In a world of "instant experts" it is most refreshing to meet a true master of his profession, or professions plural_as is the case with Angelo Faro: restaurateur, master chef, and a gentleman who attained pre-eminence with the world's leading auction house, Christie's, as their expert in watches, clocks and jewellery in the eternal city of Rome.
I step into Nina Antiques in Charoenprathet Road; a cool oasis on the cusp of the rainy season in Chiang Mai, expecting to be enveloped by that stale, almost embalmed atmosphere one associates with premises offering objets d'art from another time and place. I am instead wrapped in a comforting blanket of air-conditioned bliss; surrounded on all sides by the most tastefully designed display cases containing a plethora of unusual and delightful pieces from a world reflecting the travels of Angelo and Marisa Faro; proprietors of the finest Italian Restaurant in Chiang Mai, an efficient, informative travel agency, and this Old Curiosity Shop that opened its doors to the public just a few short months ago.
If Angelo is the sorcerer, Marisa makes the most attractive and erudite of apprentices. Not a piece in the shop is unknown to Marisa, who constantly defers to, but is clearly the power behind the great man. Bright, brown eyes flash as the cerebrum recalls the history of an item I am admiring: "That's a Chinese opium pipe; probably circa 1842, around the time that Britain took possession of Hong Kong as a colony."
"And this?" I ask. "A French carriage clock; not really that old, but an excellent piece from the mid-19th century. I imagine in its condition it would be around 1,000 US dollars, but maybe a little less." I accept a glass of water and look around me at the Chinese medicine bottles, silver salvers, marble stamps, rosewood furniture and an array of ancient artefacts from across the globe, and tell myself that these people have to know what they are about.
As if to convince a cynical journalist, Angelo asks his wife to open the safe and to bring forth what is clearly a family heirloom in the making; a Qing dynasty dragon- fish carved from a single block of red Jade. The item was created to serve as a brush cleaning receptacle for royal calligraphists of the day in ancient China. The lads would create the appropriate graffiti, and then clean their brushes in this magnificent hand-carved dish. I believe this piece to be in the region of 15 thousand US dollars; my brain screams "Your last car was cheaper!"
But as with many rare pieces, the dragon-fish comes with a story, as Marisa explains-"The dragon_fish had been on display for some months in one of our windows when, prior to making a business trip to China, we decided to place it in the safe. The next morning we opened the shop to find that the shelves in the window above where the fish had taken pride of place had collapsed overnight, leaving a pile of broken glass where the fish would have been." The rare piece has remained in the safe from that day to this, making only fleeting appearances at the special request of interested customers.
As an old China hand, I could have told Angelo and Marisa of the dragon's magical powers. Many Chinese proudly describe themselves as being "Lung Tik Chuan Ren" Descendents of the Dragon. These divine, mythical creatures are synonymous with good fortune in Chinese folklore. The dragon-fish is believed to have begun life as a Carp that turned into a dragon when he leaped over rapids and waterfalls to become the much revered dragon-fish.
But returning to the present, Grasshopper. Much of what is on display comes from the private collection of Signor Faro who down the years has amassed a most impressive array of rare objects.
"Why Nina Antiques, when Marisa is clearly the proprietor?" I ask. Angelo points to a hand-carved, scale model of one of Christopher Columbus's vessels, The Nina, displayed on a plinth. Marisa shows me a photograph of the couple's pretty teenage daughter, Caterina, or Nina for short. It's a nice ship, Angelo, but I'm sure "Cat" has the final say in the matter.
The Faro dynasty, which began with the founding of Piccola Roma Palace restaurant, now comprises a large city block, housing the renowned restaurant, a travel agency and now Nina Antiques, at the junction of Charoenprathet and Sridonchai Roads.
The upper floors serve as store rooms for antique furniture, mainly from China, but few customers can tear themselves away from the Aladdin's cave that is Nina Antiques on the ground floor.
Marisa moves seamlessly from English to Italian as she sits between her husband and me, and it soon becomes evident that while Angelo is a recognised expert in antique watches and jewellery, he is keen to return to his first passion, the kitchen of Piccola Roma Palace. As the master-chef takes his leave, his wife accompanies me on an inspection of marble stamps, Chinese cabinets, ornate screens and camphor chests: French carriage clocks, Mont Blanc pens, an exclusive Rolex Cellini watch (for display only), Burmese Buddhist manuscripts, silver salvers, betel nut boxes, opium pipes, and ancient maps housed here in this haven of yesteryear in Charoenprathet Road.
Marisa's customers hail from as far afield as Europe, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, although rich Thais are beginning to take an interest in the world of antiques. Much of what is sold as antiques in Southeast Asia turn out to be copies, but with the expertise on hand at Nina Antiques, customers can be assured of buying the genuine article at a fair price. This is borne out by the increasing number of return-customers to have visited in the short time since Nina Antiques opened its doors for business in March of 2006.
Address : 144/3-4 Charoenprathet Rd. (Opposite The Chedi Hotel) Chiangmai 50100. Tel : +66-053-271256. Web site:www.nina-antiques.com.
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