The Other Side of Paris: Fabulous flea markets awaiting discovery

Written by: Michelle LeBlanc Fine

Paris is a city of discovery. Its graceful bridges curve over the sensuous Seine River connecting its vibrant streets to an array of intriguing neighborhoods. Visitors explore this romantic city’s great art, architecture, and historic sites, while savvy dealers from around the globe flock to Paris to search its flea markets for rare and collectible antiques.
The flea markets of Paris are a virtual treasure trove for antique dealers. Here is where some of the finest collectibles are found and shipped back to the states for resale. Although no one needs an excuse to go to The City of Lights, a trip to search for antiques for your home or garden is a good one.

There are over eighty flea markets in and around Paris. Each market has its own character where merchants of many different types display their wares. These markets represent the real Paris where the locals of every social ranking barter over everything from a pound of sausage to an 18th century armoire.

Serious collectors in search of antiques venture out from the center of Paris to the more famous flea markets just outside the city’s boarders. The flea market at the Port de Clignancourt, Les Puces de Saint-Quen, is considered the best market to find rare antiques. Considered the largest flea market in the world, Les Puces de Saint-Quen or simply Les Puces is one of the first flea markets from the turn-of-the-century. It has a wonderful history that evolved form the early traders of Paris.

In the late 1700s the moon fishermen (“pecheres de lune”) and rag-and-bone men searched the streets of Paris by night, picking up discarded valuables from the wealthy residents. In the 1880s the city’s authorities considered these scavengers a nuisance and forced them to sell their wares beyond the fortifications near the city’s gates at Porte de Clignancourt and other locations.

It did not take long for these resourceful traders to band together to create the first true Parisian flea markets. Eventually stalls were set up and a series of markets appeared at Porte de Clignancourt. The traders began to acquire more collectibles that attracted the Parisian antique dealers. The late 19th-century flea markets soon became the place where the social elite of Paris browsed on Sunday afternoons for bargains and entertainment.

The term “flea market” was coined at the turn-of-the-century. The French translation for flea is “les puces.” As the legend goes a bargain hunter in the 1890s looked down from one of the city’s walls onto the vast field of merchants selling their wares and proclaimed, “My word, it is a flea market!” The expression caught on and was used on promotional material all over the world.

Today, over 150,000 visitors each weekend stroll through the vast marketplace at Les Puces. It is a pulsating series of villages ranging from hawking street vendors selling shoes and kitchen items to chic Parisian shop keepers displaying Louis XV bureaus and 19th-century art. There are over ten different individually named markets located on the grounds of Les Puces. Some of the markets carry high-end collectibles while others offer kitsch items and vintage clothing.

Plan to get up early to beat the noon-day crowd at Les Puces. It is a convenient ride from the center of the city on Metro number four to Port de Clignancourt. The flea markets open at 8:30 am every Saturday and at 10 am on Sunday and Monday. The prime time to arrive is at 8 am on Saturday to observe the antique dealers setting up new displays for the day. Find a nearby café and have a steaming cup of café crème while waiting for the madness to begin.

If you are looking for French collectibles, walk past the many stalls of household goods and African imports. The main street is Rue des Rosiers where many of the better markets are connected. On the left side of Rue des Rosiers is the Paul Bert Market (96 Rue des Rosiers) and Marche Serptette (110 rue des Rosiers). These are two of the markets that dealers frequent for French country furniture, Art Deco items, and interesting garden and culinary pieces. There is a wonderful selection of mirrors here and an impressive selection of 19th-century art of investment quality. Although these two markets are not considered the highest end of Les Puces, the vendors are friendly and they offer good bargains. Be prepared to negotiate the prices as most dealers expect this of their seasoned clientele.

Also on the left side of Rue des Rosiers is Marche Malassis (142 Rue des Rosiers) where rare archeological artifacts are displayed with collections of 18th and 19th-century silver. Next door is Marche Dauphine (140 Rue des Rosiers), which has vintage clothing, books, prints, and some very nice decorative objects of art. There is also good 19th-century French furniture here as well as interesting and rare garden statuary.

L’Entrepot is next door to Paul Bert and offers an enormous selection of large architectural elements such as massive marble tables and gazebos. There is a selection of large winding staircases here that are too big for a suitcase but can easily be added to a container if you have arranged one for shipping.

For religious art and some 18th-century stained glass, try the Marche Vallee. There is a selection of smaller items that are less expensive and can be taken back on the plane.

The right side of Rue des Rosiers has one of the insiders’ favorite markets, Marche Biron (85 rue des Rosiers). Country style French antiques are abundant here including some wonderful 19th-century country farm tables and reproduction Louis XVI cane chair sets. The selection of furniture here is vast and also includes sets of formal gold gilded Louis XV parlor sets. Although the prices are high at Biron, the selection is outstanding.

Art Deco enthusiasts can find a great deal of stalls along this route that have unique pieces for sale. The nicest selection of Art Deco items can be found at Marche Antica (99 Rue des Rosiers). Paintings, prints, and watercolors are worth the trip to this market to view.

There are many restaurants and cafés throughout Les Puces; some have street musicians performing nostalgic French songs. Fine wines with cheese, paté, and fresh loaves of French bread (baguettes) make a perfect meal after a hard day of negotiations.

Although the Euro is much higher than it has been in years there are still bargains to be found and the prices here are certainly lower than one can find in the United States. There are many shipping companies that can handle all of the details of picking up goods and getting them packed for export. There are even personal buyers that can be hired to assist with translating and negotiating purchases. France’s Office of Tourism has a list of companies that specialize in handling shipping arrangements.

The thrill of traveling to France to discover the flea markets usually known only to dealers is a memorable experience. This is the other side of Paris most travelers never get to know.