On an early fall morning, Ari Heckman and Xavier Donnelly, the C.E.O. and creative director, respectively, of the New York–based hotelier Ash, waited outside an antiques market in the South of France—just one of the many destinations that they had sought out during a breakneck, border-hopping mission to secure singular treasures for an upcoming property.

As Donnelly told me moments before eager buyers sprinted through the opened gates, “The hotel should feel like the home of someone very worldly and well traveled who’s amassed a collection of objects over a lifetime”—and where better to achieve such a goal than Europe, which is home to a handful of biannual trade fairs known for their wealth of heirloom-worthy designs, not to mention slashed asking prices? “It’s really hard to achieve the aesthetic we’re trying to impart only through new creations,” he adds. “These pieces have their own stories and histories, which make a setting feel a lot richer and deeper and allow visitors to get pulled into this mysterious narrative.”

Below, Donnelly and Heckman walk AIR MAIL through their journey—and reveal everything you need to know about navigating the fairs like a professional.

Marianne Faithfull shopping at a Paris flea market.

Book a flight to europe

When it comes to securing antique treasures—especially if you’re furnishing a large space on a timeline and budget—there are few better places to mine than France’s and Italy’s professional trade fairs. “Shopping via 1stDibs or LiveAuctioneers is a much-slower and more expensive piecing together of a process,” explains Donnelly. “With the overinflation of the market in the U.S., you can be shocked by the prices you find at these fairs.”

As Heckman points out, American dealers often scoop up—and then significantly mark up—the fairs’ finest offerings: “By the time the items get here, they’re in a totally different stratosphere.” To wit, shortly after his return to New York, he came across a 19th-century, hand-painted armoire now selling for 16 times the price he had paid for a similar style in France.

Financial benefits aside, “we see styles and pieces—particularly in large quantities—that we’re not seeing in the U.S.,” Heckman continues, adding that, time and again, he’s struck by the wealth of silverware and serveware on offer. “Knowing that they came from these old European hotels or manor homes is incredible.” Donnelly agrees: “The ages and types of furniture and artworks are very eye-opening. Even though they might not all have an impressive name attached to them, they’re not any less beautiful.”

DO YOUR RESEARCH—AND SCHEDULE YOUR DATES ACCORDINGLY

“A lot of the fairs aren’t prominently advertised online, but once you know the cities that they happen in, it’s much easier to figure out their dates,” says Donnelly, whose late-September and early-October itinerary included the Foire de Chatou, outside of Paris; Parma’s grand, three-day Mercanteinfiera di Parma; and Avignon International’s trade market, as well as time set aside to seek out neighboring thrift shops and antique dealers. (Needless to say, renting a car is a requisite.)

This year, Ash also took its chances on a new destination: Béziers, France. After driving in circles around a deserted stadium, the team finally found its way to a tucked-away lot, where they were rewarded with some of their most prized finds. “It made us wonder, ‘What are the more obscure fairs happening in other random towns?’,” Heckman recalls. “The next step is getting to that next level of inaccessibility.”

HIRE A GUIDE

To reach that level of inaccessibility, Donnelly and Heckman recommend enlisting the help of a seasoned guide who can not only point you to smaller fairs but also act as a liaison between buyers, dealers, and shippers. “We have to hit the ground running and be focused on decision-making, so it helps to have someone who knows the process and can be our right hand,” says Donnelly, noting that the role can include securing entry tickets, negotiating prices, paying sellers, and arranging pickups and deliveries, not to mention translating when there’s a language barrier. It’s an added expense but a worthy one: “If we hadn’t had our guide, we wouldn’t have accomplished half as much.”

GO IN PREPARED …

“The energy at the fairs is very intense. There are a lot of things to look at, and it can be hard to focus your eye,” continues Donnelly, who regularly referenced a spreadsheet containing a preliminary wish list—with the corresponding dimensions and floor plans—in order to avoid buyer’s remorse. “It would have been very overwhelming to just start purchasing things, if we hadn’t known what we were looking for.”

A dog tests out chairs at Marché aux Puces, Paris’s largest flea market.

… BUT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE SURPRISED

Still, “one of the fun components of the whole experience is that you don’t know what you’re going to get—otherwise you’d be shopping out of a catalogue,” Heckman is quick to add. “It’s a very unscientific process,” Donnelly concedes with a laugh. “It’s important to be ready to take it all in. Let yourself play [and] get carried away by something that you weren’t expecting”—as was the case with a Napoleonic diorama, which they bought on impulse in Avignon and plan to place in one of the hotel’s public areas. “This is where the mythology comes in,” Heckman explains. “We’re not creating historical replicas but rather a fusion of the property’s background and these influences from abroad—all cooked in a stew of our blend. That’s how something totally new and interesting is born.”

SEEK OUT SUBTLETIES

When Donnelly and Heckman came across a small painting of cherries, small enough to fit into their pocket, at Paris’s Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, their project’s brand direction suddenly came into focus. “It doesn’t seem like something that should be a defining object, but I can see that little painting showing up in a big way,” muses Donnelly. “It just speaks to the power of the find and what it can do for you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a statement piece.”

know when—and how—to negotiate

“Pricing was absolutely not standardized, and every seller was bonkers in their own special way,” says Donnelly, who was able to slash rates by half—or, in other instances, by just a few euros. As he puts it, “You have to be a little shameless to get the best deal.” Heckman adheres to the age-old trick of simply walking away: “Seventy-five percent of the time they’ll chase you down the aisle,” he notes.

If you don’t receive a counter-offer, however, Donnelly recommends taking a moment to assess the piece and its price. “Sometimes we’d have a sidebar and come to the conclusion that we should just bite the bullet,” he recalls. “Ultimately, it was less about squeezing every penny out of the dealer and instead asking ourselves, Is this fair?”

always do one last loop

Often opening before the sun rises, “the fairs are largely over by noon, when sellers have cracked open their bottles of wine,” says Heckman, who stresses the importance of circling back around before calling it a day—no matter how eager you are for your own verre de vin—to see which items are still available. “You’re much more likely to drive a better deal then, because the sellers really don’t want to pack up their trucks.” Simply put: “It’s huge leverage.”

hire a TRUSTED shippER

“If you’re able to purchase a certain number of items, and secure a deal to send them by sea freight, you end up paying a lot less than you would in the U.S. or online,” Donnelly says, suggesting contracting a shipping company that specializes in the export of antiquities and fine furniture—and not only for the sake of delivering your precious cargo in one piece.

“Before the first fair, we wire our budget for our entire trip to the shippers, who come around at the end of each day to pay for and collect our tagged items,” he explains. “You pay a premium for that kind of service, but it makes sense for us because it means that we don’t have to sit around trying to write checks or wire bank transfers—and we also don’t have to deal with the logistics of getting these pieces from point A to point B and then onto the ship and over to the States.”

Should you be in the market for fewer finds, rest assured there are still solutions, including combining shipments with other buyers—or simply keeping your acquisitions to a specific scale. For instance, “you can decide to buy only tableware and check them in a suitcase or a cardboard box at the airport,” notes Heckman. “Depending on the project, that could be just as fruitful.”

final words of wisdom …

Heckman: “Wear very comfortable shoes and drink water.”

Donnelly: “Try to have fun. If you’re not having fun, then something’s wrong.”

Shop the Story

18th-Century Italian-Style Bargueño
Limoges Porcelain Sealife Oyster Plate
Rush Seated Directoire Style Cherry Sofa

“We were instantly drawn to a tortoiseshell bargueño cabinet—similar to this 18th-century piece—in Chatou, our first stop. It’s a slightly more rustic iteration of the classically ornate Renaissance design, but we love the naïveté and simplicity of the construction. We also picked up a beautiful mahogany and rush bench, which was monumental in scale. While the seat needed some repair, it was otherwise in good shape. I love this version, which is essentially the merging of two large armchairs. Another highlight was a set of 12 very unusual, antique Limoges dessert plates, each painted with a different confection. This gilt-edged oyster dish is close in style.

19th-Century Hand-Painted Austrian Armoire
Spanish Tapestry-Upholstered Armchairs
Antique Painted Romanian Blanket Chest

“In Parma, we found a pair of Aubusson-upholstered chairs, which had probably been covered with scraps of a tapestry that had fallen into disrepair. The texture and colors of the weaving were incredibly rich. This set is quite different, but I love how the tapestry upholstery has been applied to these very delicate forms. After Italy, we returned to France, where we bought two incredible hand-painted wardrobes out of the back of a truck in Béziers. They were among our most prized finds and are really beautiful examples of rustic Eastern European applied arts. This Austrian armoire is a beautiful version, as is this Romanian chest for someone who doesn’t have space for a large piece.”

Zoe Ruffner is the Editor at AIR SUPPLY, AIR MAIL’s online shop