Saturday, 6:30 a.m. on the Cote D'Azur and St. Tropez's Café Clemenceau is already crowded—not with the usual gathering of well-heeled travelers, but with local residents impatient for the start of the sprawling farmer's market on bordering Place des Lices. During most of the week this charming square, its long arcades shaded by towering plane trees, is a tranquil enclave. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, however, it explodes into what many connoisseurs consider to be the best Provençal market in the South of France: more than 100 merchants offering everything from homemade bread, cheese, and marmalade to tableware and rare books. Balancing rustic authenticity with French refinement, the flea market boasts the following selection of not-to-be-missed antiques dealers:
ESTATE SILVER Michel and Hélène Marlière's stand glistens with sterling for the table. "The most valuable French silver hails from Louis XIV's period," explains Michel, "because so much was melted for his wars and during the French Revolution." Artifacts such as an 89-piece set of sterling flatware with a tangled Richelieu motif ($5,200) in mint condition are a rare find for collectors. Among the Marlières' other selections are an Art Deco tea set signed by Boulenger and boasting delicately perforated tops and wooden handles ($2,200); a pair of slender 1920 silver-plate candlesticks adorned with vines and leaves ($300); and Baccarat crystal salt and pepper shakers balancing on tiny silver feet ($260). "Unless the piece is perfectly preserved, we don't bother," says Michel.
ANTIQUE LINENS "The market has remained much the same over the years," says Renée Tournebize, who set up shop in 1977, "but distinguishing quality from imitation has gotten much trickier." Fortunately, there's no mistaking the craftsmanship of his wares: handmade 18th- and 19th-century linens, including a dozen pressed white damask cotton napkins with a matching tablecloth ($270 for the set) and soft quilts embroidered with Provençal motifs inspired by nature ($605-$2,730). Since every self-respecting 19th-century family owned numerous sets of bed and table linens, Tournebize explains, they are often in pristine condition, as if they had never been used. Look for the rare boutis, large textured quilts made for weddings. One especially magnificent example from the 18th century had an intricate floral pattern, dotted arabesques, fantastic birds, and a delicate lace border—it also had a magnificent price tag of $30,000. "They are extremely rare," explains Mme. Tournebize.
WOODEN TOOLS Just down the row, another St. Tropez market veteran presides over an artful collection of tools, polished instruments and small machines. Patrick (who goes by his first name only) was introduced to the market by his father, one of the first antiques dealers here. "I was born into this business and into this particular marché," he says. His gleaming artifacts, beautifully restored in a nearby atelier, recall pastoral France: a wooden cider press ($330) from Normandy; a miniature 1920s Ventarelle ($935) made of two cylinder-shaped barrels on welded-iron wheels and used by turn-of-the-century farmers to separate wheat from chaff; and a sleek embroidery machine from Nyons with a polished brass arm and hand-painted base ($985).
OBJETS Daniel Bonfils' whimsical and highly personal collection of objets includes a bit of everything: a delicate golden telescope, an oversized hand-painted silk fan, a porcelain soupière, an allegorically themed lithograph with a carved-wood frame. "I keep a sense of freedom in my merchandise," says Bonfils, who has been at the market for 20 years. Passionate and discriminating, Bonfils is a favorite with professional dealers, who visit him in the morning to snatch up his various curiosities. Recent favorites included a delicate triptych painted in 1780 ($700), a grand 19th-century marble reliquary with silver and ivory detailing ($450), and the three chalk drawings of angels by the French Neoclassicist Pierre-Paul Prud'hon ($750 for the set).
RARE BOOKS Philippe Béguin's shelves of books and manuscripts are tucked into the back of the market. Saying only that he has dedicated himself to bookish passions for a quarter century, Béguin prefers to discuss literature and gastronomy. Whether it's the marvelously illustrated Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos ($300) or a five-volume set of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables ($270), he makes sure that you feel the paper, compare publishing dates, and marvel over drawings. "They just don't make books with the same care anymore," he says.
VINTAGE LUGGAGE The man who can help you bring everything home in style is dealer Patrick Nicolini, who has been at the St. Tropez flea market since 1973. He specializes in accouterments for the sophisticated traveler, such as gorgeous leather Goyard suitcases handcrafted in Paris in the 1800s. Recent favorites include a vintage Louis Vuitton carry-on and matching suitcase with tiny compartments and square handles—they make you want to board the Orient Express toute suite. Nicolini also offers furniture and decorative objects, but his true devotees come for the luggage. Prices range from $530 to $3,030.