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By Steven Crook
Translated by Vanessa Wu

      For Taiwan residents, there has perhaps never been a better time to begin collecting antiques and other curios.

      The island's continuing economic woes mean many items are cheaper now than they were a decade ago. And because mainland China has opened to the world, there has been a huge increase in the availablity of Chinese antiques.

      Moreover, growing "Taiwanese consciousness" has prompted many to investigate and collect utensils and decorative items made and used by Taiwanese people long ago.

      Back in the 1980s, most of the Chinese antiques being sold in Taiwan were from the Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) and Qing (1644-1911 A.D.) dynasties. In recent years, however, much older items have started to appear in Taiwan: figurines from the Tang Dynasty, and ¡§ding¡¨--bronze vessels made for ritual use during the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.).

      So how can a newcomer to the world of antiques best prepare for a hobby which can be immensely rewarding, but--from an investment point of view--could easily be a financial disaster?

     Many dealers and experienced collectors advise novices to focus on a narrow category at first, and recommend touring museums as a good way to become familiar with antiques. Purchasing and reading comprehensive (and oftentimes expensive) books is an investment that will soon pay for itself.

      The Internet is useful for both gathering information and making purchases. Ebay's Taiwan site (www.ebay.com.tw) is a fraction of the size of its US parent, but it usually lists hundreds of antiques--including many china and jade items--most of which are priced at less than NT$5,000. Of course, judging the authenticity of a particular piece is much harder via the Internet than it is in person.

      ¡§Hands-on experience is priceless in cultivating one's senses. If dealers are willing, handle antiques and scrutinize every detail,¡¨ one collector advises.

      Much of the furniture available from Taiwan dealers dates from the Qing Dynasty. Items made of red sandalwood or golden rosewood (both rare hardwoods) are greatly sought after.

      Red sandalwood and golden rosewood furniture is, in fact, more expensive now than a decade ago, because of scarcity. A red sandalwood table can cost NT$500,000. Items made of elm, often intricately carved, are usually a fraction of the price.

     Of course, furniture with a history--that is to say, formerly owned by a person of historical importance--attracts a premium.

      While antique furniture is still popular, in recent years collectors have been devoting more and more attention to other treasures.

      Postcards which early 20th-century Japanese settlers in Taiwan sent to relatives back on the Home Islands can sometimes be had for a few hundred NT dollars. Depicting Taiwanese aborigines, landmarks, and customs, they provide an interesting glimpse of old Formosa.

      Until relatively recently, Taiwan was terra incognita to both Chinese and Westerners. It is not surprising, perhaps, that early maps of the island--however inaccurate or fanciful--have attracted the attention of collectors.

      One of Taiwan's better-known map collectors is Wei Te-wen, head of the Southern Materials Center, a Taipei-based publishing company. Wei has acquired more than 1,000 maps--some of them worth over NT$100,000--including a number of Dutch and Spanish maps dating from the Qing Dynasty. Many were drawn by hand, or printed from carved wood or stone blocks.

     Trond Lovdal, a Norwegian working in Taipei, has collected 500 deco posters produced in China between the 1920s and the 1940s. Many are advertisements made by Western companies doing business in China, and some are valued at the better part of NT$1 million. Part of Lovdal¡¦s collection can be seen on his website, www.decoorient.com. He also sells posters through this website for between US$150 and US$500.

      Of course, there are collectors whom some might regard as eccentrics. A retired school teacher who has amassed 4,000 different betel nut boxes, and a man in Tainan County who collects dead examples of various cockroach species, have both attracted local media interest this year.

      Items which used to thrown out with the trash are now in vogue. Old-style rotary telephones can fetch well over NT$1,000; decades-old electric fans go for not much less. Large earthen jars in which rice wine was matured are now appearing in markets and stores around Taiwan.

      Wicker baskets from the Japanese era, formerly used by commercial travelers or families on the move, can sometimes be had for less than NT$1,000. These woven baskets often have a special pouch for the owner¡¦s namecard, and in East Asia were once as commonplace as suitcases are now.

     Whether you take a shine to mainstream antiques, or something esoteric like traditional farm implements, you're helping preserve history. And you could be laying the foundations, if not of a museum, at least of a collection that your descendants will remember you for.

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