BANGKOK — I learned several things in my first ever participation in an auction.
Firstly, an auction can be addictive, adrenaline-rushing experience. Another thing I discovered was that bidding for precious artifacts – like the 19th century china I snagged – doesn’t always have to involve millions of baht like what we see in movies.
In fact, when I arrived at the event, recently organized by RCB Antique at a shopping center called River City, I only needed to put down 50,000 baht as deposit, chose a bidding number placard (I was assigned to “93”), and I was all set to go.
The auction on the fourth-floor of the riverside mall is three decades old. Its 350 lots move quickly, however, on an average of one minute per lot.
After perusing all items and talking to managing director Domechai Buddawong, he went for a sales pitch. Apparently, he caught me eyeing an item listed as Lot 171.
The auction catalog (sold separately at 300 baht) identified Lot 171 as a 19th century Chinese-made polychrome porcelain covered bowl which depicts flowers of the four seasons.
Domechai said the bowl, 19 cm in diameter, is a unique artwork because its patterns at the rim were not strictly Chinese; instead, they were combined with Siamese design – it was one of the porcelain items made for export to Thailand, which was then known as Siam.
A bit of a Thai-Chinese mongrel then, just like myself.
The Price is Right
Domechai says a new generation of Thais are getting hooked bidding at his company, which deals exclusively in antiques such as the bowl that attracted my eyes. Clients are mostly professionals in their 30s to 40s with spare cash and interest in antiques, he said.
While antiques won’t come cheap anywhere, a bargain can be had at a surprisingly low price. For instance, a set of 48 pieces comprising of 14th to 16th century small ceramic figures of animals like horses, elephants, and water buffaloes starts just 5,000 baht. It was estimated to fetch no more than 15,000 baht.
Another item, marked as Lot 111, is a handsome orange-red stem dish benjarong with painted scrolling floral design. It was estimated to fetch between 25,000 to 30,000 baht and the starting price, which is also the reserved price, is 18,000. It performed as well as the organizers expected.
“The price has fallen significantly over the years,” Domechai said.
One of his explanations is that these chinawares might be historical items, but they were mass produced nonetheless. There were simply too many benjarong and celadon figurines and jars out there. Some ships carrying those goods that sunk in the ocean were also salvaged in recent years, bringing more items into the market.
There are also old porcelains sold off by descendants of prominent families in Thailand who do not share the same taste or enthusiasm as their elders, Domechai said. Some families contacted the auction house to off-load huge collection of antiques shortly after their parents or grandparents died, he recalled.
“To them it’s junk,” Domechai said.
Not all bidders are Thais. Domechai said some Malaysians and Singaporeans also came to hunt for the odd Penaragan ware, or the colorful polychrome overseas Straits Chinese porcelain wares. They were designed in what is today Malaysia and Singapore to suit the taste of Strait Chinese migrants.
Some may find the items too gaudy, and decorative paintings too clustered, but to a lot of people they reflect the unique story of the Strait Chinese.
One good thing about previewing auction items is that one can examine at leisure without being pressured into buying.
Caveat emptor: while a committee of 10 experts appraise the items put up for auction, Domechai said given the relatively low price range, it makes no sense to issue a certificate of authenticity. This is not Sotheby’s.
“At least you can be confident that it went through a committee of experts,” Domechai said. “These are not items worth 10 million baht. It’s for beginners. If you are not sure about the item’s authenticity, feel free to bring [experts] in to examine the lots.”
Another house rule: no ivory products, and no large Buddha statues, as they’re almost certainly looted from temples. No Khmer sandstone statues or bas relief either, for the same reason.
When my 19th century item came up for bidding last Saturday, I waited for someone to make the first bid. Then I toppled the bid.
Waiting for someone else to react, there was none.
Going once, going twice… I heard the female auctioneer hastily said in Thai and English. I end up being the ‘lucky’ winner of Lot 171.
Please don’t ask me how much I spent. Bidding is a slippery road. One must set limits one is willing to fork.
But let me give you a warning: the yearning to possess your next object of your desire, combined with the competition from your bidding rival and the fast-paced auction process, can definitely make your spend more than you may have originally wanted to. Perhaps, it’s the charm and peril of antique auction.
I was happy to collect the artifact I won, and what was left of my deposit, which prompted to have a second thought – I felt the splurge may have been unnecessary for a new Marie Kondo convert like myself. But then I told myself that at least it’s necessary for writing this article.
RCB Auctions is located on the 4th floor of River City in Bangkok’s Sampanthawong, district. The auction takes place six times a year, and the next one is slated for Dec 7.
Bidders must registered and place a deposit of 50,000 baht which will be returned if no successful bidding was made.