Photo by Laila McCubbin Jones.
Toma Clark Haines grew up in a small town in Oklahoma but always dreamed of living overseas. From an early age she demanded to go to Europe. When she was five years old, she told her mother, “You will take me to Venice or else!” It was something that was in her soul, and in the year 2000 she and her husband moved to Paris. For the last five years she has been operating a unique business of Paris shopping trips that are a must on anyone’s itinerary for the City of Light, and it has grown beyond her wildest dreams, with trips in other parts of France, as well as in Belgium, Holland, England and Italy.
Liana Felt: How did you become the Antiques Diva?
Toma Clark Haines: My journey as the Antiques Diva began in 2000 when my husband and I were transferred overseas. I was denied a work visa, and I wasn’t allowed to work for the first five years. I had given up my career in advertising, and I just started pursuing my passions. Whether it was cooking classes at the Ritz or le Cordon Bleu, French picture-framing courses, interior design courses in London—I threw myself into anything that interested me and just pursued my passion.
What came out of those five years was the realization that the thing that made my heart tick a little bit faster was antiques. I spent every weekend going to the Paris flea markets. My business started with me antiquing for myself, antiquing for the future. Then friends started asking me to take them to the Paris flea markets. Of course when you live overseas you have tons of visitors, so all my visitors would ask me to take them to the Paris flea markets, to little antique shops. It started with friends, and then friends of friends, and then friends of friends of friends. After we’d been overseas for about five years, I was spending every weekend going to flea markets, and I didn’t even know the people I was shopping with. At that point I said that I was going to start a business.
LF: What is your favorite Antiques Diva trip?
TCH: There is no more magical place on earth than a Paris flea market. Within the world of antiques, the crème de la crème of antiques are French, and the crème de la crème of antiques in France all get brought to Paris flea markets. Paris is my favorite for trips. However, having said that, you can get better prices outside Paris. So if you’re buying based on love, Paris is it, but if you’re an antique dealer or an interior designer, I’m going to take you down to Provence, Normandy, maybe Belgium. Where I take a client depends on the information they tell me.
LF: Do you have any tips for bargaining at French flea markets?
TCH: My first tip is to be friendly. You hear a lot of advice about not showing too much interest, because vendors will raise the price. That is the biggest myth I want to debunk. If you come in and appreciate their talent, their collection, what they’ve done, the vendors will like you more.
After you appreciate the collection, buying more than one item will give you a bigger discount. Asking prices for multiple items will bring prices down. Sometimes, maybe there’s a third item a vendor will throw in for free. More interest in one vendor always gets you a bigger discount.
Be willing to walk away. If it’s too much for you to pay, walk away. When you leave, the vendor knows he or she is losing a sale. You can always return later in the day, and it’s a second chance for the vendor to close the sale. If you’re going to regret walking away, whatever it costs, then buy it. Sometimes it’s not all about the bargain; it’s knowing how you feel about the piece. When you’re buying for yourself, the price you pay is always the right price.
LF: What was your best recent purchase?
TCH: I’m obsessing over something at the moment, and it’s really unfortunate because it does not match anything in my house. I notice trends. Clients e-mail me photos of what they want, and after a while you start seeing the same things again and again. And then something takes you by surprise. About six months ago an interior designer was doing a house in Italy, and she e-mailed me a picture of a construction bench that she wanted to buy and turn into a kitchen island. Since then I’ve seen them a few times. My personal style, I have a lot of Louis XVI, rococo, baroque. This piece is very country; my apartment is very city. As a result I keep telling clients to buy it, so I get to vicariously shop through my clients. I spend a lot less money now that I’m helping other people spend their money. I rarely buy, because I know I will see the piece again. I would be my own worst client.
LF: What are some ways to tell if you’re getting a good deal?
TCH: I do know my prices, so I probably have an advantage. For my job I’m on the road about two to three weeks a month. I personally travel around in all eight of our countries, leading trips. If you buy something in a place that’s unexpected, you can get a better price on it. Buying out of the country can get you a better price. What this means is that if I’m in Sweden and I see a French piece, sometimes I’ll find it at a discounted price. For a 17th-century delft plate, in Holland you could spend 2,000 euros, but in Belgium it could be 500 euros. This is because you don’t go to Belgium to buy delft; you go to Holland.
LF: Where are your favorite places to do holiday shopping? Clothing? Souvenirs?
TCH: I love going to Saint-Germain and just meandering. I may start in the rue de Buci area, work my way up, weave over to the Bon Marché and then go on the little side streets. But last weekend I was meandering around the 3rd Arrondissement. I haven’t spent much time there, and I was shocked to see how hip it has become. It has so much going on, and it’s a little bit off the radar. I have a couple of shops there that I just discovered.
LF: What is one of your favorite things to do in Paris?
TCH: I love nothing more than finding a café on any street corner—it has to be outside—then sitting down by myself with a glass of wine and watching the world go by. That is my therapy. Circle of peace around you, yet you have the city whizzing by.
Editor’s note: If you want Toma or one of her divas to help you find the best bargains in Paris or beyond, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a trip. If you’re a Girls’ Guide Travel Club member, you’ll receive a special VIP gift and welcome.