When the Los Angeles decorator and world traveller Tony Duquette died in 1999 at the age of 85, he left behind a lifetime of acquisitions which, when they went to auction through Christie's, were part of the largest house sale ever held. More than 1,500 lots included an ivory-inlaid Anglo-Indian chair, Venetian oil paintings, a Nigerian Ekoi headdress and souvenir Chinese pagodas.
While the Duquette collection sits at the high end of "souvenir hunting", for many it is the kind of story that drives them to trawl bazaars, souks and antique shops the world over for an exotic memento that just might be a worthwhile investment. It is a pastime that is on the increase among Britons according to a survey this month from Lloyds TSB Travel Services.
Travellers from the UK are becoming more adventurous when buying souvenirs from abroad, with two-thirds saying that rather than souvenir tat, they prefer to purchase something ethnic to remember their holiday. About 28 per cent of people said they try to buy furniture when abroad, while 25 per cent look for paintings or sculptures to decorate their home with.
But are our finds abroad really a sensible way to spend our money? While forthcoming auctions at Sotheby's include Aboriginal Art at the end of July, the Treasure of a World Traveller (the Boudewijn Büch Collection) in September, African and Oceanic Art, and South-East Asian paintings, both in October, it does not advocate buying goods from abroad as an investment, instead encouraging travellers to purchase up-market souvenirs purely for the love of them.
This could be the best policy, especially for the layman. Rachel Bassill owns The Rug Studio in Surrey where, as well as selling ethnic rugs and carpets, she also cleans, restores and values them. She has 10 years of experience working in this area and has spent time in India and Egypt as well as working closely with rug and carpet makers in Iran. "A couple called me in to repair a rug that had started to fall apart," she says. "They had bought it in Turkey last November and did not bring it out until January, but within a month bits of it had started to come loose. I had to tell them that it wasn't real silk, it wasn't woven correctly and that they'd have paid £500 to £600 less if they'd gone to John Lewis.
"I'd say, on average, eight out of 10 people who have bought a rug abroad haven't got a good price for it. You have to remember that within the trade we are buying 20 to 30 bales or more a year and we have established a relationship with these people over time. Someone who is a complete stranger, who doesn't know much about rugs, is never going to get the bargain of the century."
Caution is also essential when it comes to buying antiquities. Joanna van der Lande is chairman of the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) and head of Bonhams Antiquities Department. She advises anyone intending to become a collector to do their homework. "Visit museums as well as look at auction and dealers' catalogues, and go to auction views where you can actually handle the objects."
Ms Van der Lande also advises buyers not to treat their acquisitions abroad as an investment - which can often lead to disappointment. "However, if you buy well, and by that I mean good-quality but not necessarily expensive objects, with a good history, the items should retain their value. On the whole, to get a real financial increase, you may have to wait more than 20 years."
Buying antiquities need not cost you a small fortune; for example, a Greek terracotta statuette could cost from €500 (£330). In New York, where there are no export restrictions (but remember purchases must be declared when entering the UK for tax purposes) it is possible to find a Roman glass vessel or a small Greek vase from $500 (£275) or $600 (£330) upwards.
Ms Van der Lande advises travellers to be aware of a country's restrictions on exporting antiquities. "A number of other EU countries have strict export laws so the no-boundary theory within the EU should not be applied to antiquities. If you are to buy an antiquity in Paris, it should be accompanied by a 'passport'," she says.
"Always check what the country's export laws are before being tempted to buy. Generally speaking, the countries around the Mediterranean have stricter export regulations than the northern European countries. This is because these countries have a more obvious archaeological heritage and archaeological material is easier to find and remove illegally."
If your tastes are for something a little more modern, you could do a lot worse than tune into the current interest in China's contemporary artists, according to Joe La Placa, a director of www.artnet.com, a website where you can buy, sell and research fine art online. The network serves dealers and art buyers alike by providing a survey of the market and its pricing trends worldwide.
"I've just returned from an art event in St Tropez and it was all work by Chinese contemporary artists," he says. Investing in artwork is an alternative for those disillusioned with the stock market, says Mr La Placa.
"Given the uncertainty after 9/11 and scandals such as Enron, there's been a lack of confidence in the stock market, and many investors would rather buy something tangible that they can keep in their homes and that gives them pleasure."
When it comes to gem stones, many travellers are more wary after scams, such as the one in Thailand where travellers were taken on a taxi tour of Bangkok's temples followed by an offer of gems worth a fraction of the price. However, the Jewel Fest Club (JFC), a non-profit organisation launched in 1997, aims to stamp out unscrupulous dealers. Approximately 50 of Thailand's leading jewellery manufacturers and wholesalers are now members.
Lawrence Chard, director of Chard, a UK jeweller that also buys and sells gold sovereigns, Krugerrands and other coins, says that every week people bring him jewellery bought abroad - from gold chains to uncut sapphires - often to get it appraised or valued.
There are no specific countries where travellers are buying jewellery, he says. "Basically it's wherever people are going on holiday, be it Italy, Greece, Turkey or the Middle East. There's also been some jewellery and gems from Thailand and I'm wondering how long it will be before someone brings in a pink diamond [a current favourite in the marketplace] from Australia."
However, Mr Chard points out to those who imagine they can snap up a budget gem abroad as a short- or long-term investment: "If you are hoping to buy cheaply in one country and sell it in a different one, don't you think that UK jewellers would be on the next plane loaded with cash and making instant fortunes on their return?"
With love from India
Anna and Mungo Powney share a love of India, where they met a few years ago. They decided that their interest in finding exotica could be put to good use and opened Pad in Brighton (www.padhome.co.uk), which they stock with their discoveries from abroad.
Says Anna: "We jumped in at the deep end. We went to India and bought a 40ft container of stock with no idea of where we were going to sell it or store it. It's probably not the way we would do it again but we don't regret it for a moment.
"We go to India four times a year for about 10 days to buy goods. We buy the things we love, so it's a temptation to keep them. I'd advise people travelling abroad to buy something they love because then they won't regret it.
"Beware of touts, as you will pay a surcharge. Get a realistic quote that includes overland at each end. Talk to other travellers and buyers. Also compare prices - the starting price will most often be higher than the actual price but be prepared to pay more than the locals. As a private customer, a credit card gives you more protection than a debit card."
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