A treasure trove for antique lovers


November 13, 2012

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The Parsi community paper has ads on old items for sale

Relic hunters, collectors, dealers and researchers search a weekly newspaper for antiques

By Prabhat Sharan | Deccan Herald

They are objects wafting fragrance of the past and are buried deep in the chests long-forgotten in the attics. Aroma of musty moth balls squirreling between layers of clothes swirl, on long forgotten beads, slate grey jewellery, precious stones and enameled coins and medals. And amidst these objects also lie golden-brown with age, curling diary pages, post cards, letters and envelopes with faded inks and blurred water-marked stamps talking of slivered memories etched deep on the edges of the mind of time.

Radiating a littoral time warp connecting the archetypal past with the present and transporting the mystified mind and heart with a mere touch into a past once lived as a reality by forefathers and ancestors, these objects are sometimes called “vintage” and sometimes “antiques.”

Irrespective of class and ranks, people flock to view and collect items from the past floating in several families who continue to treasure them. Parsi community is one such community in the Indian sub-continent. The community, known for its love for objects cherished by their forefathers, has always nurtured  its possessions with kid gloves.

Even to this day, leaving the families with princely lineage apart, it is the attics of old Parsi houses that glisten with “relics” connecting the Indian psyche with shying shafts of cold moonlight peering through the dark foliage of the collective memory of past .

Thus it is not surprising to find that relic hunters, collectors, dealers, hobbyists and researchers search the community’s 180-year-old weekly newspaper–Jam-e-Jamshed– for antiques.

The advertisements in this old community newspaper are not the kind you find in newspapers clas­s­ifieds or even stereotype community newspapers; to a person conditioned to the run-of-the-mill advertisements saturating newspapers and cyberspace these strange ads administer a mild pleasant electric shock.

A few samples: “We buy India mint stamps, old first day covers, coins, bank notes, medals etc of British and Republic India”, “We buy old copper, silver & gold coins of British India, Republic India and World Bank notes, bundles and booklets. Old stamps of India… all other antique items”.

Talking of these advertisements, which abroad are found only in extremely niche newsletters and magazines focussing on antiques, Jam-e-Jamshed editor Shernaaz Engineer says: “Our newspaper is found in every Parsi household. You will always find these objects tucked away somewhere in their household. And moreover Parsis harbour an obsession of storing objects even if they do not have any utilitarian value. So you see such ads. You do not find such ads, as far as I know, even in other old newspapers.”

And most of relic hunters agree to this point.

Waxing eloquenton the subject, Munaf Shaikh,  specialising in collecting and trading in old medals,  says: “In a span of 400 years, the sub-continent witnessed Mughal, East India Company, Portuguese and French rulers. Thus what you have is a vast canvas of history. And most of these rulers used to honour people from the sub-continent with medals for their outsta­nding public work. And many a time these medals were sold or even pawned by the recipients to trading class. And Parsi community being foremost in public work as well as also a prominent trading class in the past, these medals and other vintage artifacts came to them either as an honour or as an object pawned.”

And interestingly, Shaikh, in his relic hunting, has even come across medals from Boer War. “Of course it was just sheer luck. Most of these owners (read Parsis) do not even know the historical value. But they are extremely honest about it. And we are also honest about the transaction. If we come across such rare medals we know that it would fetch a mind-boggling price in the antique market.”

And it is not just the medals that fascinates the relic hunters and collectors alike. Even a rumour about the rare one rupee booklet issued in early twentieth century by Britishers sparks off frenzy. Explaining the genesis of one rupee booklet, Percy Bathena, who trades in coins and “rupee bundles,” says: “ Prior to 1919 and then in 1926 the British government used to issue Re 1 booklets. These booklets look like cheque books. They used to come in bundles of 25 and 50 and every collector irrespective whether he or she is interested in stamps, medals or any other antiques, would love to lay their hands on these bundles. And believe me, you would find them in some trunks lying unattended in an old Parsi house. I know it because I am a Parsi myself and I am both a collector as well as a dealer.”

But how do you assess the authenticity? Bathena explains that, while dealing with coins and stamps, “We usually check out the weight. For example, between 1835 and 1936 the coins were made in silver and then we check out the place from where it was minted and every mint had its own weight norms. In stamps, we usually go for a watermark. And most of the times we ask the experts.”

Relic coin hunter Shashikant Gangar, who also holds exhibitions of old coins, says: “All of us in this field usually call historians to assess the authenticity.  Though I advertise even in other tabloids, I prefer Parsi community paper because that is the community which has the largest trove of such objects. Once I managed to get a coin minted in 1870. I bought it for Rs 2,000 and sold it for Rs 25,000.”

Talking about the response to such ads, Bathena explains that “most Parsi gentlemen prefer bachelorhood. When they come across an antique item, they prefer making a quick buck from it than donating it. And that is why you see these ads seeking objects from the past.”