French flea market finds are without doubt one of the country’s best possible souvenirs, whether you’re pocketing vintage jewelry or shipping a three-foot tall chandelier straight from St. Ouen back home.
Here, my nine favorite things to find at my favorite French flea markets, from enamelware to rattan mirror, at a variety of price points: You can find a vintage French rolling pin for €1, while a chandelier can easily cost thousands.
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1. Enamelware (les trucs emaillés)
French enamelware has been a staple of French kitchens for over a century. These days, you’ll find it in a few different shapes: Coffee pots (called cafetieres), large water pitchers (called brocs), and milk pails (pots a lait). The most common color is white. The most sought after is pink, which you should buy immediately if you see it. I’ll take it off your hands!
Older enamelware is heavier, sometimes with hand-painted designs. They may have a fluted or ribbed spout.
Be sure to check the bottom for holes, as these are often not waterproof. That said, I buy all the enamelware with holes I can find, since it’s best to use a glass inside enamelware for flowers anyway—this reduces the risk of damaging it.
2. Baskets (paniers)
These are beautiful and useful—century-old baskets used in kitchens and markets. I have a ton of them and use them for everything from fruit storage on the countertop to as an overflow bath-and-body hold-all in my bathroom drawer.
3. Rattan mirrors (miroirs en rotin)
These are suddenly completely of the moment, both in France and at home. (They’re super Junaglow, no?) You can buy new ones cheap, but they never have the same fine features as those you can get vintage—the new, machine-made ones often have cut-off stalks, rather than bent ones, as they are here.
Why not? Just ship it back!
I love vintage globes—I remember once going on a date that was completely enlivened by our trying to guess the age of the vintage globe based on which countries were using which names. (If that doesn’t sound extremely fun, you can just skip right down to number 6.)
The weird thing in France is that it’s actually more common to see light-up globes that require an electrical connection, so unless you’re up for getting the wiring changed, it’s best to stick to the analogue ones. I look for small ones—maybe four inches across—with delicate feet.
6. Spice pots (pots à épices)
So this would officially be a subset of enamelware, but they’re so beautiful, and so uniquely European, that I had to give them their own category. These were in use from the turn of the (19th) century forward to store kitchen staples: pepper, sugar, flour, the ever-popular chicory, etc. The ceramic versions, of course, well predate that, but I prefer the enamel ones, not least because they’re much easier to transport.
You can find them either as complete sets or one-off cast-offs—the latter can be pretty inexpensive, while the complete sets (especially in unusual colors like pink or yellow) can get very pricy—north of €100.
7. Oil paintings
This is all I want at the moment: oil paintings, and specifically portraits. It’s not for nothing that Paris is a capital of worldwide art production: People come here to be artists, which means that thousands of paintings, many extremely beautiful and accomplished, come into the hands of vintage dealers. Of all the possible French flea market finds, this this is the one I take most seriously: You don’t need to look hard to find works of great sensitivity and beauty, like the one shown, which I sold on my Etsy shop. I loved this portrait, and I felt a responsibility to the artist and the subject, to ensure that it found a wonderful home, which it would be appropriately treasured.
I don’t think at all about what a painting’s “value” might be or if I’m uncovering a rare lost Rembrandt—I just look for what personally appeals to me. I do that with everything I buy, but I feel that with this category even more than most, there’s no pricing guidelines, so you absolutely just have to go with your gut.
Such a classic of early 20th century (and even some late 19th century) French vintage goods: the siphon, which was used to carbonate water—to make it gazeuse. (They were originally designed in the 18th century to transport water from Seltz—literally, seltzer water, which then referred to naturally carbonated mineral water. Here’s an in-depth history, in French.)
Water, kept under pressure in these very heavy glass bottles, was expelled in its new, fizzy state out the metal heads at the top. Apparently, they’re quite volatile—and they were banned from public use (in restaurants or cafés) in the 1950s, as they can burst!
The classic siphon is blue (ranging from aqua to quite a deep navy), though you’ll also see pink, green, clear, and sometimes yellow, all at slightly higher prices.
If you like to cook—or even more, to style your home kitchen in a beautiful way—French flea markets are going to be a wonderland, as you will find the world’s most adorable cutting boards, creamers, rolling pins, canning jars, aprons, latte bowls, everything: If it makes a kitchen look better, you’ll find it at a French flea market, and often for bargain-basement prices.
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