While Paris sleeps in on a Saturday morning, I slide into the passenger seat of a 1972 Mercedes-Benz 450SL belonging to Louvre-trained professional treasure hunter Riad Kneife. Kneife sources antiques and vintage pieces, just like this pristine navy roadster, for clients around the world through his extensive network of Parisian dealers. “For the past 14 years I have spent every weekend in the flea markets,” he shares with me – along with a fresh croissant. “This nourishes me. I always discover new things.”
I furnished my last Paris flat entirely on my own, but alas I no longer have the free weekends my twenties presented for discovering vintage treasures. So, this time round, friends recommended I seek out the services of Kneife, who also dabbles in interior decoration and real-estate advising. His newest venture helps his mostly Anglo clients adjust to Parisian life, from dealing with notoriously difficult French builders to advising on which local food and wine purveyors to frequent.
As we drive towards Saint-Ouen, a mishmash of around 1,700 dealers sprawled over 70,000sq m in the 18th arrondissement at the city’s northern fringe, I ask this former Les Bains Douches DJ exactly how he plays matchmaker for people and their future possessions inside the vast marketplace. “We usually start with 45 minutes or so in an area outside the client’s main focus. The eyes are still cold. I need to warm them up.” He proves the value of this strategy once we arrive at Le Marché Biron, one of Saint-Ouen’s 14 markets. My heart flutters at the sheer number of one-of-a-kind goods. A look at Félix Ziem’s late-19th-century paintings of Venice and an 1892 landscape by French realist Léon Augustin Lhermitteinside Galerie William Diximus at 85 Rue des Rosiers calms me down.
We continue past crystal chandeliers (in a style I can only describe as late Saddam Hussein) and gilded lamps shaped like fantastical palm trees. “In three minutes I can tell what a client likes,” Kneife reveals, and with that he leads me to Habitat 1964, a courtyard of shabby-chic ateliers alongside Marché Paul Bert Serpette, converted by the UK furniture behemoth to sell its own 20th-century Terence Conran classics. I linger over primary-coloured relics from my childhood before heading to L’Eclaireur at 77 Rue des Rosiers, where I eye up a stash of vintage ceramics.
Kneife downloads the financials for me; he offers four-hour half-day (€850) and full-day (€1,700) itineraries, which may also include other Paris markets and private dealers. While for some clients he finds everything in one outing, like the Nashville transplants he helped to furnish with 40 antiques for their new château, but most others need longer. Kneife takes pictures, negotiates prices and arranges shipping. For this he charges 10 per cent agent commission. Clients still save considerably, both in terms of time and the insider prices extended to Kneife.
At the end of our half-day session, I wonder why we head for the garden furniture of La Petite Maison at 10 Rue Paul Bert – until the affable owner François Casal walks us over to Les Merveilles de Babellou at 13 and 77 Allée 1, Marché Paul Bert, his wife’s vintage-frock filled emporiums. Here I abandon thoughts of living, dining or sleeping accoutrements to focus on fulfilling the seemingly gaping holes in my wardrobe. Casal’s wife Isabelle Klein and I discuss the details while Kneife promises to keep his eyes out for other finds. Not wanting me to leave empty handed, he ushers me over to nearby Bachelier Antiquités, where another François proffers the French country kitchen copper I so covet.
My time today with Kneife has come to an end, but our relationship has most definitely just begun.