Shopping: A package from India

Our taste for all things Eastern is as keen as ever - but it's also more discerning.
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Brightly coloured and intricately woven cushions sit on sleek, polished chests, beside clusters of dried red chilli peppers in dug-out dark wood troughs. Apothecary chests jostle for space with plantation recliners, on which are scattered, in a bizarrely up-to-date touch, current issues of interior decoration magazines. Welcome to the world of Abby Kaye, who is building an innovative business out of something that began as a hobby.

Kaye, who sells imported colonial antique furniture from a self-storage unit in Wandsworth, is new to the game compared with competitors who hit the hippy trail in the Sixties. But while original importers - many of whom are still going strong - found success by simply opening up exotic markets, the second wave of wanderers must cater to a more refined British shopper if they want to make a living by selling the fruits of their travels. The appetite for eclectic decoration has never been keener, but it's also more sophisticated.

Kaye admits she was "flippant" when she first started to buy pieces in India, for her own home, three years ago. She took time out from a research job to travel with her boyfriend: they bought an old army ambulance Land Rover for pounds 1,000, and began the trek, driving through the Middle East and on to China.

After nine months, they got to India, and began to collect "bits and bobs" for their flat back home. But 200 pieces later, they realised it was all too bulky to carry around. At the same time, they realised that if they liked the beautifully carved, unusual antique pieces which they found in India, so would the folks back in the UK. So they filled the Land Rover, drove it to a port, and sent it back by sea container. When they arrived back in England, they moved the contents to a barn in the Cotswolds, with the intention of selling some of the furniture and knick- knacks they had bought. Their hunch paid off: they hired a local town hall, put on a sale, and sold the lot. "We couldn't believe it: we sold out in three days. We thought, this is a really good idea. Let's go back for more." This time, they bought 1,000 pieces.

The key to unearthing the best bargains, she has found, is to pay attention to personal relationships. Exporting colonial furniture mainly from the south, Kaye has begun to learn Malayalam and to create networks of buyers. "I get invited to weddings: everybody knows me. They have become friends. That side of India is very much the side I am in love with." But sometimes, she says, it's necessary to be frank: "A lot of it I'm not interested in. I know instantly the stuff I want to sell."

George Bristow, who has exported furniture and antiques from central Asia for the past 25 years, says the line between friendship and business is fine. "You become an integral part of other people's families. All the people I deal with, I've seen grow up from being young kids. When they have a catastrophe, they look to you. You have to be careful you don't become a one-man international aid agency - but it's inevitable. They are close friends."

His shop in Tetbury, near Gloucester, offers textiles, metalware, furniture and jewellery from countries as diverse as Indonesia and Uzbekistan. But he notes: "It's not like buying in the West, where what you see is what you get. There's always another agenda, and everyone is looking to make some money, so you have to use locals. In Uzbekistan, if you tried to buy, you'd be totally unsuccessful. The locals bring stuff across the border because they know the passes and the roads."

As well as learning the ropes in the country you are visiting, if you prefer to root out your own bargains while abroad and sell them on your return, you must keep a watchful eye on market trends back home. Kaye also has a few words of warning. Be prepared to check thoroughly any item that takes your fancy, even if something seems cheap. "You have to scrape each side of a cupboard to see it's the same wood. And I always have things fumigated," she notes. Price can also be off-putting. "We were surprised at how expensive some things were. Now, if I can't afford something, I just say no. I pay over the odds for some things because they are rare."

Foreign traders often take advantage of tourists' naivety, says George Bristow. "I constantly have people coming in who have been on holiday and found something, and the man said `We will send it to you' and it hasn't turned up. They are like lambs to the slaughter. What you see is not necessarily what you get, and it's got to be moved half-way round the world. If I was new to it, I would go there two or three times before thinking of bringing anything back by container. Only bring it back if you can carry it."

Examine the age and quality of any item, he adds. "Old rubbish is still rubbish ... Things are not always what they appear." Some items, he says - such as carpets and gems - should be left to the experts to export. "There's no consumer credit guarantee in the Far East but in England, you can always take it back. It's always nice to buy something on your trip, so buy local, not stuff manufactured for tourists. Buy stuff that's been used."

Contact: Abby Kaye Furniture, ABC Self Storage, 118-120 Garrat Lane, Wandsworth, London, 0181-870 6640. New shipment sale: 10am-8pm, Wed 2- 5 June, 10.30am-5pm, Sun 6 June. George Bristow's Artique, 18 Long Street, Tetbury, 01666 503597,