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Flea Markets are Income for Some, Treasures for Others

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 12 (IPS) - As the aftermath of the late 2001 economic meltdown in Argentina has forced a growing number of people to part with valuable antiques and family heirlooms as a way of raising much needed cash, flea markets have mushroomed around the capital, providing a source of unbelievable bargains for treasure-hunting visitors.

These new flea markets are an alternative to the established antique shops that have traditionally dotted the San Telmo neighbourhood in southern Buenos Aires and the more upscale businesses in Barrio Norte, and are becoming increasingly attractive to European and North American tourists, thanks to the wider variety of merchandise and lower prices they offer.

The same economic crisis that pushed over half the Argentine population below the poverty line, sparked the ''piqueteros'' unemployed workers protest movement, and liquidated the assets of a large part of the middle class due to the drastic devaluation of the Argentine peso, also reached the doors of the more affluent sectors, who began to sell off valuable paintings, furniture and other antiques.

The crisis has also led to a rise in property theft, and some families prefer to put their valuables up for sale, rather than risk losing them to thieves.

Yet these are not the only reasons for the extraordinary quantities of antique china, glassware, silver, artwork and other treasures on the market today.

''There has been a change in customs. The old tradition of handing down family heirlooms from generation to generation has come to an end,'' said Ana Tomasin, who operates a stall in the flea market known as the Feria de la Baulera in the exclusive Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Recoleta.

Tomasin, whose father was also an antiques dealer, told IPS that ''the boom in flea markets is not due to a single cause. It is actually a reflection of a growing phenomenon worldwide, which is also seen in Europe and the United States.''

In some countries of Latin America, the boom has been influenced by factors of ''supply and demand''.

''There are things that have survived in this region that were lost in other countries, for example, during the wars. These things have been very well cared for, because the families that owned them genuinely treasured them, but have now found themselves forced to sell them,'' she added.

Another flea market operates out of the former convent of San Ramón Nonato, located just 200 metres from the ”Pink House”, as the seat of the Argentine national government is called.

Like the Feria de la Baulera, the Feria del Convento, as it is known, houses rows of stalls packed side by side and overflowing with a vast array of antiques and collectibles, from tea sets, fans, porcelain dolls and ivory carvings to vintage clothing and jewellery.

In addition, charitable institutions like the Salvation Army and the Catholic organisation Cotolengo Don Orione, which receive and sell goods donated by individuals and families, have also become a favoured ''hunting ground'' for decorators and collectors of antique furniture and ornaments.

Another source of old treasures is provided by the estate sales held when large houses are torn down, when families emigrate -- another growing phenomenon fuelled by the economic crisis -- or when heirs decide they no longer want to keep the furniture or other belongings passed down by their ancestors.

Buenos Aires is also home to the more traditional flea markets held in the San Telmo neighbourhood and the Mercado Dorrego in the Colegiales district, where stalls are allocated by the city government authorities.

Tomasin said these markets have become extremely popular among local residents. ''They are places where people can see and buy things they like, and where people who need money, or don't want to lose their belongings to thieves, can sell them. That's why they have grown in number over recent years.''

The early 2002 devaluation of the Argentine peso led to a steady increase in the number of foreign tourists, and those who come with dollars and euros find a favourable exchange rate that allows them to acquire antiques at prices far below those charged internationally.

''Tourists buy things that they consider to be bargains, especially silver, hand-woven goods and leather,'' said Tomasin.

Nevertheless, despite the varied and unique merchandise offered at highly attractive prices, Buenos Aires' smaller, informal flea markets remain largely unknown to most foreign tourists, since they aren't promoted by tour agencies or hotels.

There are some foreign visitors, however, who come to Buenos Aires specifically to search out artworks and other goods produced in past centuries or to purchase pieces for clients in Europe or the United States.

''The favourable exchange rate brings a lot of people who specialise in tracking down antique china, ceramics, artwork and other merchandise, which have been extremely well preserved in Argentina,'' explained Tomasin.

These experts, whether collectors or dealers, know that the flea markets of Buenos Aires can yield highly valuable pieces that are going onto the market for the first time and are in excellent condition because they have belonged to the same family for generations.

Moreover, the prices in the newer flea markets are much lower than in the upscale shops in San Telmo and Barrio Norte. In fact, many antiques dealers from these neighbourhoods regularly comb the flea markets for bargains and then resell the goods in their own stores at a considerable profit.

According to Tomasin, foreign buyers from different countries have different motivations. ''The French and Italians are more inspired by an interest in history and culture, whereas as the Spanish are essentially business-minded,'' she said.

''The Japanese, on the other hand, admire beauty above all else, and they buy a wide range of different things, but always based on their aesthetic value,'' she added.

While Tomasin acknowledged the upsurge in Internet sales and auctions of antiques and collectibles, she pointed to their major shortcoming: the fact that buyers cannot verify the quality and condition of pieces until they have already paid for them.

As a result, she said, flea markets are in no danger of being made obsolete by the Internet, ''because nothing can take the place of visiting a flea market, seeing hundreds of items, and potentially discovering some hidden treasure.''

Viviano Alonso

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