About ten years ago, when I was in the antiques business, I was shopping in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, In the south of France, just east of Avignon. It’s the Fisherman’s Wharf of antiquing – a place that receives massive press, a place for antiques shoppers who don’t know any better, a place that is sprawling, overpriced, overblown. And yet, it’s a must-go-to place because, on occasion, one might just stumble upon something rare and incredible.
Another reason for visiting was that my shipper, Camard, had its Provencal office there. It was a one person office and Annie was in charge. Camard’s facilities were just outside Paris. On my last day of shopping, I turned over all the buying information to Annie. Camard then dispatched a truck to pick up my purchases around the area and truck them to Paris for fumigation (for furniture), packing, creating customs documentation, and shipping. It was a lengthy process, usually about three months before the container landed Port of Oakland.
This particular trip, I had struck out on finding bonbonnes – those large hand-blown green bottles from the late 19th century that I could sell quickly with a high margin. Annie said she knew a place that might have some and she had been dying to go see it. She phoned and, oui, oui, of course they had bonbonnes. She closed the office and said, “let’s go, it’s not far.”
Three or four backroads, left, right, right, left and we arrived. It looked like a junkyard. We drove through a gate and parked. It was a junkyard all right, a private junkyard. Monsieur Somebody, a scraggily looking gent in Bermuda shorts, blue checked shirt and Ivy League cap, greeted us. Annie translated as he had no English and the conversation was beyond my pathetic French language skills.
“Bonbonnes,” he repeated over and over trying place exactly where he had seen them. The yard was huge, over a hectare, with every conceivable pile of consumer junk imaginable – stoves, ovens, refrigerators, toasters, fences, gates, doors, computers, bed frames, medical equipment, it was mind boggling.
Monsieur Somebody called his thirty-something year old son from a shed where he was fitting some old pieces of wood into new “antique” armoire. It is a common in France that inexperienced and unsuspecting buyers are sold a phony for “a good price.” The armoire probably came from a half dozen different derelict pieces of wood, but usually not an old armoire, planed, sanded, stained, and sold as authentic. The finished product looked good but was not an antique and its real value but a fraction of the sales price. If one knows what to look for, spotting a phony is easy.
Monsieur Somebody et fils were here to help. Junior made me nervous, a little unsteady, intense and twitchy. But Annie knew how to handle the situation and explained our mission to the younger man. He led us down a path and pointed to a mound of dirt.
“Juste là,’’ he said (right there.) The bonbonnes were covered with dirt to protect them from accidental breakage and the weather. Junior, Annie and I dug them out, carefully, by hand, like archeologists at a great pyramid. We salvaged about a dozen and a half, in varying sizes, but in exceptionally good condition once junior hosed them down. There was another mound and I inquired what treasures might be buried. Pottery, I was told, old vases and vessels. We dug. Another dozen and half. Great find, not particularly valuable but old and interesting. I could sell them for a pretty profit.
Monsieur Somebody then led me around his rubble yard to see if I was interested in old coffee pots, office chairs, radios and TV’s, car parts from Citroens, Renaults or Peugeots. Alas, no. My hands were filthy as were Annie’s and she asked if we could use the hose.
“Non, non!” We were led into the house where Madam Somebody awaited us. Father, Mother and junior lived in a house with no running water. Madam directed me to put my hands in the sink while she pumped water over them. I died on a semi-clean linen.
We packed the car. Annie said she would further clean the items before the truck came to collect them. With that, we bid the “merchants” a sad but fond adieu. On the way back, Annie told me the family had rented a stall at one of the pavilions at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. They were quickly evicted after management learned the family was living in the back of the stall. The tipoff came when an evening security guard spotted a bonfire where the family was cooking its dinner. Monsieur Somebody confessed they liked the space because it had so many modern amenities like running water and plumbing. I paid about 30€ for the pottery and bonbonnes, but the day, as they say, was priceless.