a hot air ballon ride in the area yet? I really want to do this but I havent decided where in France I will do it if it is possible for this trip.

    • It’s possible that you should read my blog MORE as your trip approaches…but maybe I’m biased. :)

      A hot air balloon sounds lovely. I’ve never heard much about the possibility of it in the Paris area, and I doubt it’d be allowed above the city itself, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t find it in the rural areas nearby. If you do find such an experience, I hope you’ll be blogging about it for the rest of us! :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting Sophia, always nice to hear from you.

  • I loved this post and honestly the others I’ve read. The flea market at Pont de Vanves is a bit more hit or miss but there are always treasures to be found there as well.

  • How lovely! We are planning a trip to Paris this year and this market asks to be visited. I’m sorry I have to say that the place in the movie looked nicer than in reality, but all your other pictures make up for it.

    • You’re right, in fact after seeing the real thing and then re-watching the scene in the movie, you realize just how much is tinkered with to create an idyllic space. Woody Allen added green bushes and plants everywhere, hid the bathrooms, and instead of old-looking objects for sale you see pristine little doll houses…almost comical when you compare it to reality, but then again I’m not surprised.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for your comment!

  • Just fascinating!! I loved all the old silver, the cash register, and of course the statuary … what a trove! And I loved that you recognized the scene from “Midnight in Paris” — I had a similar situation when I was taking a run around my hotel in Universal City, CA and all of a sudden I felt terribly uneasy and anxious. I wasn’t paying too much attention to my surroundings but then realized I was looking directly down on the house from Psycho … it was so creepy!! What a fun post, even if you didn’t find any buried art treasure!!

    • Seeing the Psycho house must have been sort of the opposite of a Midnight in Paris experience–yikes! I hope you were able to jog off the heebie-geebies.

      I still think the Mona Lisa I passed up at the end might be the original, and the one in the Louvre is just a cheap knock off…more research is needed however. :)

      Thanks for a lovely comment as always Betty, take care!

  • What beautiful photos! We’ve got one of those urinating fountain boys in our backyard. Apparently he crosses cultural boundaries.

  • So now you’ve whetted my appetite to see something in which I really have no interest! Such beautiful photos. Maybe it’s the desire to take some beautiful photos of my own?

    • Sure Lee, come on over. :) I was like you, not a whole lot of interest in it, but once you get there your eyes are tempted in all directions with interesting stuff, and you get the feeling like you’re in a open-air museum. And its definitely a photographer’s dream. Thanks for your comment!

  • i swear i would not miss it only if i knew it! i’m just crazy for antiquities regardless my zero experience in judging and defining the real antiques compared to the faux

  • Really enjoyed this article, I adore #flea markets#. Funny as I started reading and loving your pics I thought of “Midnight in Paris” and hey what do you know. Lovely article!

    • Thank you. My wife and I just watched Midnight in Paris again, and it was fun to see the flea market scene and compare it to real life. It reminded me of how great that movie is in general, and it always inspires me to go out and find the different shooting locations. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for mentioning me on your blog! :)

  • Wow, so impressive!! I am definitely doing Paris flea markets when I visit in September!! And I still haven’t got around to watching Midnight in Paris, have been wanting to for ages…now I will, having read of your enthusiasm for it :)

    • Yes do watch this movie, especially if you’re a Paris fan! If you’re anything like me you’ll be hooked within the first 4 seconds. :)

      And yes visit those flea markets. If you visit the Saint-Ouen ones like I did here, be sure to seek out the nicer areas like Paul Bert and Serpette; they’ll be the most expensive but also the most interesting for window shopping. They’re surrounded by less reputable vendors, i.e., piles of knock-off sunglasses and generic batteries, but if you get past them there’s a little oasis waiting for you.

      Congrats on your upcoming Paris trip, exciting! If you have any questions about the city to help you plan, don’t hesitate to ask.

  • I really enjoyed this post! Midnight in Paris is one of my favourite movies – I’ve watched it 5 times!… I plan to visit this flea market on my next visit to Paris. Can’t wait!

    • Yes indeed, they say that the flea market was invented in Paris, so it’s no wonder they hold onto their tradition with fervor. :) My wife’s been bugging me to go back here ever since, so I think we’re due for another spring excursion.

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