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One of the ways to get real value out of a foreign vacation is to spend some time prowling the markets for original art. Whether you’re into paintings, sculpture, pottery, glass work or tapestries, shopping around for authentic local art - as opposed to tourist trinkets - can help justify the cost of your trip. Of course, you can also take your trip as an opportunity to stock up on your reserve inventory of gifts that keep on giving.
Let’s start with where not to shop for artwork. If a city or country is an expensive destination - like Paris or Tokyo - don’t even bother to look. It’s really very simple; artists need to eat and pay rent wherever they happen to be living. It takes more money to be a starving artist in Geneva or Amsterdam than it does in places like Istanbul or Mexico City. And because art is such a labor intensive profession, the differential in the cost of living is reflected in the price of art.
It’s amazing how far your art collecting budget can go abroad - especially in third world countries. A few years ago, I picked up some great miniature paintings in Ensenada, Mexico of all places. In terms of value, Mexico is at the top of my list. Whether you’re buying masks, iron wood, stone sculpture or pottery, if you have a good eye and stumble into the right gallery, you can walk out with a treasure. Do not discount street vendors. Most of it is trash; but if by chance, you happen to be haggling with the very artist who created whatever caught your eye - you end up eliminating the middle man.
Another of my favorite destination is Turkey where you can get some very fine handcrafts, copperware, silk carpets and silver jewelry. Knock yourself out at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I’d allow a couple of days for an experience of a lifetime. It’s worth visiting Turkey just to pick up a few treasures. Be warned that the covered Bazaar boasts something like 4,000 shops - which probably makes it the largest mall in the world.
If you’re adventurous and want to take a very short trip to Zimbabwe, Harare offers a pool of very talented and creative sculptors who carve up some magnificent pieces made of hardwood and sandal wood. I’ve never been there myself, but one of my brothers ended up buying a crate full and shipping it back to the states.
When I lived in Alexandria, I really couldn’t resist picking up original paintings. Perhaps because it offers up an inspiring setting, this Egyptian city is home to a community of talented artists and some great small galleries where you can pick up an original painting for what it costs to buy a poster in some European settings. And Cairo’s KhanEl Khalili market is perhaps the best place to purchase blown glass work, especially when you compare it to what comparable pieces go for in Venice.
The Al-Hammideya Souq in Damascus is unbeatable when it comes to intricate inlaid boxes, tapestries and carpets. Plan on spending a couple of days visiting this bustling covered market. It’s built on a slightly smaller scale than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but the emphasis is on ‘slightly smaller.” Even without driving a hard bargain, you will probably pick up some great deals. But it always pays to do a little haggling if only because it is expected and makes for a memorable experience.