The Russian Market in Phnom Penh got its name owing to the large numbers of soviet citizens who used to shop there during the Cold War period in the 1980s. Today, it remains one of the most popular markets for foreigners visiting the kingdom of Cambodia.
Inside the crowded bazaar you can find almost everything your heart desires, including genuine designer goods smuggled out of nearby garment factories, bootleg DVDs, fake Rolexes, local handicrafts, high quality silks…as well as a treasure trove of freshly created artworks, sculptures and statuettes for the tourist market.
However, as one of my friends discovered, if you visit the antique stores located just across the road and if you know what to look for, then you can find many more things of much, much greater value.
The professional antiques dealer I was hosting for a few days has a keen eye for detail and is experienced in the art of the deal—as well as the Asian antiques market.
His specialty is finding items in Asia that are not considered valuable in the region and then selling them in western markets where he can get a great resale price.
Towards the end of his visit I spent a morning at the market watching him buy random items which, I must admit, I didn’t consider to be of much worth. He packed up his purchases with a smile on his face and jetted off the next day.
When I next saw him, a few months later, he told me all about the hidden treasure he had uncovered. Well-versed in Cambodian history, he had purchased an old piece of porcelain with Portuguese markings for the princely sum of $265. He knew that the Portuguese first visited Cambodia hundreds of years ago and that what looked to me like any other old cracked plate was actually a big interest item to certain collectors.
True to his instincts—and after a careful cleaning—he was proved right. The small piece of porcelain went up for auction and attracted a number of bids that, to even his surprise, topped out at nearly $26,600! Not a bad return for one morning spent on the hunt for antiques at the Russian Market.
One of the top tips to take from this story is that knowing your local history will always pay off. A second tip that my friend later shared was to never show any excitement when you discover an item of significant interest. Instead, he advises to continue calmly browsing the shop while trying to negotiate on some other things first to get a feel of the seller’s flexibility before going back to make an offer for the piece that you really want. It certainly always works a charm for him.
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