Fun Shopping for That Rare FindFor those people who have to be dragged kicking and screaming to visit museums, where the cemetery silence and deathlike stillness can preclude any idea of enjoyment, Seoul's Dapsimni Antique Market, with its museum-like attractions, is an opportunity to explore artistry and craftsmanship without the stuffiness and admonitions against touching the displays.
The atmosphere is quite relaxed at Dapsimni, located near Dapsimni subway station. Although the artifacts also reveal secrets of fallen civilizations, being able to touch these rare and historic pieces of art is a thrill you will not get at your city museum. What's more, if you can afford it, you are welcome to buy it.
The search for the flawless antique is an adventure in itself.
Karen and Weston Adams from Canada were at Dapsimni Antique Market for their third visit last Wednesday. They did not have a specific type of antique or a historic period in mind. They were only looking for an item that would capture their interest. "We haven't bought anything yet," said Mrs. Adams, who has been in Korea for a year, working with the bank HSBC. "We're still hoping and searching for something that will catch our eye."
When Mr. Adams first saw Korean antiques, they did not appeal to him. "The finishes seemed rough but the more I come here, the greater my fascination for them and so I'm starting to find them appealing."
The store owners themselves also lend an air of mystery to the market. In the middle of an interview, one merchant at a furniture store suddenly stood up and walked to a chest leaning against a wall. He moved the chest away from the wall, revealing a small door. Behind the door was a hidden cache of his most precious chests and paintings.
At the Bo Jeon Dang Antique Shop, Roh Jung Soo pulled out several boxes from a safe. One of the items Mr. Roh unwrapped was a chipped stone female head. "I spent years combing the site where I found this head, for its crown. After three years, I gave up," Mr. Roh said. He calculates the head to be from the Shilla Dynasty
He also displayed four flat wooden figures from the Shilla Dynasty. They are kept wrapped in plastic and are rarely shown. It was difficult to make out the once colorful but now faded paintings that covered the four animals from the Chinese horoscope.
Most of the items he keeps in the safe are prized possessions he has had for decades. "I don't sell these, so my family thinks I'm nuts," Mr. Roh said, adding, "Sure they're expensive, but they're treasures."
For many buyers, acquiring original antiques can be an expensive addiction. "I knew one person who collected wooden duck statues. He had about 20 of them in one area of the first floor of his home. From the second floor, the statues looked like a gaggle of ducks hanging around," said Kim Si-kwon of Sam Bo Dang of The Fine Arts Gallery. Since one type of duck, wonangsae, and of wild geese, gireogi, mate for life, they are symbols of love and fidelity. An original in good form is virtually impossible to find, and a meter-long statue can cost up to 10 million won ($7,850). Reproductions are more easily found and depending on the quality of the craftsmanship, cost one million to six million won.
The scarcity of originals has created a market for quality reproductions and forgeries passed off as originals. The merchants in the business appreciate antiques, but according to Mr. Kim, it can be a dirty business, "If you're looking for original Korean antiques, only buy from a trusted dealer. There are a lot of imitations floating around out there."
"It is difficult to tell the difference between a copy and an original. Everything is being imitated," said a European buyer who was disappointed to find a reporter at the market. Asked the reason for his chagrin, he answered that he did not want Dapsimni to become a public haunt. Dapsimni is not as well known as the more commercialized Insadong. The buyer, who requested that his name be withheld, said, "This is not a market for common people. To a certain extent, you have to be a connoisseur to come here."
NEXT WEEK: Hwanghakdong Flea Market
HERE'S THE BUZZ
WHERE AND WHAT
Dapsimni Antique Market, near Dongdaemun, comprises six buildings within walking distance of each other. There are more than 160 store owners, some with several stores. They sell antiques and reproduction furniture, ceramics, paintings, frames, ornaments, used books and traditional clothes. Some are Korean originals, but many are local and Chinese reproductions.
When asked about price ranges and his most precious antique items, Mr. Kim hedged saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. "Once you buy an antique, it's yours forever. They're priceless."
True, but for those who have a budget, keep in mind that Korean antiques and even quality imitations are not cheap. As Mr. Adams found out, "Antiques here are fairly expensive compared to China, Macau and the Middle East."
As long as you're not shopping for originals, inexpensive products are available.
Dapsimni Antique Market used to be known as Janghanpyeong Antique Market. It opened in the mid-1980s in two buildings on the south-eastern part of the area and expanded quickly. Now, the bulk of the market lies northwest of the original location.
The name of the market evolved to Dapsimni Antique Market when the government remapped the city of Seoul. As district boundaries changed, the market became part of Dapsimri-dong.
TAKING ANTIQUES OUT OF KOREA
The Cultural Properties Protection Act prohibits taking Korean cultural properties out of Korea. According to Lim Lee-nam of Sam Bo Dang, Chosun Dynasty items are exportable. If you're not sure whether your antique falls under this category, it can be appraised for export at the office of Cultural Properties Appraisal, located at the airport. The process usually takes less than 30 minutes. For more information, call 02-662-0106.
by Joe Yong-hee