Many Thais these days prefer shiny brand new things, but for me there are no surprises to plastic-wrapped furniture. I like things with a time-worn patina and a story to tell.
If, like me, you have a yen for yesteryear’s treasures, then let’s explore the old-world charm of antiques. But before I get to my five easy steps of collecting them, let me tell you where I stand on a commonly held Thai belief in regards to antiquities and old things in general: that they are likely to be haunted. Ghosts or no ghosts, many of Thailand’s objects of yore are just too precious to pass up and deserve to be preserved for future generations, not tossed on to the scrap heap.
That bugbear out of the way, let’s begin. Firstly, what is your motive for buying a piece? Is Thai pottery or textiles a passion of yours? Is it for decoration or investment? Or are you just out to complete your collection? If you know your reasons for buying, it will make a difference in the next steps.
Secondly, shop around. In Bangkok there are many places and areas that trade antiques. Of course, you can start in the comfort of your own room and browse the websites of eBay and famous auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but it’s not nearly as fun as actually getting out there in the markets and showrooms, where you can see, touch and feel the pieces yourself.
The spots that I recommend you start would be the antique section of Jatuchak Weekend Market. This is where some dealers from larger stores come to scout good deals as well. If you have a penchant for retro furniture and pop culture bric-a-brac, I also suggest the nearby Talad Rot Fai, or Railway Market, on the weekend; and if amulets and sacred votives are more your thing, go to the Amulet Market near Wat Mahathat, where special markets are held on every Buddhist day (half-moon, new moon, and full moon days). Meanwhile, if you have an eye for high-end pieces, then go to Oriental Place (otherwise known as OP Place) or River City and have a browse. River City also holds monthly auctions as well, with a grand one every August.
Third: narrow your scope. What makes your heart race? Do you like delicate Chinese porcelain? Do you want to decorate your place with stout old furniture? Does the serenity or magnificence of Buddha images make you feel humbled and enlightened? Do old prints and photographs bring on pangs of nostalgia? Do you like the supple and sinuous textures of old textiles and carpets? Does the roughness and sincerity of folk pieces make you feel warm all over? Which styles of different countries do you like? Do you like the Zen simplicity in Japanese objets d’art, the voluptuousness in Indian stone sculptures, the bright colours in Himalayan furniture or the artistic flair in Southeast Asian textiles? Find out what makes you tick and then go the next step.
Four, learn as much as you can about your specialty. A good way to do so is simply ask the dealers about the style, period and provenance of the pieces that you like. Some of them are as knowledgeable as academics because they get to experience these artifacts first-hand. Has the piece been repaired or are any details missing? Talk to other collectors about them too. Read the books and magazines about the subjects of your interests. For example, River Books, Serindia and White Lotus are local publishers that produce copious volumes on art and antiques. Also visit museums and collections to see if they have something similar to what you’re after and learn from them. Identify if the piece is genuine or a reproduction. Shop around for prices and learn about its value.
Five: budget, bargain and buy. If you decide to purchase a piece that you like, ask for the price first and then ask for the best offer. Bargain gently and then buy it. The dealers usually don’t give such high prices if they really want to sell. Some also accept payment in installments. If you are taking a Buddha image or stone and bronze Khmer pieces out of Thailand, you should also be aware of the rules and laws around exporting antiques. Check with the dealers and always ask for a certificate of authenticity when finalising the sale.
If you are not able to find the pieces that you want right away, you can also ask the dealer to find them for you. So don’t rush and just wait it out. Like all kinds of shopping, the mantra is “seek and ye shall find.” But if all else fails, a friend of mine once saw a sign stating: “Antiques Made to Order.” As they say, only in Thailand!