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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Antiques: Art & Science of shopping for Timeless Treasures

This is why you should be spotting treasures from other people’s discarded items or having the good sense of collecting them in the first place. Some of them become valuable after a couple of years like rare stamps or first edition comics and books written by the great wordsmiths of our times or even an earlier era.

Here is what a website reported would have happened if you had held on to your first edition Superman comic - you would have made one million dollars today. (Read The-superman-asset-bubble-is-here.) Besides, it’s not only kids who love hanging on to comics, even older people have their quirks and obsessions. One such adult, who is a comic lover and collector, is actor Nicholas Cage. He auctioned off a portion of his collection – about 140 lots for $1.68 million. This might be small change for a Hollywood actor, but put yourself in his shoes – wouldn’t this kind of money mean something to you?

Meanwhile, auction house Christie's is auctioning of an original copy of American writer Edgar Allan Poe's ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems’. It was expected to fetch $500,000 to $700,000. What is surprising is not the amount of money it is expected to fetch but the actual condition of the book. It looks like something rescued from a trash can but that’s precisely the whole point of a seconds market or website – it’s supposed to help people discover hidden gems like this one.

One person who has actually found an alternative hobby while maintaining his model car collection, is now finding fame on the web because he’s done a brilliant job of showcasing his cars against a backdrop of a 1960s fictional town called Elgin Park that he has created. Yes, he’s made scale models of an entire town with such attention to detail that it looks like a real place. This model town flaunts his priced car collection to perfection. (Read about Michael Paul Smith here: Showcase Collectible Cars.)

If you are a Dan Brown fan, then you’ll know that the professorial hero of his three books (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and The Lost Symbol) – Robert Langdon - is never caught at the scene of his numerous adventures without his favourite Mickey Mouse collector’s edition watch. Another author named Clive Cussler, who writes such fast-paced thrillers, that his novels' protagonists make James Bond look like he should retire into the sunset gracefully - anyway, this writer is an avid collector of vintage cars and locomotives. Even his fictional alter ego - Dirk Pitt - displays the same taste.

In India as well, there are many vintage car lovers - some well known and the others not so much. They often flaunt their babies at car rallies across the country. But one man in India, has got vintage cars and an entire train parked in his garden, which he has painstakingly restored and now uses to entertain his guests in. (Read more about Tarun Thakral here - http://writtenpath.blogspot.com/2007/07/journey-of-lifetime.html)

Moving on to celebrities, Amitabh Bachchan has a fetish for pens and everyone is aware of Elizabeth Taylor’s love of jewellery. Marilyn Monroe loved Manolo Blahnik shoes. Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino’s movies drip blood and expletives but he’s not the one who collects knives (Angelina Jolie does that) – he collects staid board games. George Clooney collects motorcycles, Jamie Lee Curtis collects photographs, billionaire Malcolm Forbes collected Faberge eggs and toy soldiers, Freddie Mercury collected stamps, Demi Moore collects vintage clothing and dolls and Nicholas Cage also collects European sports cars along with comics. Johnny Depp’s collection ranges from the intellectual to natural - he collects both rare books and insects and even Dolly Parton collects rare butterflies. (For more details, read this: Famous Collectors & their Collections.)

All of these people can afford to indulge their tastes and pursue serious collecting as a hobby but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us to keep looking and cultivating an eye for fascinating, beautiful and tasteful things. Treasures can and are found in unexpected places – an old trunk in your grandparents home may have vintage clothes and dolls that you might be able to sell to Demi Moore some day! What’s more, collections are and can be started with what interests you – so people are collecting Disney memorabilia, Hot Wheels cars, Beanie babies, Barbie dolls and other items like these which you thought you had outgrown. You could possibly find such people online and swap your children or grandchildren’s toys with them.

Abroad, the collecting instinct is well entrenched and there are many stores that people-in-the-know visit to scout for the latest bargains. For instance, the next time you visit the UK, here is a list of great antiques stores, you could browse in: The 50 Best Antiques Shops in Britain. Some of the shops actually stock furniture, which look a lot like what we would find being neglected in our grandparents home in India.

So, once you realise the actual value, you could fly back and take care of it well, if you already own it, or offer to buy it from them before they unwittingly sell it to a neighbour or relatives. Another store in Britain called Deddington Antiques Centre lets you trade in your antiques for something else from their stock! That is such a fun way to keep people interested.

Abroad, collectors have many options as the art of collecting is well and truly alive, as it reflects well on their level of refinement, if they can flaunt beautiful things in their homes. You only have to look at that list of the best antiques stores given above, to see that some of those stores look like upscale country homes, that you would like to holiday in. The fact that those store owners can afford and maintain such properties mean that they are doing very well.

Collectibles come up for sale in odd places like garage sales, thrift stores apart from art and photography galleries and auctions. One such treasure up for sale at a photography gallery in Vienna is a 170-year old wooden sliding box camera, which was made in Paris in 1839 by Alphonse Giroux and designed by Jacques Daguerre – it also has Daguerre’s signature on it - thereby making it an authentic item. This vintage camera is up for sale at a starting price of Rs 1.25 crore – the price of a pricey apartment in Mumbai. In 2007, an ‘unbranded’ old camera was sold at the same venue, for Rs 3.59 crore. So the ‘signed’ model is expected to fetch a much higher price.

In India, at the moment, Saffronart is having an online auction of jewellery that you might want to take a look at. These are specially designed period pieces and they are expecting more than 700 people to flock in, like they did last time, to bid for them. Not everyone can begin hunting with the big game right away so begin small with websites like this one - www.seconddealnsteal.com - and you might in time, build a collection that could drive everyone else green with envy. Other options that you could try is, use a metal detector and comb beaches for coins, trinkets, souvenirs and relics on your next seaside vacation. You might just strike pay dirt.

In India, Christie’s website is a good place to start if you have the inclination to know what’s happening in the collecting business. They have sections like watches, prints, jewellery, glassware, photographs, furniture, porcelain, musical instruments, books and manuscripts, armour, lighting and a host of other things. Take a look at the list and also see how one can customise it to your wallet. Look for the ‘Create your Wishlist’ kind of element on the Christie’s site: http://www.christies.com/

On the other hand, if history and archaeology in particular, is of interest to you, then keep track of what’s happening in that field – sometimes treasures are recovered and not everything makes its way to the museums of a country. There have been cases where things have been smuggled away and, hidden yet again only to surface years later in some billionaire’s private collection. Ironically, sometimes such items that were acquired on the black market is auctioned off in a public manner. If you keep yourself updated on such matters, then some day, you might spot something that you know is valuable in an really unexpected place.

The best method is to keep your eyes open and train it to spot treasures. So begin a collection and try and spot your diamonds in other people’s coal bins!

I contacted Christie’s India Representative and Vice President, Menaka Kumari Shah and asked her a few questions on the art of collecting.

1. Have you had any private collections come up for auction in India?
A: Christie's does not hold auctions in India, but we do hold auctions of art from South Asia in New York, London and Hong Kong. Many international private collections are offered in a wide range of categories, for instance contemporary art (film director Michael Crichton's collection) or Impressionist/Modern art (the collection of Mrs Sidney Brody) etc.

2. How do you start the collecting habit? I mean apart from having the money to do it and the taste for say, collecting vintage wine bottles...how do you know what one is collecting will turn out to be valuable some day?
A: We suggest would-be collectors do their homework - study auction categories, auction results, visit galleries, museums, read journals etc. Auction houses - large and small - cover a myriad of categories, but it is up to the person on what is of interest to him/her. We always advice people to start collecting what they are passionate about.

3. Are there some categories that are going to be hot from a collectors viewpoint? How do these collections do as against other investments in terms of capital gain?
A: There is indeed a lot of cash looking for a home at the moment. Fear of inflation but also very low interest rates have driven many individuals to diversify their assets and acquire works of art.
·On Jewellery: High quality diamonds will get more and more difficult to locate due to the scarcity of rough material as will important rubies and natural pearls. The market will gain strength from a buyer's perspective due to the emergence of new markets in China, Russia and India and as seen through the ages, jewellery will continue to be an alternative form of investment when money fluctuates a lot. Buying activity will be governed by the exceptional demand for important diamonds, gemstones, and vintage jewels, which are keenly sought after by private clients and the trade who buy for stock and, on some occasions, on behalf of a client.
·On Wine: When considering a bottle to add to your collection, one must consider rarity, provenance, condition and its source of creation. Typically, the best-produced wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy are among the most exclusive in the world and among the most established fields for collection. Other important collectible areas in France include Champagne and Rhone wines. Beyond France, the wines from Spain, Italy, California and Australia regularly appear at auctions. We encourage buyers to bid on wine to enjoy them and not primarily to buy to invest. Although it is true that returns on some blue-chip wines over the past few years have been very positive, we encourage any buyer who is interested in wine investment to seek professional advice, and of course Christie's specialists are on hand to answer questions.
·On Art: Statistics track a fast growing segment of affluent Asians, including Indians. We can foresee this trend continuing to gain momentum over the next decade. I think that after houses, cars and education, people look to art as a celebration of their status and as an expression of pride in cultural heritage.

Collectors from this region have a wide range of tastes and collecting habits. Usually our specialists always advise our clients or would-be collectors to start with what they like or are passionate about - this should take precedent over pure investment value. Of course there have been many instances where art acquired many years back is now being sold many times its original price, as we can see from works by Indian artists such as Souza, Raza, Hussain, Kallat and others.

4. Who are the famous collectors in India and what do they collect? If you have an idea of how much their collection is valued at, then do add that information here even as an approx figure.
A: Christie's does not comment on clients.

Places to buy antiques in Mumbai

Philips Antiques
Indian Mercantile Mansion,
Opposite Regal Cinema,
Madame Cama Road,
Colaba – 400001
Tel no – 022 22885115
Site: http://www.phillipsantiques.com/

White Rose
F-72, Oberoi Towers,
Nariman Point - 400021
Tel no – 022 22025757

Natesan’s Antiquarts Pvt Ltd
Jehangir Art Gallery,
Kala Ghoda, MG Road,
Mumbai – 400023
Tel no – 022 22852700

E.A. Merchant
Hasham Building,
Mohammed Ali Road,
Mumbai – 400003
Tel no – 022 23424610

Chor Bazaar
Near Nal Bazaar,
Close to JJ Hospital,
Opposite Mirza Ghalib Market,
Mumbai - 400003

Outside Maharashtra, Jew Town in Kochi, Kerala and Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu are good places to shop for antiques.

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