Wednesday, February 16, 2011


At some point in my childhood, my father became enamored of antiques and began searching for bargains at local auction houses. Without my mother's compliance, he set about transforming our house. Soon, our suitable, kid-worn living room couch and chairs disappeared, replaced by a suite of "French Provincial" furniture, whose main attribute was that it made the floor seem comfortable. Side tables with delicate spindly legs, which tipped over at the slightest provocation, completed the ensemble.

Our vocabulary changed too. A couch was now a divan; light fixtures became chandeliers and sconces; the bureau a commode; and the cabinet that held our dishes in the dining room a credenza. Our mantle, previously a repository for keys and stray items, began to fill up with a collection of vases (now pronounced vāzs) made of what my father assured us was authentic Venetian glass. If she had embraced our new, elevated vocabulary, my mother would have called these vases, ramasse-poussière. Instead, somewhat irreverently and much to my father's annoyance, she called his prized collection "nothing but a bunch of goddamn dust collectors." 

I thought of all this recently when I visited the Drouot auction house at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris, the firm's headquarters since 1852. Drouot has four auction locations in the city, 100 auctioneers, 70 independent auction firms, and 21 exposition halls, where 3,000 auctions are held every year. According to its website, "Drouot is the oldest public auction house in the world, a crossroads of the art market, an inexhaustible reservoir of paintings, furniture and art objects of every epoch and price…a magical and ephemeral museum open to all."

Drouot is also a place to see and be seen by le tout Paris. Experienced art and antique dealers, mink-clad matrons and hip young designers stand elbow to elbow with hopeful, first-time bargain hunters and grey-haired retirees. When bidding starts, everyone has a chance. If your bid is the highest, the auctioneer's gavel will slam down, the word adjugé will ring out, and you will be the proud owner of one of the innumerable items sold at Drouot each year. It could be a famous painting for a million euros or a 10-euro box of uncatalogued bibelots and bric-a-brac. 

A novice to auctions might find Drouot a bit intimating. There are experts in the halls who bid with just a raised eyebrow while other bids come in, fast and furiously, over the telephone and the internet. The competition can be fierce and all the discussion, of course, is conducted in French. 

You don't have to buy anything, however, to have a good time. Drouot does have a museum-like quality and there's great people watching. On sale days, all the auction rooms are alive with the sing-song of bids, the buzz of conversation and the sometimes satisfied, sometimes disappointed sighs of the bidders. And a day at Drouot obviously brings back memories. Over and over again, people point to any one of hundreds and hundreds of objects on display and exclaim: "Mamie had one of those."

I saw lots of divans, chandeliers and Venetian vases that my father would have loved. On the other hand, I know exactly what my mother would have said.

For more photos, click here.

A bientôt,


  1. VERY interesting blog! I love antiques and the fact that something is in your possession that was once used or prized by someone long before you were born. D.

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