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Antiquing In and Around Oaxaca

an article by author Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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The state of Oaxaca has been inhabited for well over 10,000 years, initially by hunter-gatherer groups which, as their populations increased, developed sophisticated systems of political and social organization, means by which to work the land and use its by-products to make clothing, weapons, vessels for storage, manufacture and cooking, adornments and accommodations. Cultures and material items evidencing their development, continued to flourish, not without change as a consequence of war, trade, overuse of land and shifts in the natural environment. The Spanish conquest which began in the early 16th century created the most profound changes in Mexico in general, as well as in Oaxaca. But Oaxaca managed to maintain much of its indigenous cultural traditions, evidenced by the fact that there are today no less than 16 distinct ethnic groups, perhaps in part as a result of its isolation from the more northern states.
The adaptation of a culture to its natural environment and external influences produces our artifacts and antiques. Accordingly, against the foregoing backdrop, and given that there has been more than one foreign influence (i.e. the Spanish, as well as the French and others), in this state with a diversity of habitats (i.e. mountains, deserts, tropical forests, fertile lowland plains and tropical climates of the Caribbean and Pacific, all of which exist in Oaxaca) one is able to find a plethora of vestiges of the past. The city of Oaxaca and environs is rich in not only in pre-Columbian ruins as well as conquest and post-conquest churches and other indicia of the history and cultures of the region, but also what we commonly refer to as artifacts of pre-history (i.e. tools, projectile points, religious and aesthetic adornments) and antiques and collectibles from the conquest era forward. I will use this distinction between artifacts on the one hand, and antiques and collectibles on the other, for clarity.
There are surprisingly only a handful of antique stores in the city. By contrast, in Puebla, 3 ½ hours up the toll-road, there is a downtown area known as Los Sapos where you can spend a day searching for antiques in several stores within a couple of blocks of one another, and on Saturdays and Sundays in an outdoor crafts and antique market. Whether in Oaxaca or Puebla, one must be cautious. I’m told that sale and exportation of artifacts is illegal. Therefore, when you ask for artifacts in a shop, either you’ll be turned away, or the dueño will tell you to wait, and he’ll go into a back room and return with a couple of pieces. You won’t find them on display. Similarly, if you venture off into the rural areas and make the same inquiry of a campesino, you’ll often be met with a frightened or puzzled look, and comment that it’s “prohibido.” However, you may also be told in the same breath that he has something at home, and to meet him later or come to his place to see what he has, the story being that he found it while working the land. There are two caveats. Firstly, if you are in possession of an artifact, while you can register it with the authorities and keep it at home (here in Oaxaca), upon your death your heirs are required to deliver it up to the government. Secondly, beware of reproductions. Near the ruins you may be approached by individuals purporting to offer originals for sale. An industry has been built around their production and sale, and the quality is high. In Oaxaca, with its significant level of poverty, there is incentive to go to great lengths to make and market “artifacts”. The temptation is hard to resist for the collector who would likely succeed in crossing into the U.S. with pieces, especially when the “story” of how the artifact was found makes sense, and based on the price being modest. My advice is to stay clear of anything that may appear to have a prohibition attached to its purchase or export. Remember that you are not in a society where there’s the presumption of innocence and the benefit of due process and procedural fairness. Stick to collectibles that you know you are able to export from Mexico and take home with you, or keep here in Oaxaca without repercussions. You can still find wonderful pieces easy for even the amateur collector to determine authenticity, with good vintage, patina, etc. Use your gut feeling, ask the right questions and be even more vigilant than you would be in your home environment when trying to determine the veracity of what you’re being told by a shopkeeper regarding provenance, age and use.
Pine dome-topped chests, often on a base, are easily found, often in original paint and should cost about half or less as compared with their pricing in the U.S. or Canada. But watch for the front panels with replacement paintings, mirrors and framing. They’re called “baüls” and were traditionally used as hope chests, gifted upon marriage. Metal products such as galvanized milk pails, pitchers and tamale steamers are nice pieces, light for taking on a plane, but be careful respecting age. You frequently come across copper two handled cooking vessels

Metate and mano for grinding
in various sizes, which similarly can be reasonably purchased. In terms of crockery and stoneware, my favorites are the Spanish-produced grey ollas used to import liquids such as oil into Mexico during the conquest period and thereafter, and the metate or grinding stone used with elongated “mano” to grind corn into meal for making tamales, tortillas, etc. In both cases it’s quite easy to determine age and authenticity. A while back a downtown gallery had an exhibit comprised of 85 vintage metates with manos that blew me away. I’ve since started my own collection. When it comes to European furniture and North American glassware, they tend to be priced quite high. Respecting the latter, as a collector of depression glass I can state that good glassware is hard to find in Oaxaca, but does crop up from time to time. I was recently told that there was at least one glass factory in Puebla during the depression era producing pieces similar to those of the American manufacturers. More commonly encountered is the heavier glass such as the multi-liter bottles, frequently in green, used to transport and store water, mezcal and other liquids. You will likely also come across siphon type seltzer bottles in blue, pink, green or clear that were produced in Mexico. Similarly there is no shortage of other beverage industry collectibles such as tavern serving trays and other vintage advertising and other paraphernalia, used in production, marketing and consumption of alcoholic and other drinks. Of course the most common of all collectibles are those with a Catholic religious theme or content. The list goes on respecting similarities with the antiques and collectibles to which we are accustomed, differences regarding form and function, as well as commonalities and distinctions in materials used in and means of production.

Shops I’ve found with antiques are located at: Abasolo 107, Constitution 108, Independencia 300, Benito Juarez 204-B, Guerrero 506 and Garcia Vigil 304. Happy hunting!

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