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Open Archeology 3.0 – Part 1: Getting Started

Upon returning from the long May weekend visiting the archeological sites of Mount Jerai and the Bujang Valley, my 2nd generation collector friends BT and Rong commented on how quickly I had moved as a new collector. In three months and for the price of a family vacation, I had picked up about 50 artefacts spanning thousands of years of human history.

As BT and Rong are busy preparing their Open Archeology 3.0 pilot later this year, I agreed in the meantime to jot down my recent experiences as a new collector. The Chinese dynasties, from the Tang Dynasty onwards, are probably the easiest to find since they were being exported across Southeast Asia in significant quantities. There are also overlooked neolithic finds, and I am especially fond of the Srivijayan, Majapahit and Indochinese period of the 700s-1300s. As a beginner, I try to minimise my risks by setting myself a price limit of S$100 per item.

The truth of the matter is that I was lucky to encounter a few experienced collectors who are generous with their time and parted with items from their personal collections for a modest fee. To be sure, there are also a lot of dishonest and illegal trade out there but hard-earned experience (sometimes painful even) helps to sniff out bad apples. The other factor is that I happen to live in Singapore which, thanks to the 2000 year old trade between East and West, sits astride the most abundant coastal archeological zone in the world. There are countless shipwrecks and lost cities which are still being rediscovered, laden with ancient trade goods from China, India, Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. Finally, many experienced local and expatriate collectors are getting to an age when they are looking for younger individuals to take over stewardship of their collections.

Source: Goh Geok Yian 2009

I shall recount the past three months of getting started, in the hopes of sharing the kind intentions of these older collectors. I had been interested in archeology since I watched Indiana Jones as a kid and my first visit as a student to the British Museum and the New York Metropolitan is a fond memory. Yet it was not until many years later that I had the opportunity to have the collector’s privilege of physical scrutiny. You can consider this reflection as simple starter’s notes to help you achieve three key objectives:

  1. Connect with our Past – As we zoom into the era of the metaverse and artificial intelligence, we should try to retain our connection with where we came from. If we learn to appreciate the beautiful works of human heritage, then we will not forget our own history.
  2. Share the knowledge – We can find and support like-minded individuals who enjoy curating, conserving and sharing such rare items, and proliferate the knowledge necessary to curb the fakes, replicas and illegal salvage that have been common in this field
  3. Energise the Archeological Community – Balancing sensitive conservation with careful excavation must be at the core of the science of archeology and its sister business of antiquities. Much like how the Decentralised Science movement is reshaping the biotechnology sector, I hope a similar revolution can penetrate a field that is chronically under-resourced and under-appreciated in Southeast Asia and many other parts of the world.

The first serious collector I met, about 10 weeks ago now, is Mr Yeo. What left the biggest impression about this very friendly gentleman is how widely he collects, and how critical his eye is. Perhaps not surprising when you learn that he is an NUS trained physicist who was also the head of quality control for a global data storage giant, and started collecting many years ago thanks to the encouragement of his exacting German engineering boss. Another sign of his critical taste is how beautifully he assembles and presents his 1000 piece collection of Southeast Asian and Chinese crafts, including the pieces in his backyard crowned by his personal durian tree. From Mr Yeo, I had picked up a beautiful lacquer box and a handcarved rosewood ship, around a century old (around the late Qing and early Republic period). As it was my first purchase of this sort, I did not want to spend very much money. Nonetheless, he was very hospitable and spent three hours explaining to me the finer points of his gorgeous collection.

The second legitimate collector I met was a designer and young mother. Many collect for profit, others collect for knowledge (I am primarily of the second kind). Rachel however collects for beauty and started under the watchful mentoring of an experienced older collector. She was looking to downsize and was kind enough to give me a number of pieces at cost, including a shell-encrusted Song Dynasty porcelain retrieved from a shipwreck. I have since gotten a number of other pieces from Rachel, and she is a welcome resource and alternative female perspective in appreciating the antiquities. When she found that my interest lie in artefacts that were older than 1,000 years, she gave me a few good sources and lines of enquiry.

The next person I met, Samuel, dispelled any lingering latent superstitions I might have had. A third generation collector and an NTU computer scientist by training, he lives with his happy family next to a famous haunted mansion in Singapore, and is surrounded by more than 3,000 artworks spanning 2000 years of history. You might be glad to hear that nobody in Samuel’s extended family has ever been molested by evil spirits or supernatural forces. It was from this jocular gentleman that I first broke my self-imposed price limit, for an exquisite museum-quality Tang Dynasty ceramic that he was kind enough to let me have.

Finally, there is Mr Koh and his star protege Jay. One of the best known local experts in Chinese export ceramics, Mr Koh is the authority behind koh-antiques.com, the long running (since 2001) website on ancient Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. He is a serious and very good collector, and very encouraging of new hobbyists such as myself. As for Jay, he is an award winning geotechnical engineer specialising in clay and soils who is dating a pottery artist. Talk about an optimal blend of his private and professional lives. With a detached curiosity and affable personality, Jay has also become one of my new favourite people and one of my go to advisors on archeological sites between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. These two are responsible for the large plurality of my current collection, including my favourite Srivijayan and Indochinese artefacts.

At this point, three months in, I felt like I had assembled my “starter’s kit” of Southeast Asian civilisational art. Moving forward, I will next be focusing primarily on the period between the 100s-700s, which is a tragically neglected and unappreciated part of our history.

Part of my fledging collection

More to come later – Part 2 – on Technologies for Authentication and Provenance.

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