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Life in the Arts Lane - Week 3

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I was in Avignon on Sunday night, the walled city which reeks of the medieval world. Schism popes and mercenaries, disease and short intense lives. We were wandering around looking for somewhere to eat. Occasionally distracted by a church or such like. Sunday is mainly a closed day and it is December. The few places open teem with antique dealers. For this is the ritual solstice gathering of the trade at Avignon, tomorrow there is Montpellier and yesterday (though I did not go) was Bezier.

These three fairs happen together four times a year and they are an extraordinary gathering. From across Europe they come- Italians, Germans, and Spanish Portuguese. Even down from Scandinavia. I am with one of my oldest pals. We both read English at Uni versity, back in the dark ages. His family for generations have collected and traded tirelessly in everything from ancient gold coin collectors to contemporary Chinese scroll painting. To earn money as a student he used to rent a van then drive to Brighton, buy odd bits of stripped pine and then drive back. Stopping on the way back at all the antique centres selling the stuff. At the end of the day he returned the van empty and had pockets crammed with cash. He now deals in carpets and textiles, known by his peers as " lucky mike", earning this name because he finds endless great things, but he does so because he works ten times harder than the unlucky ones!

Quaffing wine and plotting the temporary denizens of Avignon prepare for the battle to come. In the morning at 8am about 3 thousand plus are let in. Dealers and buyers alike, no stand preparation, no vetting, no comradely trading. It is chaos! Everyone runs around and there follows a frenzy of trading which steams for three hours. At 11 or so the herd stop and buy sausages and drink beer or champagne. Then they repair to, lick wounds, pack up or shoot off to some rendezvous. Gathering strength for the next battle in the morning.

From about 10am, French time, my double life starts to kick in. Emails from the office, calls from existing or potential exhibitors land on my iphone. There is a weird counterpoint between the dealers around and those from the top of the tree from Masterpiece London. Jewelry, antiquities and potential sponsors are dominating the airways as I haggle over a Japanese bronze model of a rat from around 1900. Weird but wonderfully balancing. Neither world is too dominant.

Mike has had some luck. He has found an 18th century Kelim fragment. Very, very rare apparently. So he is home and dry. The energy of the event is such that you only exist if you bought. Not spending money is failure.

Friday, Francesca my assistant and I are off to Budapest. I am helping a friend/client finish his house on the Danube. He calls it his cottage in homage to the cottages in Newport Rhode Island. He is a driven man. He stands, he does not sit. Elegantly thin with a wave of grey hair he storms through life doing deals and enjoying himself by suffusing his life with treats, wines from his own vineyards, foie gras, Hungarian truffles and delicious indigenous pork called Mangalitsa. Breakfast is a truffle infused boiled egg with slices of truffle and a solid pinch of salt. Coffee and a shot of the filthy local herbal alcohol Unicum. I join in but I don't embrace the morning booze. The Hungarian truffle is a wonder. All the aroma and flavour of an Italian white one and the robustness of a French black truffle. Yum.

Tip : put eggs in a plastic box with a truffle for a couple of days, because eggshell is porous, after that time you have a truffle flavoured egg.

Then a race to the airport via my new friend Anna. She owns and runs Gerbeaud in Budapest. Possibly the world's greatest cake shop. Certainly a rival to anything in Paris or Vienna. Traditional cakes sit beside innovation, as she pushes the barrier ever further back. Wonderful uses of pepper and spice. Very Hungarian. The race has been won. Christian stupidly fast Porsche driven eagerly by me sweeps us to the airport. Off home to recover!!!