Rain and a famously dull lifestyle have kept rents, car prices, and a lot of other things cheaper in Brussels than in tonier European capitals. Even antiques go for bargain prices.
The other day I spied a matching pair of green upholstered Art Deco armchairs in pristine condition for about $1,300 each. "For that," said an envious New York friend, "you'd find a chair here that looked like your cat had murdered it." Carlo Berman, an Art Deco specialist and owner of Berman, says Big Apple prices can be twice as dear. "I get a lot of customers from New York--even dealers," says Berman, whose Rue Ste. Anne shop is just off the Grand Sablon square, ground zero for Brussels' antiques district.
THE REAL MCCOY. Shops on the swanky Sablon, such as the 18 inside the Antique Fair Center, are open daily. There's also a weekend open-air market, held on the square under vast green-and-red canvas stalls (Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.). If you know antiques, there are greater bargains to be had at this hodgepodge bazaar, where one is as likely to find Victorian dolls or a 300-piece set of Art Nouveau silverware as a dining room table to die for.
If you're a novice, caveat emptor, says Betty De Coninck, manager of Antiques & Design Center, a Sablon-area specialist in old pine furniture. "Even at the Grand Sablon you have to watch out for people who sell new things as antiques," she says. The Place de la Chapelle store, like most in the area, provides certificates of authenticity for the genuine articles, such as the 300-year-old, six-foot-tall French pine armoire I saw for the rock-bottom price of $1,000.
Sablon-area merchants identify uncertified antiques as brocante, which means second-hand in French. If you get lucky and spot something so listed that happens to be a real antique, the price will be considerably less than it would be with a certificate of authenticity.
Inveterate bargain hunters might also enjoy browsing through the jumbled daily flea market on the nearby Place du Jeu de Balle. Given Belgium's onetime colonial ties, you'll see lots of African oldies, such as a 100-year-old, 24-inch-tall statue from Zaire's Lema Herba tribe that was going for $300 the day I visited. In fair condition, a six-foot Belgian pine armoire, also about 100 years old, was the same price. But if you buy something, don't bother asking for an antique certificate. They're nonexistent at the flea market. You may not even get a bill of sale (needed to obtain sales tax refunds). "Some of the stuff at the flea market is stolen," says De Coninck.
SABLON SNACKS. Of course, nonluggable antiques have to be shipped home. Ziegler, a major Belgian transport company (011-322-422-2209) with English-speaking clerks, charges a minimum of $265, including packing, to send 2 cubic meters (about 75 cubic feet) of goods to New York by ship. There's an add-on if items weigh more than 2,200 pounds. Delivery takes three weeks. By air, the minimum rate for the same volume is $400, with the add-on starting after 720 pounds. Even the flea market's wily merchants will help you arrange transport--at least to Ziegler's warehouse.
Offsetting delivery charges on certified antiques, which must be more than 100 years old, is a recoverable 6% sales tax. And buyers don't have to pay U.S. duty. For furniture of the Art Deco or Art Nouveau era--too modern to qualify as certified antiques--the charge is 2.5% to 5% U.S. duty. But the recoverable tax is 19.5%.
If you shop till you drop, or if the arcana of antiques is just too much for your jet-lagged brain to deal with, fear not. The Sablon area is also prime eating turf in gastronomic Brussels, where even the picky French have been know to smack their lips. Brussels' best pastry shop, Wittamer's, is right on the square. And just on the edge at Rue Bodenbroeck, 18, is l'Ecailler du Palais Royal, a fish restaurant the Michelin guide rates two stars.