Saturday, June 12, 2010

Annam Antiques and Gifts: From Bangkok With "Love"

As I, and others, have discussed numerous times before, Bangkok and Singapore have long served as major transit points for Southeast Asian antiquities to reach online markets far and wide. Yet, encountering examples of galleries based in either of these cities with active online sales is rather difficult, as many do not have active websites, but instead rely on walk-in traffic, telephone calls, or private email orders...spread by word of mouth on online dealer/collector forums, such as the Yahoo "Dong Son" forum. As a counter-example, I will discuss Annam Antiques and Gifts, a stark example of the "middle" step in the regional antiquities trade.

Located in Bangkok, in the Silom Galleria, and run by "Tom Chicago" (which certainly sounds like a pseudonym to me), they appear to have been in business since 2007, and are registered members of Trocadero; known hosts for several other online antiquities dealers. Very little about the organization or its history is made available, nor is a biographical statement about the owner/dealer. We are able to glean that they are self-proclaimed "specialists in Southeast Asian art with an emphasis on artifacts from Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam." They also offer Chinese ceramics, and one can email privately to request more information about the "Extremely RARE and absolutely Magnificant Champa artifacts in our collection!" When you're dealing in the illicit, it's best to shy away from public scrutiny as much as possible...

While the company's catalog mentions a few examples of contemporary and recent historic art and antiques (paintings, ceramics, sculpture etc.), the focus appears to be on the prehistoric/ancient historic...mostly metal and ceramic artifacts. Within that category, distinctions are made between Dong Son pieces (especially drums) originating in Vietnam, and those claimed to have come into their hands from "excavations" in Cambodia...undoubtedly coming from a site just like Prohear, or even Prohear itself. Some catalog entries, like this "assortment of Dong Son axes," are marketed for later resale by other dealers (with a bonus bracelet included)! Artifacts such as these are quite frequently encountered in antiques or 'souvenir' shops throughout Vietnam, and can usually be bought in bulk. Several different examples of Dong Son drums can be purchased (with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Yunnan "provenance"), as can bells, classic Dong Son orange wear ceramics,Cham earrings, Khmer influenced ladles etc. They're even hawking ceramics from the Hoi An Hoard, which suffered some illicet "salvaging" until divers could get to it. Annam helpfully warns buyers that it's now or never for these purchases.

I'm not surprised anymore that no information is given for any of these objects pertaining to previous ownership, and that many prices are only available through email contact. Indeed, chances are that not only would the seller and Mr. Chicago have no clear idea where the objects are deriving from (beyond "Cambodia" or "Vietnam"), but wouldn't care. As purchases at village level by middle men are done with cash in person, Annam Antiquities would then likely be the first point of sale from which a paper trail would begin, assuming these artifacts end up in Western markets....and if any subsequent dealers or collectors would care to follow up. As has been demonstrated, chances are slim that due diligence is performed.

To close, I highlight this brazen example of the flagrant dismissal of ethics in regards to where Annam Gifts gets its loot from. The only piece clearly from Thailand in this Thai gallery, it is stated to have been assembled after many days or weeks of burial looting around central and northeast Thailand. The 72 pieces strung on this necklace represents an unknown number of burials destroyed to "recreate" this item...and they've even had to offer it at a discount! What's worse is that they admit that these beads come from burials, and even provide a page from a book (this textbook) on prehistoric Thai archaeology to demonstrate this fact. Perhaps this "gruesome" origin will keep it unsold?

The take home lesson is that much of the small, easily portable loot stemming from Southeast Asia will first pass through galleries like this one. If it doesn't stay in-country (a growing possibility as Southeast Asia's middle class rises and gains more disposable income), then more often than not, artifacts will then end up in Australia, or New Zealand, the US, Europe...on into the shadowy world of online trading networks. It is important for monitors and responsible collectors (should any actually collect Southeast Asian materials...) to realise that fraudulent statements of provenance for a prehistoric Southeast Asian object in the catalog of any major online gallery will be covering up residence in a gallery like this one where, as far as prehistory is concerned, it's apparently anything goes.


  1. Many of these shops in Bangkok also offer very high priced fakes.

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