Antiquing: It started with a door. Taking home a piece of Provence
The short email appeared unexpectedly one afternoon. It was marked “URGENT”. “Wanted” it said.
The typeface was bold. I clicked it open and read on.
Wanted: matching pair of Louis XIVth doors, original condition. Walnut wood preferred but oak a possibility, patina unworked, curved. Looking to ship as soon as possible, transportation needed to USA.
I pondered the query with a sense of excitement. I was in the perfect place to accept the challenge. A treasure hunt was about to begin.
As the lucky residents of Provence will tell you, Provence is known for many things: its location in southeastern France offers an attractive climate, a sumptuous choice of cuisine and enough history to fill at least 10 encyclopaedias.
What you can’t learn from the travel, cooking and history books is that in Provence, the sunniest part of France, can be found some of the finest antique doors in the world: some, many hundreds of years old, crafted by the Masters from another era. Today, these doors may be locked away in some antique dealer’s cellar, or stacked carelessly and half-forgotten, at the back of disused warehouses. It’s just a question of knowing where to look.
I considered the email further. The 17th century style is stately and sober, elegant with a complicated style of mouldings. So what manner of a door would be the right match for my client, whom I could also describe as elegant and complicated? And what would this investigation uncover?
It was obvious that not any old door would do. After all, a door is a statement. The exterior door of a home is the first thing people see when paying a visit, so choosing the right door is a worthwhile exercise. What first impression would you like to convey?
Doors are an introduction or a prologue. They can be an invitation or a deterrent.
Whether it is your home or office, a door is the first point of contact for any visitor. And here in Provence we have some of the most beautiful doors in the world.
In city offices, the modern, semi-transparent, smoke-coloured, austere glass doors only open if you are a member of the “club”. Key cards and passwords allow passage through them.
At home, it is no different. A door is the portal into your private world. And yet, too often nowadays, a door is at best glanced at, passed through and then forgotten.
The antique doors hidden in various corners of Provence are unforgettable. Created from antique timbers that once adorned a chateau or gated a bastide, they were beautifully crafted and are now sought after by those who can well appreciate them. In their heyday these doors were the focal point – a starting place – with a sense of anticipation for what lay beyond. French timber doors and shutters have a character that new woods will never have. They reflect the craftsmanship and theatre of ages past: a statement, a promise, a mystery. Where have they been? What secrets were whispered behind them by those who lived there?
But I digress…
As I said… it started with a door.
As eager as Sherlock Holmes with the enthusiasm for the mystery of a new case, I went to work.
My goal? To match the client with the perfect door.
I sent out a flurry of emails. That was the easy part. Antique dealers, formerly inaccessible without an appointment or a letter of introduction, are familiar with the concept of emails. However, whether they can be bothered to respond to them at all, is another matter. Photos and emails make much of the initial research easier but nothing can replace a visit to those “Aladdin’s Caves” of antique doors.
A few hours later, replies flashed across my screen and my planning session began.
Living in Provence has provided me the opportunity to meet many interesting characters, but the sellers of all things ancient are a breed apart. Young and old antique dealers love their antiques with a passion. They protect their treasure troves fiercely. You have to be bien connu (well-known) before they will let you into their confidence and sanctum.
Here’s a hint of how it’s done: share a few glasses of the local wine and let them beat you at boules. You’ll gain Brownie points.
But even getting to know the antique dealers won’t always help you secure the item you desire. Often, when finally a selling price is agreed, it will be as a favour. Many antiquaires admit, quietly, that they will sell a piece — only if they like you.
Peter, an antique dealer of repute, is a fine example. He is a thick-set antiquaire, who enjoys his wine and his lunches as much as his antiques. He could pass as the brother of Friar Tuck. Peter will rub his thumbs together, look you up and down, sniff a few times before he delivers his verdict. If he is not liking what he sees, he will simply say, “Non, c’est fermé aujourd’hui. Désolé.” (Sorry, I’m closed today.)
The timing of a visit to the antique dealer’s lair is crucial. It took a while for me to realise that the vague gestures and the distracted looks that entered the conversation when discussing the age or origin of a particular interesting piece were not personal.
At first I thought my accent was beyond them. But no, the French find the foreign accent rather exotic. Nor was it a question of price. It was far more probable that the seller just had lunch on his mind and was contemplating which bottle or two of wine would accompany it. Or perhaps it was the aperitifs that called?
I tried arriving after lunch. But if it wasn’t the fine wines of Provence calling, it was likely to be a game of boules, underway outside the shop, on the sandy public footpath. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” is the normal greeting, and so you watch as the antique dealer flings his final boule to win against his antique-dealing friends.
I was introduced to antiquing in France by a friend who was leaving her business, to set off on a world adventure. She took me around and introduced me to her contacts. I learnt quickly that these were not just contacts, they were also friends. Many antique dealers have been in the antique dealing trade for generations: fathers, sons, grandsons and daughters, and many of their antiques have been handed down through the generations.
The antiquaires welcomed me into the fold. The language spoken was French, but not the French that I had learnt at school and was familiar with. Here in the south, the patois or accent is delivered at the speed of the French motor bikers racing between cars on the motorway and is akin to a Londoner trying to understand a Newfoundlander. The exchange is loud and excited. There is little pause for breath. I came away shaking my head and begging for a translation. After a few visits though, the ear acclimatises and you realise you understand the guts of the conversation. By the time you are offered an aperitif you know that you have been given the thumbs up, even though the dealers will continue to consider it your severe misfortune that you come from another land.
Searching out the perfect door in Provence is hard. Even with the right contacts. Why? Because there are so many: all contending for the position.
And my role as the matchmaker is to find a connection between the door and the buyer. Then, I stand back and watch the sparks!
The range of antiques available in Provence is vast, thanks to the successive waves of settlers that have made this area home since the days of the Romans. Romans gave this area its name, which comes from the Latin word Provincia. The architecture and form of Provence may have their roots in antiquity but the style of decoration is from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The area is covered with chateaus, manor houses (bastides) formerly occupied by wealthy farmers and smaller dwellings called mas. In the 19th and 20th century many of these homes were converted into summer dwellings by Parisians, seeking the sun, or by the well-to-do Marseillais who wanted to escape the heat of the city. The architecture and furnishings of these buildings, although based on antiquities, re-invented itself into a relaxed elegance that is now known as the Provençal style. Today the Provençal style is copied and sought out internationally.
Through antiquing, my love for the environment has found a new route to run. I can help to recycle the great masterpieces of Provençal history that are lying discarded and forgotten. As a passionate recycler, I could immediately see the potential of finding new homes for those pre-loved pieces of art and architecture, crafted in the atelier workshops of ages past. Here, the antiques of Provence are waiting to be rediscovered, to stand again and to be admired.
And so, back to the doors. The ones I found were real beauties.
The dealer, who located them in his cave of treasures, loves his doors. And the whole family is in the business: uncles, aunts, sons and daughters. Three days of searching and, then, they unearthed the treasure. Hidden behind a stack of other doors, covered with grime and cobwebs, the perfect match had stood there quietly, waiting … quite forgotten, since grand-father had first opened for business. They were a rarity from the 17th century, double doors, with a beautiful curved arch.
A few drinks, a game of boules and emails sent and voilà, they were sold.
Smiles and handshakes.
Arriving home, I sent the final details to the shippers.
Just as I finished, another email arrived in the in-box. It read: ”Great work. Just on the off chance, can you locate a Napoleon III chimney-place?”
Caren Trafford writes environmental books for kids – see www.planetkids.biz – and works with Antiques Diva. She is happy to find architectural pieces of interest for you in Provence.