ArmeniaNow.com - Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
February 13, 2004




Valuing Tradition: Antique dealers struggle in a market out of step with the times


Experts say there are now more sellers than buyers in the antique trade.

Whenever a visitor enters the obscure and small antique shop located in the basement of one of the buildings on Amiryan Street, owner Razmik Tutunjyan can always tell whether they have come to buy or just to look.

“I can easily read their faces, 90% of visitors enter the shop to have a look. Though, now even the number of “lookers” tends to reduce. January and February are always very tough months, I sell almost nothing,” he says.

Razmik who appears to be in his 60s, says little about himself, noting simply that he graduated from the Engineering University and has been in the antique business since 1968. Until three years ago, he worked in a store on Abovyan Street , before moving to his present location.

On the table he sets out worn-out books dedicated to various trends of art, saying he has always been absorbed in self-education throughout his life.

Some items are of national interest.

A young lady approaches and asks him whether her silver forks and knives have sold out. Razmik replies that he sells the items at $10 less than the price they previously agreed, but nobody buys them. The lady leaves the shop with a disappointed look on her face.

“People who hardly make ends meet pawn goods inherited from their grandmothers and grandfathers for sale. Often I can feel how unwillingly they bring their items here and go. They grew up with these things, they were always part of their life, and suddenly they have to part with them,” he says.

With a sigh, Razmik tells also about those items that he liked very much but could not afford to buy. “Someone else buys the item and it appears in quite a different place, and my heart is torn out. But what in the world can I do?”

In Soviet times, the only antique shop in Yerevan was a state-owned one on Sayat Nova Street . Today, Razmik says there are four.

He recalls: “People used to bring antiquities from Russia , Ukraine and sales were high because people realized the value of all this. The shop was never this full of antique stuff and never this unnoticeable as it is now.

“Today, those with money will splash out for a kilo of gold or a 'cool car' but not for antique items. Unless the living standards of the intelligentsia improve, our business will never go up because it is them who understand the value of the antique.”

Painter Ruben Enfenjian, an expert at another antique shop on Toumanian Street , shares the same viewpoint. He says: “The difference between ten years ago and now is huge. The antique business sinks year by year. If in those times, a large part of the population was buying, now they are selling.”

And what sells best? Bronze and silver ware, paintings, old furniture, as well as porcelain, swords, and enamelled items, according to these experts.

Enfenjian immersed himself in this work during the cold and dark early years of independence. He says: “We always had antiquities at home. I've inherited the affection for this hobby from my parents. Of course, I had a certain background when I was getting into it. However, sophistication comes with years.”

How is an item valued? According to the expert, information is gathered from international auctions for similar items. There are also auctions devoted to Caucasian antiquities including Armenian items, although the international prices are naturally higher than those in the Republic.

“There are also items that are of only national value, that is to say, they have no international, artistic value,” he says pointing out old copper jugs and clay dishes standing proudly in a corner of the room.

Walking around the hall, he shows bronze busts of Alexander I and Catherine II, which date back to 1868. Together they cost $1,800. A bit farther, one can see a 150-year-old flowerpot made by the Gardner factory. It also costs $1,800.

Enfenjian says it was the Tbilisi Armenians who brought the antique business to Yerevan . Many items, from porcelain to paintings, reached Tbilisi from Germany after World War Two.

“Antiquities freely flowed to Armenia from different corners of the former Soviet Union in 1960s, 70s and 80s. Also, the repatriates who came to Armenia in 1946 brought antiquities,” he says.

“A large part of Armenia's intelligentsia has left over the past few years, and a new kind of people who do not appreciate all of these values have replaced them. The quality of appreciation for this should be indigenous. Anyone who has seen such things since childhood can never pass them by with indifference.”

There are legal barriers to the development of an antiques market in Armenia, he says. A law adopted recently in Russia allows tax-free importation of antique items, but in Armenia both the import and export of items is taxed.

“Perhaps it is necessary to pay taxes when taking an item out of the country but not for bringing it to Armenia,” he says. “We could sell much more especially to Armenians from the Diaspora, but they have problems taking things out of the country.”

He says the exportation of items that are more than 100 years old requires a special permit. If permission is granted, a 55% tax is payable on its value. Items more than 50 years old incur a 20% tax and the buyer needs to obtain a certificate confirming that it is not a valuable antique, but simply old.


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