French flea markets hit hard

The French trade in antiques and collectibles (and other second hand goods) is strictly regulated. All French resident dealers must be licensed by their local town council and maintain strictly controlled records of stock. There’s no escape. Not now.

Other than on the Internet, the only place where the French general public ever gets a chance to play at being a dealer is at their local vide-greniers – literally “attic clearances.” Those bear some resemblance to “car boot sales” in UK, the big difference being that all French towns are limited to two events a year. Some have only one, others none at all.

Until 2008, it was pretty much a free-for-all. Some organizers were more concerned with making up the numbers than checking whether particuliers (general public) were indeed from the locality, or whether sellers offering shelves full of decorative art glass or whatever were properly licensed. But changes were afoot.

August 2008 – La loi Dutreil

French politician Renaud Dutreil had long been campaigning for measures to stem the trade in stolen and counterfeit goods, and some sellers’ evasion of income and purchase taxes. But, although his law was put on the statute book in 2005, it remained unratified by Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French President. So, confusion reigned for the following three years – not least for overseas buyers.

Authorities in some parts of France implemented the new rules, others did not. Sometimes you didn’t know until you got there.

Uniformity arrived when La loi Dutreil was ratified in August 2008, as part of wider economic reforms. One of the main restrictions in Dutreil’s original plans, that particuliers could sell only in their own locality, was scrapped. Another was reinforced – that particuliers were permitted to sell nothing other than used personal goods. A third, that they were permitted to sell at only two events per year, stayed.

2009 – delayed action

Early in 2009, French authorities in some towns relaxed the new rules for pre-existing plans. Events as late as Easter were pretty much unscathed – at least most of the ones I went to. But the picture in September was quite different. Whereas large vide-greniers in moneyed and tourist areas still attracted the licensed trade, those in less prosperous areas were populated only by – you guessed it – local residents selling nothing other than used personal goods and effects.

What to do in 2010?

Established popular 2000+ vide greniers (aka braderie and réderie) at places such as Amiens (April and October), Grandvilliers (July) and Lille (6000 in September) (all northern France) are unlikely to be affected. Indeed, they have become all the more attractive to sellers restricted to two events per year. As for the others? Unless you are in the know, or have local contacts, the only way to assess whether a visit might be worthwhile is to concentrate on those advertising the presence of the licensed trade (professionals). Others may be fun, but the chance of finding any quantity of what you’re looking for will be quite remote.

Vide Greniers, French flea markets
New laws introduced in 2008 meant that most French vide-greniers, their lowest level of flea market, were badly affected in 2009: Members of the public are now permitted to sell nothing other than secondhand personal goods, and then only twice a year. Well-established and popular events such as the 2,500 stand trade-oriented réderie at Amiens (left) (twice-yearly) are unlikely to be affected. But, in September, the 2,500 stand flea market in Wattrelos (right) most certainly was.

Back to the licensed trade

Apart from the above, there are four types of antiques and collectibles events in France. The smallest and most frequent are the hundreds of weekly or monthly one-day events in or on the edge of town centres and usually outdoors. The tourist appeal of the location determines the quality and variety of stock, and the prices. They are quite relaxed and the best places to connect with the local trade.

Trade only

Then there are the events where the buyers are strictly trade only. But, whereas French buyers are required to show their licenses on entry, a Canadian, UK or US passport usually does the trick. Why else would you be at a windswept out-of-town exhibition center at 8 a.m.?
Monthly or six-times-a-year, there are between 200 and 1,000 exhibitors at maybe a dozen or so towns – most in the north, three in the south and one in the mid-east. They are all but over by lunchtime. The largest and best established (eg Le Mans) have French and UK shippers regularly on hand – but connect with one before you go.

Mainstream shows

My own favorites are the (typically) twice-a-year antiquités-brocante events, usually held in exhibition centers over a long weekend – often with a trade buying day on the Thursday or Friday. Anything from 50-300 exhibitors, most local, between them showing goods pretty much across the board – by both type and quality. Although the number of full-time dealers in France has long been in decline, exhibitor numbers have recently been inflated by the previously unlicensed trade.

Some of these shows advertise themselves as salon events, emphasizing the presence of some fine art and antiques. The word salon also suggests the presence of l’expert – a professionally qualified and independent appraiser who provides written appraisals free of charge – and for which he remains personally liable for five years (until recently 10).

The market today in France

When have dealers anywhere ever proclaimed “these are good times”? But, as in UK, the terrestrial market in France has been in decline for almost 10 years. During those 10 years, heading south, I have regularly driven the 70 miles between the port of Calais and the town of Abbeville. At one time I had nine regular stops on that stretch. Now only one of those shops remains, and only one new shop has opened in place of the eight that have closed.

Apart from shop closures and people leaving the trade, there has been a substantial migration to the Internet – particularly since 2001, when eBay bought out their French rivals iBazar. Shows have also been boosted by shops being abandoned as unnecessary and time-consuming overheads. Curiously, though, what has not (yet) happened is a rapid growth in antiques malls. For some reason, that’s not what they do in France.

But what has hit France hardest, in exports across the board, are the remarkable gains in strength of the euro against the currencies of two of its most important customers – UK and US. The financial downturn and new laws have not had that much of an impact on the quantity of good quality art, antiques, collectibles and decorative items to be found in shops, shows, auctions and on the Internet. Indeed, there seems to be less junk around. It’s the prices, in US dollars and pounds sterling, that have made the French antiques market not quite the turkey-shoot it had been in 2002.

Photos courtesy Ivor Hughes


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