A Visit to Mercanteinfiera: Italy’s Ever Eclectic Antiques Market in Parma

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London may have Portobello Road and Paris its Marché aux Puces, but Mercanteinfiera, a lesser known antiques market, offers equally beguiling treasures, frequented by tastemakers from Anthropolgie to Blackman Cruz. The biannual event, Italy’s largest antiques fair, is held in Parma, the charming city in the heart of the Emilia Romagna district about seventy-two miles south of Milan. The fair organizers are quick to note that it’s not a flea market, but an antiques fair. However, it’s a distinction without a difference.

Most of the roughly one thousand exhibitors have booths that are, to put it mildly, eclectic, and the fun is in making serendipitous finds. One booth, filled with an array of undistinguished brown furniture and accessories had Philippe Starck’s famous chipboard Jim NatureTV set, designed for Thomson in 1994, which he had taken from his own home. “It still works,” he promised. The price was around $405 (one is available online for around $1,275.)

Poltrona Milady leather safari chair by Henry Beguelin. All Photographs by Arlene Hirst. 

The exhibitors display their wares over almost 500,000 square feet in the city’s fairgrounds. The categories of products are almost endless: seventeenth and eighteenth century antiques—mostly Italian that include tables topped with colorful pietra dura designs or reliquaries that hold the reputed remains of long deceased saints. And if you’re looking for ancestral portraits, this is definitely the place to come. Murano chandeliers are also in ample supply. Fashionistas will love the section devoted to vintage clothing and jewelry filled with brand names like Channel, Prada, and Hermes.  Vintage Vuitton bags, trunks and luggage are scattered throughout the fairgrounds. If Rolex watches are your heart’s desire, entire aisles are filled with them along with many other prestigious timepiece brands. In the fall edition of the show an entire pavilion is dedicated to vintage cars. This year there were rafts of Fiats and old Vespa automobiles. One visitor, a savvy aficionado of all things automotive, proclaimed that he had never seen so many Alfa Romeos in one place. Motorbikes were also plentiful.

A vintage Prosciutto slicer.

For seekers of vintage modern pieces, there was also plenty on offer, but as is true for vintage shopping anywhere, buyer beware. Prices varied from bargain basement tags to inflated rip-offs. One dealer was offering a Henry Beguelin Poltrona Milady leather safari chair for an outrageous $2,087; new ones are available from Beguelin’s own website for $1, 275. On the other hand, another dealer had a trifecta of great designs at bargain prices. Here Poltrona Frau’s iconic Vanity Fair chairs were offered as a set of two for around $4,407. In the US, the lowest price found online was $3,800 for one. Eero Saarinen’s black tulip chairs, with and without arms, were being sold as a set of six for $4,870. (1stdibs had a set of four in white for $4,500). Six Les Arcs chairs by Charlotte Perriand sported a price tag of around $4,870 (Decaso sells a set of four for $6,500).

17th century Italian chairs.

Throughout the grounds, twentieth century classics popped up in completely unexpected places. In one crowded stand a Joe Colombo Tube chair was perched unceremoniously atop an Eero Saarinen Tulip table (there were many of these tables scattered throughout the three buildings.) Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow chair sat unnoticed in one exhibitor’s corner booth. Michele DeLucchi’s First chair for Memphis was spotted amidst a sea of mid-century furniture. An Up chair by Gaetano Pesce, stripped of upholstery sat in the middle of a well-trafficked aisle. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House lamps shone in a booth filled with a mash-up of chairs, tables, and paintings of various provenances. Classic Tolix garden chairs were available at a stand that had appealing 1950s Italian kitchenette sets as well.

There was also a bounty of objects described as in the style of including tables à la Ico Parisi  and chairs “inspired by” Gio Ponti—as well as a cottage industry that seems to have sprung up around Marco Zanuso’s Ladychair. Booth after booth featured multiple versions in a rainbow of colors. Most booth owners were quick to acknowledge that they weren’t selling originals but the fair provides an expert who is on hand to assure authenticity.

There was also an ample assortment of objects: vintage radios, telephones, cameras, children’s cars and fire trucks, and of course, a wide range of tableware—from English silver plate to Richard Ginori cups and saucers. Fittingly for Parma, an entire booth was dedicated to vintage Berkel slicer equipment, designed specifically to create paper-thin pieces of prosciutto—one of the city’s claims to fame.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow chair.

If you go, make time to visit Parma’s tourist attractions—notably the cathedral with its Coreggio paintings; the baptistery with its towering cupola and the Pilotta Palace—home of the awe inspiring wooden theater. Take time to journey outside the city to the Magnani Rocca Fondazione, also known as the Villa of Masterpieces, a private residence turned into a museum. Besides being a beautifully designed showcase of period furnishings, it is filled with both old masters— Filippo Lippi, Carpaccio, Dürer, Tiziano, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Goya—as well as contemporary artists such as Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, de Chirico, and a large collection of the work of Giorgio Morandi. It also stages two temporary art exhibitions twice a year. A survey of American Pop Art headlined by Roy Lichtenstein is currently on view until December 9.  For those seekers of antiques and design, mark your calendar for Mercantefiera’s spring edition from March 2–10, 1019.   Mercantefiera .it