By Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
In a remote corner of Indonesia, the word spread rapidly: A foreigner was in town. He was buying old shadow puppets made of water buffalo hide. He didn't mind if some were slightly tattered. And, he was willing to pay cash.
One by one, family elders visited the tall, blond young man, bringing boxes of mythical warriors, painted maidens, and fierce gods that had entertained villagers for years. He took the puppets, they took the money, and both sides left grinning.
"Actually, they were laughing about it," recalls the foreigner, Rhett Mundy, in his cluttered Asia Gallery warehouse in Boston's Brighton neighborhood. "With that money, they can get whole new puppet boxes and keep the art alive." Welcome to the world of Asian antique collecting, where the sale of wild demi-gods and serene Buddhas can leave both the buyer and the seller with clear consciences. Some dealers in antiquities knowingly buy and sell illegal or stolen artifacts, but Mr. Mundy says there are some black-and-white rules in this sometimes gray business. "I'll deal in anything," he says, patting the head of a 300-year-old Chinese horse, "but I won't touch living temples" where worshippers still gather. Even today, some of the world's more respectable museums and collectors don't ask for details on how some relics are obtained, he notes. "Museums are some of the biggest crooks in the world." Mundy's travels have taken him from the jungles of Java to the Himalayas of Nepal and the bustling markets of China and Japan. All he does is shop, ship, and sell. Nice work if you can get it. And he knows how. Over the past 13 years, Mundy has filled his bulging warehouse with ornate furniture, ancient Japanese chests, vivid silk kimonos, sinuous dancing maidens, and exotic handicrafts. A walk through the aisles is an adventure itself, occasionally bringing you face to face with a seven-foot bug-eyed demon or a meditative monk. Two or three times a year, Mundy heads off to Asia with a fat wallet and an open plane ticket. Unlike his competitors, Mundy buys at the source, not from the middle-man antiques dealer in Bangkok or Kyoto, where reproductions and authentic pieces mingle and meld. Sometimes Mundy rushes off for a war-zone auction in Cambodia and Burma, where the thunder of artillery can be heard in the distant hills. Here, the sellers are military commanders who gather up the spoils of war from the territories they conquer. Chinese, Thai, and occasionally American collectors gather there and place their bids. While Mundy says he prefers dealing with rebel groups, even the war spoils of a conquering despot are worth a look. "The piece I buy is either going to rot in the jungle or it will be burned by the military," he shrugs. …