Where Rococo Meets Space Age: Treasure Hunting at Italy's Premier Antiques Fair

October 23rd, 2016

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Before we could even get our bearings, the glowing Murano glass chandeliers had pulled us in. Marveling at their outstretched branches covered with handblown glass formed into delicate leaves and petals, we interrupted the booth’s owner as he unfurled extension cords and arranged the elaborate display. “Where are these made?” Lisa asked the seller, Davide Sagradin, through a translator. “They’re from the Venice area, where they specialize in the manufacture of glass,” he explained. “The name of this type of chandelier is ‘gondola,’ like the typical Venetian boat.”

Here we were in Parma, Italy, browsing 300-year-old chandeliers on a dealer’s preview day at Mercanteinfiera—the country’s largest antiques fair with around 45,000 square meters of merchandise from more than 1,000 vendors. Sagradin explained that the chandeliers had been updated with electric candelabras wired through their original glass tubing, and assured us he could safely ship the fragile light fixtures anywhere in the world, even knocking the transit fees off the original price of €20,000.

Though not cheap, like much of the inventory we discovered at the fair, you’d never come across such a piece of artistry at an American flea market—much less several booths chock full of them. Lucky for us, the exhibition center hosting the fair, Fiere di Parma, invited two Collectors Weekly reporters to enjoy la dolce vita at its luxe fall event, which ran October 1-9 after two preview days on September 29 and 30.

A small sampling of David Sagradin's Murano glass chandeliers at Mercanteinfiera.

A small sampling of David Sagradin’s Murano glass chandeliers at Mercanteinfiera.

Even if you’re not in the market for a Murano chandelier, Mercanteinfiera’s giant pavilions filled with antique and vintage objects provide an endlessly entertaining place to wander, like an informal museum with surprises in every nook and cranny. Each exhibitor has carefully curated and laid out his or her “stage” with a gallery aesthetic that lets each object shine, so you can’t walk two steps without having an eye-popping, “Wow!” moment. During our four days there, we poked our way through hundreds of booths like kids in a candy store, marveling over the museum-quality objects around every turn.

Inside one of Mercanteinfiera’s large pavilions of antiques.

Inside one of Mercanteinfiera’s large pavilions of antiques.

We knew we were in Italy when we saw dealers smoking cigarettes in their booths, while others rode bicycles through the aisles and let their dogs nap amid the treasures. The twice-yearly Mercanteinfiera has a particular magic that makes it stand out from other European fairs, like the Paris Flea Market or Art Antiques London. That’s partly because many American collectors haven’t heard of Mercanteinfiera, or even its home city of Parma—a provincial college town of 190,000 surrounded by the farmland that gave the world prosciutto and Parmesan cheese. The first ever Mercanteinfiera, organized by artist Stefano Spagnoli in the fall of 1981, was a smaller, locally focused event featuring a handful of Parmigiani antiques dealers. Eventually, the fair moved to the modern facilities at the nearby Fiere di Parma, where it grew into the massive two-week affair seen today.

Mercanteinfiera’s unique setting in Northern Italy has a strong influence on the massive array of antiques on view, ranging from sculpted marble busts to vintage Italian sports cars to 18th-century French clocks. You’ll even find local Parmigiani flavor on view, with multiple dealers offering restored Berkel meat slicers, the favored machines for shaving perfect sheets of prosciutto. Most of the country’s top dealers have booths here, as well as others from all parts of Europe, who often specialize in items you’d be hard-pressed to come across in the United States, like tables inlaid with colorful pietra dura designs or Catholic reliquaries holding the remains of long-deceased saints. Many objects for sale even predate America—it’s as easy to stumble onto Baroque-period furniture at Mercanteinfiera as it is to find 1950s kitchenware at an American flea market.

A tray full of antique snuff bottles at Mercanteinfiera.

A tray full of antique snuff bottles at Mercanteinfiera.

Even if most Americans haven’t heard of Mercanteinfiera, our toniest antiques dealers and interior designers definitely have. Toma Clark Haines—owner of The Antiques Diva & Co., Europe’s largest antiques-buying tour company—has been bringing top interior designers and high-end antiques dealers from North America, Australia, and other parts of Europe to Mercanteinfiera for about six years. This season, her posse included buzzed-about New York City designers Robert Passal, who just won “Traditional Home’s” Top 20 Designers Award, and Tamara Matthews Stephenson, who publishes the popular blog, Nest by Tamara. With the help of Clark Haines’ Italian “Diva Guides,” Orseola Barozzi Rizzo and Chiara Zanella, this crew of influencers shops during the two-day preview of the fair before it actually opens—the days when the real haggling happens among antiques-industry professionals.

Collectors Weekly reporters Hunter Oatman-Stanford and Lisa Hix near Mercanteinfiera's main entry.

Collectors Weekly reporters Hunter Oatman-Stanford and Lisa Hix near Mercanteinfiera’s main entry.

The VIPs guided by their all-knowing Diva weren’t the only American tastemakers wheeling and dealing at Mercanteinfiera during the preview days: cutting-edge Los Angeles design emporium Blackman Cruz, Monroe Sherman of the Miami design showroom Carriage House, and pickers for shabby-chic boutique Anthropologie have all been known to haunt the fair.

For first-time attendees, the fair’s crucial first two days can be a bit of a shock. “It’s like the Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan,” explained Iacopo Napoli, one of Mercanteinfiera’s project managers. “People wake up early in order to be there first, in order to grab the best pieces.” And grab they do, which is why Clark Haines believes serious buyers need a savvy local at their side, like her Diva Guides.

“In Italy, to get a good price, you have to have a conversation forever,” Clark Haines says. “As an American, when I want a price, I say, ‘How much is it? Will you take a better price?’ Deal done. That’s it—three seconds. But that’s not how you get the best price in Italy. For an Italian, before you even ask how much it is, you ask eight other questions about the piece. You’ve talked about the history, you know where it came from, you know what it does. You’ve talked about the vendor, where the vendor’s from, what the vendor had for dinner, what the vendor’s sister ate for dinner, is eating tomorrow for dinner, and then you discuss the price. It’s all about the conversation.”

There’s money in all that chatter, Clark Haines says, because informed American antiques dealers who make the trip to Parma can turn handsome profits. If they spend $50,000 on inventory, $10,000 on shipping, and budget $10,000 for travel and other expenses, they can still expect a return of $150,000 to $300,000. “People can not only make a profit, but it’s also how a lot of the antique dealers in the United States survive,” she says.

The Modern and Contemporary Art pavilion included works by Americans like Roy Lichtenstein, as seen at left, as well as popular Italian artists, including Mimmo Rotella, whose collage is seen at right.

The Modern and Contemporary Art pavilion included works by Americans like Roy Lichtenstein, as seen at left, as well as popular Italian artists, including Mimmo Rotella, whose collage is seen at right.

That profit is generated by a healthy markup for European antiques sold within the United States, which covers the cost of importing as well as the risks inherent to such international transactions. “On the one hand, it’s easier to purchase antiques when they’re already in America,” Clark Haines explains. “On the other, they’re much more expensive. If you’re in United States selling European goods, you’re going to put your markup on them.”

The inventory in Europe is also a whole lot older. “American fairs tend to have things that are not nearly as old as European fairs,” Clark Haines says. “Here in Parma, you could buy something from the 17th or 18th centuries, and that’s normal. My own home is very modern—I have a white leather sofa, a black leather bed, and a very glossy, black kitchen. However, every antique in my home is older than America. It just so happens that’s what I’m drawn to, objects made before the foundation of the United States.” In a way, to shop for antiques in Europe is to travel back in time.

Dusk in Parma's medieval center.

Dusk in Parma’s medieval center.

To get a sense of just how far back we’re going, a tour of historic Parma makes an excellent complement to Mercanteinfiera. This charming little city—a pink-and-gold maze of plazas, parks, cafes, and shops—is a microcosm of Italian culture, overflowing with history, music, art, and regional cuisine. Parma was a foodie town long before the word was invented; the surrounding area birthed not only its namesake cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also the famous thin-sliced Parma ham known as prosciutto and a sparkling red wine called Lambrusco. Locals cruise the cobblestoned streets on fat-tired bikes with baskets and bells, passing great spots to browse vintage and antiques, as championed in a recent “New York Times” travel column.

The humble exterior of Parma’s historic cathedral, whose construction began in 1074, betrays the breathtaking interior, a showcase of incredible artistry culminating with the cupola frescoes painted by Renaissance master Antonio da Correggio, who set a new standard for illusionistic cathedral domes throughout Italy. The church’s separate octagonal baptistery, constructed from 1196 to 1216, marks the transition from Romanesque to early Gothic architecture and also features remarkable sculptures and frescoes inside.

Opera composer Giuseppe Verdi was born near Parma, and the city made his music famous, a fact locals take great pride in. Overlapping with the fall Mercanteinfiera, the town hosts a Verdi Festival each October, centered at the Teatro Regio, Parma’s renowned 19th-century opera house commissioned by Maria Luigia, the Duchess of Parma and Napoleon’s second wife. The theater is just a stone’s throw from the hulking arched complex known as the Palazzo della Pilotta, which was originally constructed for Duke Ottavio Farnese in the late 16th century. Centuries later, the facility was converted into a public arts complex with various museums and educational institutions, as well as the rebuilt Teatro Farnese, an all-wood theater originally constructed in 1618.

The ceiling of a former private salon for Duchess  Maria Luigia at the Teatro Regio.

The ceiling of a former private salon for Duchess Maria Luigia at the Teatro Regio.

Little wonder, then, that Mercanteinfiera has become an annual pilgrimage for many people in the antiques trade. “You’re here in Italy, immersed in this entire world—you’ve got the prosciutto, the Lambrusco, the antiques,” Clark Haines says. “Every season, I see the same people, so it’s become a community. The vendors, shippers, and buyers stay in the same hotel, so you have three or four days where this group from around the world comes together in Parma.”

Still, business is business, so it helps that Mercanteinfiera knocks it out of the park when it comes to certain types of antiques, particularly those with Italian roots. Exploring the many booths, we saw countless 19th-century chandeliers made of floral Murano glass or dripping with Swarovski crystals, as well as all variety of Modernist and Space Age light fixtures with wild shapes. “In terms of lighting, this fair has the best prices and best pieces in all of Europe,” Clark Haines explains. Another spot to look for bargains at Mercanteinfiera is at vintage fashion vendors, where pieces by non-Italian designers like Coco Chanel can go for much lower prices than they would at other markets around Europe.

Vintage Fiat racecars on view at the Auto pavilion.

Vintage Fiat racecars on view at the Auto pavilion.

The light fixtures and Chanel are just two of many examples of the fair’s cultural currency. For example, the giant visual art pavilion is packed with pieces by Italy’s top contemporary artists, including esteemed Pop artist Mario Schifano, whose work appeared at nearly every gallery. That said, Mercanteinfiera also excels at offering traditional European artwork executed in the lush, realistic styles of the Old Masters, alongside the bold geometric furniture and design elements of Mid-Century Modern, much of which originated in Italy. Over the last few years, the percentage of vintage and modern exhibitors at Mercanteinfiera has grown, as organizers recognize that these items are increasingly popular. While such designs are still alluring to buyers, Clark Haines believes these tasteful styles may finally be on their way out as garish retro 1970s and ’80s designs take their place.

But shoppers can’t go wrong if they pick up something from the 18th century or before. “The 18th century is always popular in America,” she says. “If they find a true period piece, I tell every single client to buy it, because it’s always going to retain its value. At this Mercanteinfiera, Canadian designer Jonathan Legate, who’s in my crew, found a 17th-century armoire. It was valued at $10,000, and 10 years ago, it was probably valued at $30,000. So the price has gone down in Europe, but in the U.S. or Canada, that same piece would probably sell for $60,000.

Mid Century Modern furniture on view at Nicola Quadri's booth.

Mid Century Modern furniture on view at Nicola Quadri’s booth.

“In America, people are so tired of living in a plastic temporary big-box IKEA world, where everything is thrown away,” she continues. “They want things that are real—not just a piece with patina, but a piece with original paint. If you can get an 18th-century object with original paint, that’s probably the best thing you can buy right now.”

A grouping of Fornassetti porcelain at Mercanteinfiera.

A grouping of Fornassetti porcelain at Mercanteinfiera.

However, as with any antiques sale, verifying the age and value of your purchases isn’t always an easy task, which is why Mercanteinfiera offers free consultation with experts to help shoppers appraise their items. “A couple of years ago, there were a lot of fakes at the fair,” Clark Haines says. “The Fornasetti family came to the fair and saw a lot of fake Fornasetti objects being sold, and the rumor is that it was cleaned up as a result of that. This season has been the best I’ve seen it in years.”

Still, eagle-eye experts we spoke to noted some fakes around the event this season, as some items sported materials or designs that weren’t original to the period claimed by the seller. Particularly concerning were some larger ivory pieces presented as antiques but likely made from recently killed elephants, despite their authenticity papers.

“When we’ve found these kind of exhibitors, we’ve tended to exclude them or put them on a blacklist, because this poisons the whole exhibition,” Mercanteinfiera’s Iacopo Nicoli explains. The fair’s organizers stress that they rely on buyers to help report fakes and weed out problematic dealers.

Besides cracking down on vendors selling fakes, during the last five years, Mercanteinfiera has also refreshed the fair’s image and added more cultural features, like themed exhibitions in the fair’s entryway. For example, this season, personal items belonging to royalty were on display in a small exhibit titled “The Secrets of Queens.”

A tabletop display of colorful costume jewelry.

A tabletop display of colorful costume jewelry.

This sort of aesthetic and cultural branding, if you will, is probably helping make the Italian institution more accessible to more Americans. At Mercanteinfiera’s opening night gala dinner, we met Lisa Kramer of Oakland, California, who sells vintage and antique jewelry at antiques shows and on Ruby Lane. Kramer deals in a wide range of jewelry from Georgian era to 1970s, but she’s particularly interested in paste jewelry, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau.

“You’re here in Italy, immersed in this entire world—you’ve got the prosciutto, the Lambrusco, the antiques.”

“I found several great pieces including an Arts and Crafts moonstone necklace, an Egyptian revival necklace, some equestrian enamel cufflinks, and a few smaller pieces,” Kramer says. “Prices were high and most dealers knew what they had. I think I’ll be able to make a reasonable amount, but I didn’t find any pieces where the profit margin will be huge. But finding nice, older jewelry is always a challenge, so I’m happy to be returning with several great pieces.”

While buyers interested in smaller goods such as jewelry or watches can typically pack purchases in their luggage, the cost and coordination of transporting larger pieces, like framed artwork or furniture, can be intimidating. Shipping arrangements are particularly important for fans of one of Mercanteinfiera’s most unique pavilions, the “Archi e Parchi” zone—or “Arches and Parks”—which includes landscaping objects and outdoor furniture like 50-foot-long handmade tables or oversized sculptures salvaged from ancient palazzos.

Many booths at Mercanteinfiera featured stunning silver objects.

Many booths at Mercanteinfiera featured stunning silver objects.

Clark Haines says that for American antiques dealers, it’s often cheaper to pay in advance for an entire 20-foot-long cargo container and fill it up as needed, instead of paying to ship each item individually. “The fact is, if you’re buying one or two bulky items or even three, four, or five items, it’s really hard to make a profit because of your shipping costs,” Clark Haines explains. “But if you arrange a full container shipment, it costs about the same as shipping those four or five items.” The Antiques Diva offers its own shipping service, which is just one of many options available onsite at Mercanteinfiera, including Simone Shipping, Alan Franklin, Hedley’s Humpers, and Adam Crease.

The "Archi e Parchi" area includes oversized outdoor objects like this children's merry-go-round.

The “Archi e Parchi” area includes oversized outdoor objects like this children’s merry-go-round.

For anyone visiting from outside the country, a shopping spree at Mercanteinfiera includes other obstacles as well, the first being Italy’s anti-mafia laws, which prevents anyone from spending more than €3,000 in cash per day. Clark Haines recommends that a dealer or designer set a budget—say $30,000—in advance, and deposit that money with a shipping company, who will put your funds in an Italian bank to manage all your transactions at Mercanteinfiera. When you arrive at the fair, the shipper gives you a purchase-order book to log all your buys.

“Then when you buy something, you write the vendor, the stall number, the global phone number, the merchant email address, in your purchase-order book,” Clark Haines says. “When you’re done—because you’ve already put the money with the shipper—you hand the shipper the purchase-order book, he pays for everything, and picks it all up.”

To make things even easier, Mercanteifiera also has Cariparma bank offices on the premise. If you haven’t deposited money with a shipper, you have to work with an Italian bank to set up wire transfers to each of the individual vendors you purchased from before your items can be shipped. But we noticed that in many corners of the fair, the 21st century had finally arrived—around half the vendors now accept credit cards instead of cash, thanks to Square and other smartphone credit-card apps, which makes the buying process much easier.

A selection of reliquaries containing the remains of Catholic saints.

A selection of reliquaries containing the remains of Catholic saints.

Buying and shipping, though, are not the only hurdles a would-be shopper must jump. In an attempt to maintain the country’s artistic heritage, Italy has strict laws monitoring the export of objects over 50 years of age. For antiques buyers, this means that items must be registered with the government’s Belle Arti department, which can be costly and time consuming to manage on your own. Mercanteinfiera understands the difficulties this places on international buyers, so they offer a free service onsite to expedite the process.

A pietra dura tabletop from the 1950s on view at Mercanteinfiera.

A pietra dura tabletop from the 1950s on view at Mercanteinfiera.

Things don’t always go smoothly: For the first time ever, this season, an Antiques Diva guest had their purchase denied by the Belle Arti. “A client of ours bought an amazing crèche, or nativity scene, at the €60,000 price point,” Clark Haines says. “The client had seen a similar nativity in the Met Museum in New York and wanted something similar. We were able to find them exactly what they wanted. It was a mismatched set—the oldest piece was from the 1700s, and the newest piece was from the 1950s—which is why we thought we’d get it out of the country. But the Belle Arti said it was such a complete set, despite the age range, it was apparently a national treasure.”

Despite all these challenges, the charms of Parma and opportunities of the Mercanteinfiera ultimately win the day. As a jewelry dealer, Kramer says she would return to Mercanteinfiera, but only as part of a larger buying tour of Europe. “My experience was similar to what I found on buying trips to England and France,” she says. “It takes a week or two of going to multiple antiques fairs to accumulate enough to make the trip worthwhile.”

Looking at Mercanteinfiera as purely a business opportunity, its appeal depends on several factors ranging from your potential markup to the physical size of your purchases. But for many others, Mercanteinfiera is simply a unique, and extravagant, shopping experience.

“People ask me why my clients pay to come shop in real life, but the fact is people want experiences,” Clark Haines says. “At Mercanteinfiera, it’s having the Parma ham and the Lambrusco, it’s talking with the dealer, it’s the translation issues—all of that is part of the story. If you just want to decorate your house, you can go to HomeGoods. But if you want to buy a story, or a piece with a past, you buy antiques.” And if you want to bring home a slice of Parma, or even a Murano chandelier, you head to Mercanteinfiera.

A chandelier displayed in its protective frame at Mercanteinfiera.

A chandelier displayed in its protective frame at Mercanteinfiera.

(A slideshow of our favorite finds at Mercanteinfiera can be found here. Architects, designers, antiques dealers, and any other business interested in attending or exhibiting at Mercanteinfiera should email Cristina Giuffredi at the Sales Office to apply: c.giuffredi@fiereparma.it.)


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