Antiquing: Le Grand Déballage, the best time to buy

Antique sideboard

A few times a year, a huge game of musical chairs takes place in the antiquing world. It goes by the name of Le Grand Déballage … which translates to The Great Unpacking. One of the venues for this great unpacking is Avignon – and it’s a sight not to be missed.

The maxim “the early bird catches the worm” comes to mind when trying to describe this event. If you’re not there and on your starting block by 8 am, you will miss the best items. This is the place where thousands of antique dealers, from all over the country, unload their antiques in eight or so grand pavilions, and for traders who can’t get a spot inside, the unpacking continues outside, on the courtyards between the great halls.

When I first saw the phrase Le Grand Déballage, it was in the weekly French magazine Paris Match. My thumbs pricked with excitement. “Finally,” I thought, “antiquing has turned trendy.” But alas, I was mistaken. Le Grand Déballage also means the airing of dirty laundry, as was the case when Valerie Trierweiler, France’s former First Girlfriend, told the publication in great detail of the eighteen months she spent at Elysée Palace, from the election of President Holland to their break up.

But do not be deterred. This great unpacking is far more interesting – even if doesn’t make the pages of Paris Match – as it’s the pinnacle event for buyers and sellers in the antiquing world of France. This is where antiques are brought, bought, sold and then delivered to all the different regions in the country, and where pre-loved items have a great chance in the ensuing chaos, to find new homes. It is here that antiquing becomes a game of musical chairs.

The fair starts at 8 am. But the queuing starts much earlier. By 7:30, all the trucks of the transporters are lined up, waiting to gain entry. As the doors swing back, the engines of huge trucks rumble in unison and then follow each other, bumper to bumper, to their allotted spot in the gravel car park. Parking side by side, with barely enough space for the drivers and packers to get out of their vans, they swing open the back doors to set up. The teams of movers and packers, all clutching their phones and purchase-order books, await the first calls from their clients in the exhibitions halls.

Antiques HallAt the other end of the fair, the front gates open and in race the buyers; like charging bulls at Pamplona, each one hoping to be the first person to snap up any bargains that might be had. The phones begin to ring as the buyers alight on their prey and the game of musical chairs has begun. Over the course of the next few hours, the packers will run with their trolleys, and collect the sold pieces.

By 9 am the hawks have devoured their antique prey, and the rest of us can begin to sift through the amazing selection that remains. The items are things that cannot be found in every day high street shops. Moving around the exhibition halls, you feel as if you are in a museum, without the glass to stop you touching the chef d’oeuvre. Souvenirs from history surround you: zinc horses’ heads, old farm-yard furniture, a wrought-iron, rusty staircase from a torn-down bastide, 19th-century jewellery and an amazing selection of chandeliers that might have formerly lit up a château.

Items too heavy or large to move are displayed from the back of trucks and many vendors come with their own cranes (below) with which to lift the weightier items out onto the tarmac. (The term Le Grand Déballage also refers to the back of the lorries from which all the goods are displayed.)

Nosing around the choices on sale is furious and fast. There isn’t much time to consider as the great unpacking is all done and dusted by around 11 am and, by noon, the trucks are beginning to roll away, taking the sold items to their new homes.

Crane for lifting antiques

My phone rings. Oliver, my antique-dealing friend, is calling me. He wants me to see his latest acquisition. “It’s perfect,” he says. “Now it’s a question of getting it home.”

I walk to his location. Sure enough, there is his treasure, complete with an orange sticker on it that says VENDU.

Only a minor detail mars the moment. It is hanging half way in and half way out of the back of Oliver’s truck. Next to it stands Oliver with its previous owner. They are arguing logistics.

“Let’s start again.”

“No, if we move it to the right …”

“Just push this side a little more.”

A crowd begins to form. Everyone has a different opinion. What is, exactly, the best way of getting a large sideboard into the back of the truck?

I move away. There’ll be plenty of time for a coffee. These folks obviously haven’t been to a supermarket recently and have forgotten to take an extra shopping bag.

Caren Trafford writes environmental books for kids – see www.planetkids.biz – and lives in Provence. She is happy to find architectural pieces of interest for you in Provence.

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