Meet York’s French market furniture hunters
PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 October 2020
Stephen and Kath Hazell run The French House, York, They spend many weeks of the year at their second home in France where they hunt for beautiful furniture, mirror and kitchenware
Stephen and Kath Hazell run The French House, York, which was established 25 years ago and is now one of the largest French antiques businesses in the UK. They spend many weeks of the year at their second home in France where they source their extraordinary range of beautiful furniture, mirrors, paintings and kitchenware. A typical day in France begins early.
If we are going to a fair we get up at the crack of dawn to make sure we are there when it opens. We plan our trips to coordinate with antiques fairs and auctions that are taking place in the region, so before we head to France we always contact our regular sources and liaise with them over dates and venues. The fairs sometimes start before it gets light so we head out straight after breakfast, often armed with a torch, so we are among the first there. If you leave it to late the best things will have gone. Although village fairs are unpredictable they are a really enjoyable part of our visits. Some of the most interesting objects in our showrooms have been found at such fairs – things that may well have spent many years in the attic or outbuilding of the owner’s property.
On auction days we can get up a bit later. We will have already arranged to meet one of our contacts in a local bar – they tend to start the day with a beer or a glass of wine – and then we follow them to the place where the auction is being held. This is quite a well guarded secret – if they advertise in advance there is a chance that someone will break into the house being cleared because they know it will be empty and full of furniture – so we never quite know what kind of property we are going to. It can be anything from a chateau or large farmhouse to a townhouse.
We spend the morning looking round the house and the rooms where the furniture is being sold. There are usually between 20 and 50 people at an auction. Everyone gets chance to wander round and take notes about the items they are interested in. If it’s a large place you have to be meticulous about this because there is so much to absorb and you can easily miss things. If we see something we like we log the room and details of the items we want to bid for.
Once we’ve been through every room we go and find somewhere for lunch. The mornings are full on and quite draining, and it can be a long afternoon during the bidding, so it gives us time to relax, recharge and discuss everything we’ve seen.
We head back to the house where the auction takes place outside. It’s held outside whatever the weather, so we’ve been in torrential downpours and 90 degrees heat. We’ve been in a crowd of buyers who have all huddled under a tree to shelter while the rest of the garden has been empty other than the auctioneer team! The auctioneers make no allowances for anyone who can’t speak French so you have to have a good command of the language if you don’t want to miss anything and you want to make sure you are bidding for the right things! You can also end up buying something you hadn’t bargained for because unsold items are carried over to the next lot. We bought a table at one auction and discovered it came with an armoire! Once you buy your first lot, you give the auctioneer a signed blank cheque which is then filled in at the end of the sale, once all your purchases have been totalled.
When the auction ends we collect all your purchases and pack them into our van. We have someone helping us who also has a van so if we’ve bought a lot of large items we can use both vehicles. Over the years we’ve worked out how much, and what kind of things, will fit into the van so that we don’t buy too much or anything too big. It takes a while to pack, then we take them back to the depot near Sancerre. We have two warehouses that we bought some years ago and these are very useful in that they enable us to purchase an unlimited amount of stock without having to transport it back immediately. They also allow us to select stock for shipment that is needed in York or London and other purchases can be left in safe, dry storage for the future. When we return from the visit, normally two to three weeks after arrival, we tend to carry back the most valuable and fragile things and other stock can be brought back to England via one of our regular shippers.
By the end of the day we are mentally and physically exhausted – the auctions are very intense – so we head to the local bar and restaurant to unwind. We both love what we do. It began when Stephen bought a holiday home in the Pyrenees along with a surplus of furniture. His son Marcus saw a business opportunity, bought an ex-post office van and set off, eyes alert for ‘brocante’ signs and iron baths, only heading home when the little red shuttle was completely full. The French House was established and there would be no going back. Today we source pieces for individual and trade clients, making several trips a year to ensure that our stock is constantly changing. We keep up to date with interior trends to ensure that we don’t get stuck in a style rut and complacent. For example, heavily carved beds were very popular when we first opened, but more recently lighter framed or Louis style and cane beds proves more popular, so we adapt to these trends. It’s important to us as a business and as individuals to keep growing and developing.