Les Marche aux Puces, treasure trove or tourist trap?


The world has become overly modern in some regards. The great mysteries of the world have been dulled and although more realistic the west has lost its sense of imagination. However that feeling of the unknown and slightly magical has to some extent been preserved within trinkets and items of foreign and older times when reality and myth were not as estranged as they are today. Painted Greek vases, Nordic shields, Persian tapestries… these items possess not only immense beauty and craftsmanship, but stories of ancient customs, cultural histories or, at the very least, a sense of mystery. However, these items usually come with huge price tags and are not all as easily acquired.

Being an admirer and amateur dealer of antiquities, I was immediately struck by an article in the Dutch periodical “De Telegraaf” named “ Parijs, Valhalla voor de antiekliefhebber” (Ironic since Vikings often invaded and raided Paris). I decided it was worth a trip to the city of lights in the hopes I would find a supplier in French art, Louis XVI furniture and/or European weapons. The article went described a market in Paris “le Marche aux Puces” (or the market with fleas) as a Mecca of antiquities comparable to the renowned ancient Arabian bazaars with items as diverse and unique as those found on the silk road. Needles to say I was intrigued at the concept, yet being familiar with the tourist trap, which is Paris, I was certainty also skeptical.

The Antique market is a tricky one, it’s not only hard to find antiques it’s also hard to price them. Price them too high and you’ll end up holding on to your wares until you’re an antique yourself, price them too low and people will either think it’s fake or stolen. This makes my business a challenge as I want to provide my costumers antiques at Ikea prices and truth be told many of my clients think I am either a thief or an idiot. However I don’ believe antiques need always be expensive if one has the right network and knows where to look.

I set off for Paris in the hopes of obtaining a supplier and perhaps a rare treasure or two. At the very start of my quest, I was confronted with numerous red flags, the first of which being that le Marche aux Puces is situated in the heart of Saint-Ouen which, according to many parisians, is a “less than favorable place”. As a matter of fact my friends in Paris and the hotel concierge with whom I shared my itinerary both gave me the same bit of advice “leave your cash at home “. The location was infamous for its pickpockets and thieves. I heeded their advice and set off in some raggedy clothes and just my ID and pin-card figuring I could always just pin money if necessary.

I arrived at Saint-Ouen, which unlike the center of Paris was not paved in beige and gold and decorated with giant statues of Greek gods, rather graffiti and litter. I made my way to the market place and about 15 seconds after crossing the street to the square I was approached by a shadowy gentleman who quickly dug a white iPhone 6 plus out of his jacket pocket. He muttered something in French, but the only thing I could distinguish with my limited knowledge of the language was “iPhone 6” and “€100”. I was tempted, but refused and about a minuet later, I was again confronted by another of Apple Inc’s underground salesman, but this time for an iPhone 5. This would occur once more before I actually reached the start of the market.

To find the real Marche aux Puces you’ll have to make your way pass the stands of vendors selling Bob-Marley t-shirts and personal-hygiene products. There it feels like stepping in an Indiana Jones movie. Ancient furniture and artifacts as far as the eye can see woven in a maze of stands and shops build into the ground- level apartments build on the market-grounds. The first thing that caught my eye was a pair of paintings leaning against a fence with two old men chatting on a pair of stools besides them. Paintings, especially French paintings of picturesque scenes go well in my experience. I approached and inquired about the price. The man looked at the painting nonchalantly leaning against the fence and replied €850. It wasn’t a famous artist or a even that great of a painting, but he immediately asked top dollar for it with no room for discussion. I asked him is he had some cheaper items and he led me into a dusty old room, messily filled to the ceiling with paintings, looked around and picked up a small impressionist piece and said €200… I told him I could pay €100 and he snared at me explaining how this was a classic French piece and that €200 is already a bargain. My attempts to find anything at a reasonable price were dashed here and at several other places.

At one stand I found hidden under a pile of old boxes and junk an old French book which looked like a nice display piece, I asked the price and the vendor who had just finished speaking with two American tourists replies €800… For a dusty old book under a pile of old forgotten junk… yes this book was worth more than 2 months rent. My annoyance didn’t end there; I made my way towards an old man, who was sitting in a small storage-room no larger in volume than two or three large closets, which opened to the street. Within this storage room he had a collection of Persian carpets with faded colors and covered in decades of dust. Surely I thought this gentleman would demand a reasonable price for his wares,

…I chose the saddest and dustiest carpet from the lot and asked what he wanted for it…

I chose the saddest and dustiest carpet from the lot and asked what he wanted for it. He quickly spread it out for me and said €800… he demanded the same price for a dusty old Persian as a real dealer would except a real dealers carpets tend not to be covered in a layer of dust as thick as the tapestry itself and are usually in much better condition and at least then I would have both a receipt and a guarantee of authenticity so I could later resell it.

Every stand I went to had the same attitude or worse, top dollar prices for non of the service. True, I did find everything I could imagine in the way of antiques, including swords and muskets (at prices starting at €1000 for a dagger), but I could just as well have gone to an antique store. What is the logic behind stands that only accept cash, easily charge thousands of euros for their wares without providing documents of authenticity while at the same time situated in one of the worse neighborhoods in Paris? I then realized why this place still existed. It is a tourist trap; the streets were filled with Americans, Asians and even several Dutchman yet very few Frenchman other than the vendors. I also realized that for several items the infamous endowment effect was in play, which was obvious when one asked about any French piece and the vendor would go on about how it’s a priceless piece of Parisian heritage and the epitome of French artistry or craftsmanship.

All and all, “Valhalla for the antique lover” is a bit of a reach and, contrary to its name, les Marche aux Puces is not a flea market, but a selection of really bad antique stores . It’s an interesting place to visit, but if you are in the market for antiques go to your local antique shop, it will most likely cost less and your chance of being mugged will be certainty not be great.