Continental ShelfSophia Park, 69, owner of Sophia Antiques, is a fine storyteller. Her deep, low-toned voice entices one to listen to her stories as a child would a mother telling a bedtime tale. "Just look at the expression on the faces of this porcelain, it is worth a thousand words," says Mrs. Park. She brightens as she touches the antique porcelain doll as if petting a cat, and continues: "It's 150 years old but is a timeless treasure."
The porcelain ornament of a boy and a girl in traditional German folk attire certainly does not look a century old. And the expression on their cherubic faces is as endearing and fascinating as Norman Rockwell's paintings of children. But that's exactly why antiques are so eternally admired and treasured.
Mrs. Park is the owner of the antique store that bears her name in Itaewon's Antiques Alley, a 100 square meter room filled with more than 1,000 relics from the past. Cupboards, dressing tables, bureaus and oil paintings line the walls. Inside the antique furniture and on the tables are antique porcelains, glassware, clocks and silverware. Here you feel you are no longer in Korea, but transported to the Victorian period or any part of the European continent. Faded but charming looking lamps and elaborate chandeliers give the room a sense of luminous gaiety.
Without being asked, Mrs. Park gets up at the comments about beautiful glass vases, and draws items out of the cupboard to show the visitor. She moves cautiously and deftly, as if years of experience have taught her how to balance numerous priceless antiques with her hands. She says, "This is Venetian glass －－ oh, it's absolutely breathtaking, isn't it? And this porcelain, originally from France, is done in the art nouveau style. You can see that art nouveau differs from art deco in that it is more dynamic. See how the artist brings out the color as if the roses are moving before your eyes?"
She talks breathlessly and relates anecdotes of how she obtained a Messein plate (a piece of china) and what the craftsmen of such stunning artwork were thinking when they were drawing the fine lines at the edges.
Put simply, she is a woman who knows antiques and she does not hide her joy at telling stories in great detail. "I wish people could appreciate and love antiques as much as I have over the years," she says enthusiastically.
Mrs. Park has been collecting antiques for nearly half a century. Her reputation as a collector of bona fide antiques is verified by the scores of visitors and antique specialists who come to her store. "I first heard about Sophia Antiques four or five years ago and I have been a patron every since. Her shop is completely orginial, full of true antiques," says Bok Jeon Yeong-ja, the Director of Celamuse Porcelain Museum in northern Seoul. The owner of Coronet Antique store, Che Soo-min says, "Mrs. Park has been dealing antiques for decades. She is one of the pioneers of the antique alley in Itaewon." Among the 80 antique stores that line this narrow road, this store certainly is the one most densely filled with treasures of yore.
With her neatly swept-back hair and makeup and smart suit she gives an air of elegance befitting her surroundings. She uses English words often when talking about her antiques, a habit from her many overseas sojourns.
Her father, the poet Suh Jeong-bong, was an avid collector of Korean antiques and she grew up sharing his passion. After graduating from Seoul National University, where she majored in education, she went to obtain a master's in education at University of Pittsburgh. While in the United States she met her husband, Park Min-soo, who was a diplomat. Together they led a globetrotting life for 38 years, living in New York, Sweden, Japan, Pakistan, Los Angeles and Jamaica. During Mrs. Park's life as a diplomat's wife she took her collection of Korean antiques (both inherited and obtained) to foreign countries to display at her many homes. She would revel in explaining to foreign guests about Korean ceramics, paintings, traditional ornaments and aristocratic headpieces. "I loved to explain our cultural heritage with the objects we had at home," says Mrs. Park.
When time permitted, she frequented antique stores in Europe and in the United States and started to collect European antiques starting small －－?ith pillboxes. "For European items, anything over a hundred years is considered antique, and for Korean artifacts, items must be 250 years to be regarded as antique." So collecting European antiques was relatively practical due to their large number around the world, and over the years she accumulated century-old paraphernalia, furniture and the like.
In 1988, a few years before her husband retired from the foreign service, Mrs. Park opened a small Korean antiques shop in the Renaissance Hotel in Yeoksam-dong, called Silk Road. She decided to sell her Korean antiques because "I wanted to share my treasures with everyone else." She sold nearly all her possessions of Korean antiques over nine years and now has faint regrets about unloading her treasures. "It's hard to find Korean antiques, originals, that is, out in the market because they are all held by private collectors," she sighs. "Come to think of it, I didn't get my money's worth of some exquisite ones."
When the financial crisis struck in 1997, she moved to a less expensive location, in Itaewon. Sophia Antiques was one of the first European antique shops to open in Itaewon. She says customers come to buy oak or mahogany bookcases from Britain and glassware from the Czech Republic, and when they have bought a certain amount, they no longer visit. "If you buy too many antiques, your house will be too dreary," she says.
Mrs. Park acknowledges that some say her antiques are considered expensive －－ most large items range from 1 million won ($820) to 5 million won －－but people come because they are drawn by the decor and the genuiness of her items. "Mine are all real, and if there were replicas, I'd say so," says Mrs. Park proudly. How does she assess the authenticity of her antiques? "Years of experience gives you a hunch, and also through informal learning from foreign antique dealers I can assess genuines from the fakes." She admits she has made mistakes in her early years as a collector, buying fakes from merchants unknowingly, and also buying antiques via catalogs has been disastrous. "Never ever buy Internet or by catalogs. One should always have a feel for the items that are being purchased," says Mrs. Park firmly.
About four times a year, Mrs. Park goes to the United States to attend antiques fairs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, sometimes to Europe, and takes time to visit her two daughters living in the States. She chooses plenty of antiques from these fairs, and imports them to Korea (any item over 100 years old is tax-free when imported to Korea). When shipping big items she does not insure them. "I rely on chance rather than insurance," she chuckles. "Of course, I've had good pieces broken by movers but that's quite rare nowadays." Sometimes wives of fellow diplomats also sell their antiques to Mrs. Park, which they brought over from Europe.
These days, Mrs. Park is busy preparing for the 2002 Autumn Antiques Fair, beginning Sunday at the Coex Center. She is planning the annual event as the president of the Seoul Antique Association. The fair includes events such as sales, auctions, and antiques lectures.
Mrs. Park acknowledges that in recent times, customers have become very sophisticated in their taste, with many asking intelligent questions about the style and date of producton. "As I reach the age of 70, I realized I no longer want to keep antiques at home but rather would like other people to keep them for me."
by Choi Jie-ho