In this Business Profile, we meet Sebastien Laurent, a Frenchman who works in the antique and decoration industry from his base in Jogjakarta, Central Java.
Bonjour, Sebastien. Tell us, why antiques? What is it about old things that fascinate you?
At a very young age I was already fascinated by old things. I admired old buildings and I always had the feeling that I was born in the wrong century. But I came into this business because of my dad, who was also an antiques dealer. I would follow him when he was buying beautiful, old antiques at auctions. I remember the first time, at a small auction in the city of Melun in France, he allowed me to bid on a green terracotta. I was only eight years old!
Indonesia’s history is long and complex, however there doesn’t seem to be enough awareness or interest in this subject matter. Why do you think that is? What got you interested in Indonesia’s history in the first place?
Honestly, it’s a sensitive subject. History and art are linked, of course. If you don’t care about your own history then you don’t care about your arts and traditions. I am not an expert in Indonesian history or art. My knowledge is all about Europe, but of course, after years and years here, I’ve learned about the amazing Javanese culture and its arts. Unfortunately, the art foundations are few and far between.
A few years ago, one of the most extensive Javanese antique collections went into auction here — the David Smith and James Tirtoprodjo Collection. Each piece was sold individually. I was very surprised to see that no one had the idea to buy the entire collection and donate it to a national museum. The price was not even that of a nice apartment in Jakarta for hundreds of well selected pieces. You can still read the book of Bruce Carpenter about this collection: Javanese Antique Furniture and Folk Art. Didier Millet, Csi; January 16, 2010. Big western companies or banks are used to sponsoring major art events or to donate a fortune to have their names associated with architectural renovation. They could do exactly the same here.
You’re originally from France, where antique markets pop up almost weekly in so many towns and cities, which are extremely popular among locals and tourists. Would this concept work well here?
There are few projects in Jakarta or Jogjakarta to set up a real antiques fair with 20 to 50 exhibitors from all over Indonesia, but organisation is such an issue and organisation is not really a word that fits well with antique dealers!
Let’s talk business. How long have you been buying and selling antiques in Indonesia? Is this a profitable trade?
I have been selling antiques for 25 years now and about 10 of these years have been in Indonesia. It can be profitable enough to live. I will tell you something, antique dealers are the most secretive people in the world.
What about your clientele. Who are they?
An eclectic mix of westerns, locals, and others dealers.
What kind of things are your customers usually looking for?
Indonesians mostly ask for decorative pieces in the sense that it has to be a bit impressive. They love teak wood, glass and porcelain. Westerners are different, especially the dealers who export to Europe or the USA; they are looking for something unique or unusual.
Where is the best spot to go antiques hunting in Indonesia?
Jakarta, Jogjakarta, Semarang, Malang, Bandung, Bali. But most of the serious dealers don’t have a shop, so you have to know them. I told you, it’s a small, secretive world!
A lot of people visit Jalan Surabaya in Menteng, Jakarta to go antiques hunting. Can you tell us what you think about this road and can we actually find genuine antiques here?
Depends what you are looking for but Jalan Surabaya is certainly not the place to go if you’re looking for serious antiques. It’s more of a flea market.
What is the most valuable piece that you ever discovered? Tell us the story.
14 years ago, at an auction in Normandy, France, where I didn’t want to go — my colleagues practically forced me to join — I found a 13th century wooden, traveller message box, something very special and highly collectible. I bought it for a reasonable price and sold it for an unreasonable one! But, as my father always said, if you join an antique dealer’s dinner, they always talk about the fantastic deals they did because you can mention them in few hours. The bad deals, you need a lifetime to mention!
How can you tell when an antique is original or a replica? Are there any tricks you can share with us?
Learning about art is like learning a language; it requires time and experience. Don’t count in years when it comes to knowledge of antiques, more in decades. We learn from books, auctions, museums, and eventhough we study for decades, we still make mistakes from time to time. The first trick is to dare, to buy, to fail and to re-buy, re-dare and re-fail. Then you start learning. Learning the beauty of something that you don’t really like is the most challenging thing. This is antiques.
What is a rookie mistake to make when you’re just starting off in the antiques trade?
Thinking that you know better than the guy who is an antiques dealer and believing the crazy magic stories of the rarest Chinese Ming porcelain found in a 14th century boat two weeks ago in Sumatra which is for sale at USD200 because the guy needs money!
I would like to see a local version of The Antiques Roadshow in Indonesia, a traveling TV show visiting different cities and seeing what gems people have to share and value. Wouldn’t you?
I love this programme! I used to watch it with my girlfriend’s father in London at the end of the 1990s. He was a good antiques collector and we would always guess the prices. I’m sure it could work very well in Indonesia, but valuable antiques are extremely rare here and the success of the program is based on some amazing things that reappear quiet often. I have the whole collection on DVD. I’m not even kidding!
What challenges do you face as an antiques dealer in Indonesia?
Finding fewer and fewer interesting pieces. But on the upside, I am surrounded by friendly dealers. There is always a silver lining.