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Saturday January 20 2018
Antiquing from San Miguel de Allende to Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman

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With the extension of the Arco Norte toll road to within an hour’s drive of San Miguel de Allende, aficionados of antiques visiting central and southern Mexico now have easier access to four key centers for exploring, marveling and buying: the roadside shops and expansive yards of collectibles on the highway leading out of San Miguel; the renowned Lagunilla Sunday open air market in Mexico City; the quaint quarters in Puebla known as Los Sapos; and good old – fashioned picking in the central valleys of Oaxaca.

Selection of Antiques and Collectibles in Central, Southern Mexico

While the selection and quantity of antiques is impressive, those searching for depression and other collectible glass might be in for a surprise. There is very little glass from American, Canadian and European factories available in Mexico, relative to what one finds in Canada and the US. And when one does come across quality antique glass, it’s usually expensive. However, hand-blown glass (vidrio soplado) has been manufactured in Mexico since the 16th century, though a different quality than the glass one encounters back home. Mexican glass is relatively common and priced to sell, usually in excellent condition with original hand-painted designs, and free of nicks and cracks.

One comes across a fair bit of military memorabilia including weapons, vintage books and coins, tiles and other ceramic pieces, advertising signs for products and cinema, as well as other smalls. Naturally, religious artifacts are prevalent, including retablos, ex votos, cherubs and crosses.

Iron has also been forged in Mexico since the 16th century, generally holding up well over time. In fact ironworkers in modern Mexico, at least in the southern half of the country, are arguably the best of all the building trades in terms of workmanship. Locks and keys, railings, gates, frames, in addition to tools and weapons and a plethora of other iron products, are encountered without difficulty throughout this part of Mexico.

Collectible stone pieces are available in virtually all shops and markets, in particular grinding stones (referred to as metates with manos – the hand piece) used for mashing corn, and mortar and pestle sets (molcajetes) for pulverizing predominantly spices, herbs and chiles. One sometimes stumbles upon hand-hewn limestone cornices off of convents and government buildings.

Both rectangular and dome – topped wooden trunks are widespread. The painted or stripped baúl (pine blanket box for Americans and Canadians) is often found with its original four – legged base. Doors from administrative buildings and ex – haciendas are massive in terms of height, width and thickness, frequently found with original hardware in tact. Tables, wagon wheels, and implements round out the other main wooden collectibles almost always available.

Ferreting Out Antiques and Collectibles in Four Locales

Highway 51 leading out of San Miguel de Allende en route to Dolores Hidalgo is a fruitful route for finding antiques, especially larger pieces. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, given that many of the ex-patriots living in San Miguel de Allende are of significant means. It’s curious that prices tend to be exorbitant in San Miguel proper, yet accessible only a few miles away in the several shops and sprawling outdoor antique yards flecking both sides of the highway. Get out of the city, be it with a rental car or by hiring a driver, and stop at every outlet.

The Sunday Lagunilla outdoor antiques and collectibles market in Mexico City extends for several blocks, and is easy to get to by walking from any of the hotels close to the zócalo, and of course by taxi. There are a few antique stores in the area as well, although the vendors with stalls constitute the main attraction at Lagunilla.

Travel books may caution tourists in term of safety and security at Lagunilla, and some local dealers warn about being out approaching dusk. However, antique hunters should be fine provided normal precautions are taken: don’t venture off to what would appear to be a “seedy” area; don’t flash large wads of cash; keep cameras and purses in front and close to the body; and yes, it would be imprudent to further explore the area as night approaches.

Puebla’s Los Sapos, about four blocks from the zócalo, is also a haven for collectors and dealers. The weekend market is admittedly small, especially for those accustomed to the Christie Classic Antique Show at Dundas, Ontario, the expansive sales at Brimfield, Massachusetts, and similar large, outdoor antiques and collectibles markets in Canada and the US. But one can find gems, both by scrounging through the Saturday and Sunday stalls (not all the same vendors attend both days), and to a lesser extent in the nearby shops. Lamps and chandeliers stand out, especially in the stores, at prices hard to resist.

While Oaxaca does have one extremely large antique store (on Calle Abasolo), for its size the city is a wasteland for collectors and dealers, and prices are steep relative to what one finds elsewhere in Mexico. You have to go to the rural areas. Oaxaca is noted for its craft villages, market towns and colonial churches in the countryside. But these towns and villages have been picked over since the beginning of the travel boom in the 1960s. Accordingly, it’s imperative to venture beyond the usual tourist stops. Virtually all of the antiques and collectibles enumerated above can be found in Oaxaca’s hinterland, in addition to the occasional early craft item (i.e. fanciful wooden folk art alebrijes, ceramics, textiles).

Cautionary Notes for Antiques Aficionados in Central and Southern Mexico

Advertising signs, metal cantina trays, ex votos, papier maché products and ceremonial masks are some of the items currently being manufactured and often represented as old. Of course well – made reproductions are often attractive and suitable as home decor, but unless certain, don’t pay prices which correspond to the value of true vintage collectibles.

In some cases contemporary well – worn implements may appear to be antique, but are not; nor is there an attempt to misrepresent. Take for example, metates. Some are pre-Hispanic, while others could be only 30 – 50 years old, since some Mexican women today still grind corn over a large, flat river rock. After decades of use it appears no different than a metate which was worked 1,500 years ago. Another class of collectible which may or may not be antique is galvanized metal containers in a variety of shapes and sizes, for making tamales (tamaleras), and for carrying milk, water and other liquids.

Wood can be difficult to bring into the US and Canada. Pine, copal and other soft woods are susceptible to insect infestation, akin to termites. The problem is known as polilla. Tell-tale signs are tiny holes in the wood, or if it’s been sitting in one place for a while, a white powder can be found alongside the piece. If in a shop, look around the base before picking up anything wood.

Purchasing Antiques and Collectibles May Not Be an Option

For visitors to central and southern Mexico, buying only a few small, relatively light antiques is the norm. But this should not preclude those who appreciate the craftsmanship of eras past, be it patina, form or function, from embarking on the hunt. And who knows, perhaps a first adventure may be the precursor to furnishing a home in Mexico.


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