[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]Squeezing out treasures

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[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]Squeezing out treasures

They say you need a good eye to spot a real antique, on top of knowledge and experience. But in Itaewon, the antiques center of Korea, those skills don't matter much. You see, Itaewon's antiques shops are space-tight. To spot a good piece there, you need to be as skinny as a 9-iron and as flexible as a ballerina.

If you're not periodically considered anorexic, perhaps Itaewon's antiques shops aren't for you. Sure, you can get in the front door, but if you want to browse around, you'll have to suck in your gut and tiptoe through dauntingly narrow gaps. Exhale and you're liable to bump into a wine rack (100,000 won, or $85) on top of which was balanced a tacky elephant-statue lamp (70,000 won), which will come tumbling down. You'll step backward, tripping over a crank-style gramophone (260,000 won). Reflexively you'll reach up for a glass chandelier with cherubim (600,000 won). It will give and come crashing down, and you'll fall too, with the international maxim "you break it you buy it" flashing through your mind. The shop owner will look down at you, and be sympathetic. But he'll realize that you're in no position to negotiate.

Most of Itaewon's antiques shops are highbrow. Walk the main boulevard east from the Hamilton Hotel, and you walk through the remnants of Joseon Dynasty forests. The authentic stuff you find there fascinates the sophisticated, but not me. I'm more of a flea market guy. I like antiques that aren't antiques.

Luckily, Itaewon has a few shops for uncultured types like me. Walk south from Burger King and just before you reach a signal and a curve in the road you'll see two shops on your left, Aladdin and Golden Furniture. Each will have bric-a-brac in the window: rotting leather suitcases, shortwave radios, Mexican fireplaces.

Recently I dropped into Golden Furniture, after a three-day fast, and was dazzled. Here was an old Underwood typewriter from France, circa 1920. There a five-foot-tall wood console AM radio with lift-top record player. A row of cast-iron irons, each of which weighed 45 kilograms. An ornately carved walnut dining-room table. Old, bad paintings.

While examining each piece, I asked the good-humored manager, Kim Jae-keun, for background. Usually he said, "It's from England. I don't know how old." The owner of the shop, a Mr. Chung, goes to England to buy second-hand stuff at markets and auctions there. So Mr. Kim is often unaware of an object's story.

But be careful, because Mr. Kim likes to turn the tables and ask you stumpers. "Look at this," he told me, pointing at a cabinet with writing table. "This is a bureau. So why is the FBI the Federal Investigation Bureau?"

I wanted to answer, "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," but knew he would take it wrong. So I just shrugged.

I wanted to buy about half the stuff in the store, but contented myself with an old light-leather briefcase (50,000 won).

Next time I go, I want to check out some of the stuff in the back that I wasn't able to get to this time.

In the meantime, can anybody recommend a good diet?

by Mike Ferrin

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