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Last update on November 11, 2019

In Spain, it is impossible to visit a ‘rastro’ (flea market) without stumbling over a pile of old plates, pitchers or vases. We give some advice on how to develop an eye for the real McCoy.

Perhaps no object-of-every-day-use can communicate the history of a nation (and thus their antiques) as the mere dinner plate does for Spain. Pottery has been a staple in Spain for over 4,000 years, but it was the Moors who took the proverbial “bull by the horns” when they introduced iridescent lusterware and tin-glazed earthenware using techniques that dazed and amazed.

Originally used for decorative tiles and vases, the factories began making bowls, cups and plates when the use of silver was restricted for domestic purposes in 1601, thus changing the history of Spanish ceramic art forevermore.

By the 15th century, Moorish potters in factories near Valencia changed their designs from traditional Arabic to Christian scenes. This shift was received with near global fan-fair; Spanish ceramics became so popular French and Italian aristocrats requested their coats-of-arms to be painted on pieces. By the 18th century “la faïence Française” had grown in popularity and provided Spain with some serious competition.

Porcelain war

The Spaniards did market research and lashed back in a porcelain war that resulted in Spanish faience rivalling Paris’ best. This prompted one famous French royal to write to the factory in Alcora, “Yours is far superior…To compare (French) pottery with your porcelain is like comparing Corsica with Spain!”

Even the Pope gave his royal seal of approval, marvelling over Spain’s ability to “create such things of elegance from mere clay.”  Needless to say, with backing from the Pope Spain was set and soon became the foremost ceramic producer in Europe.

Reproductions galore

Spain is still noted for its ceramic production and the history of Spain is intermingled with the history of ceramics. The same cultural influences on porcelain also influenced Spain’s architecture, art and furniture design; thus as porcelain evolved so did the designs of the day.

Today it is impossible to visit a rastro (flea market) without stumbling over a pile of old plates, pitchers or vases. With such varying degrees of quality (and an excellent assortment of high quality reproductions on the market), it’s difficult to determine if you’re buying ‘the real McCoy’. Before racing to the rastro to purchase, you should educate your eye so that you know if you’re buying an authentic period-piece or an “antique-of-the future”.

Educating the eye

My favourite museum in Spain is the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas in Madrid with its rooms furnished to recreate different historical and regional styles. Here you can study original museum pieces to get an eye for quality.

If you were buying a case of Rioja, you would expect to do a wine tasting prior to forking out the euros, so why not apply this same “tasting” mentality to your antique purchases. Once you’ve satisfied your educational requirements step out into antique shops and flea markets where you can touch, fondle and most importantly, buy the treasures on display.

Antiques in Madrid

Madrid has three main areas for antique shopping: The Salamanca, The Calle del Prado and the Rastro. It is in the latter flea market, and along the Calle Ribera de Curtidores, where both bargains on mid-range items and mountains of junk can be found.

You’re as likely to have your handbag stolen as to come across a true treasure, and this shopping experience is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a fantastically fun day out. Visit the Nuevas Galerías, at No. 12, and Galerías Piquer No. 29 to find clusters of antique shops in one arcade. Mercado Puerta de Toledo (at Puerta de Toledo No. 1) also offers some interesting wares.

Shoppers interested in partaking of a more posh purchasing experience will want to go to The Salamanca. Along the parallel streets of Claudio Coello and Lagasca you’ll find a number of antique shops including the covered arcade, Centro de Anticuarios Lagasca (at Lagasca 36) with its impressive assemblage of antique furniture and porcelain.

To the east of Puerta del Sol are some interesting art and antique showrooms in Carrera de San Jerónimo and Calle del Prado.

Antiques in Barcelona

After a whirlwind antique shopping tour in Madrid, Barcelona is next. Start your antique shopping at Els Encants Vells at the Placa de las Glories. The Old Charms Market is the largest rastro in town, selling objects of little-to-no value as well as collector’s items and local antiques.

Don’t forget to visit the smaller flea markets as well. The Mercat Gotic (Avinguada Catedral, 6) held on the cathedral square, might be tiny but it’s well stocked with more local treasures.

The typical Spanish antique is heavily carved and robust with oversized proportions not commonly found today. I adore the dark wedding chests in Moorish designs and the Catalan four poster boards.

In recent years Spanish antiques have gained international popularity as their rich woods mix beautifully with modern art. On the rise in popularity, these pieces, which are typically too large for modern day Spanish homes, are ripe for purchasing. But shop quickly before these items skyrocket out of your price range.

If you speak at least high school Spanish, sprint to one of the three Barcelona-based auction houses — Castellana Subhastes, Arce Subastas and Subhastes de Barcelona — to bid against the dealers. This is where the dealers shop to stock their antique shops and the best way to get a bargain is to bypass the middleman.

When bidding on an item, don’t hesitate on your bid if the dealer stops bidding. This simply means that he has to make a profit on his purchase, while all you have to do is save money off what he would have charged you.

It’s now time to hit the Barri Gothic and the Carrer Banys Nous and Carrer Palla where scads of antique shops are clustered. A particular favourite in this area is Antiuguedades Boada at 6 Placa Oriol. Should you be into mixing modern art with Spanish antiques, visit the art galleries on Carrer Peritxol.

Antiques in Seville

After Madrid and Barcelona, two antique hot-spots remain. Seville is an antique shoppers dream with a maze of narrow streets that make you feel like you’re walking in a painting.

While antique shops are located all over the shopping district, the Alfalfa neighbourhood, nearby Cabeza del Rey Don Pedro Street and adjacent streets, contains a large number of antique shops and galleries selling contemporary art.

Antiques in Valencia

The last place to mention, but most certainly not the least, is the porcelain district where this article began.

Valencia is prized still today for its ceramics and a simply sensational selection can be found in the antique shops on the streets of Avellanas, Baja or Purisima or in the Ciutat Vella. As always, should you be interested in pairing art with antiquities visit the galleries on Pizarro, Nave and Cirilo Amoros.