OH WHAT a smart tourist. He was in Kashmir, so he thought he'd pick up a Kashmir shawl. It cost $5,000.
The Indian dealer had bought it for $800 -- in London.
"Just forget that stuff about poking around in some Asian village shop for a bargain," said David Kenny, one of Washington's small handful of Asian art dealers. "The English have been bringing things out of China since 1680, the Dutch since 1580. When Persian rugs began to take off in 1970 and the prices multiplied by 10 times in seven years, the dealers were all buying in New York and selling in Iran at a terrific profit. The stuff is here: All the great things were taken out of Asia before World War I."
Kenny found out the hard way. He and his wife-and-partner Kitty Higgins decided to quit their conventional government and public relations jobs to invest in South American textiles. They took their $8,000 savings to Bolivia.
"We got some 19th-century museum-quality textiles, but it took two years of driving Jeep trails at 16,000 feet, falling over cliffs -- I broke my neck -- hiking llama trails, staying with peasants so remote that when I tried to pay them with paper money they didn't know what it was."
The couple spent four months in Europe on the cheap ("a $6 hotel room in Paris!") heading ever-eastward, spent all their investment money, $3,000, on one piece in Greece and sold it three years later for five figures, roamed Asia for a year ("a 75-cent hotel room in India!"), caught every conceivable intestinal disease . . . and learned a business.
He still reads Asian art books and catalogues far into the night, owns 1,500 of them, watches the prices and studies with a scientist's unforgiving eye the details that can mean the difference between a "B" quality piece and an "A" quality piece, maybe worth twice as much, and those rarities that he calls "A plus," with "just that little bit more" which could jump the price 20, 30, 50 times higher.
"The market is still very undeveloped here," he said. "Textiles are moving now. I've seen some go from $300 to $3,000 in two years. But generally Asian art is still undervalued here. I had a piece that local collectors wouldn't touch. If they saw it in Hong Kong they'd put down $75,000 for it in a minute. But in a shop on Dupont Circle . . . ? So I sold it at auction in New York."
Kenny's sharp eye has more than once spotted a piece that his competitors in New York had misjudged. He tells them what the item really is and sells it back to them for a good profit. "You pick up a piece and it talks to you. You have to find out what it is. So you research it, and you learn that the experts aren't all the same, some know different things than others."
Kenny, 35, has lived in Washington since the '40s, started immersing himself in Asian culture when he read Alan Watt's "The Way of Zen" in the '60s. His first wife was Chinese. Kitty, who has the same training as he does but her own taste, brings another sensibility to the work. Kenny figures they buy and sell about 3,000 pieces a year. But they will look at maybe 200,000 pieces.
"I may go to an estate sale and see 300 items and buy one." He travels from California to London searching for material, for "the problem isn't selling it but buying it. I don't bother putting out a catalogue because the stuff isn't in the shop long enough."
Eighty percent of his business is local, but the important pieces, the rare bronzes and ancient stone carvings selling in six figures, mostly go to collectors from New York or London or the Orient.
Meanwhile, there he sits, at Trocadero Arts of Asia, surrounded by the amazing things that talk to him: a gorgeously incised sixth-century stone torso, elegant blue-white Chinese vases let go by the Cleveland Museum, a 14th-century Nepalese gilt-bronze Vishnu figure, magnificent chests and tables -- so much cheaper than in Asia that Asians buy them here and pay to export them back -- bronze from the sixth-century BC, thousand-year-old figurines, an exciting 13th-century Japanese stone elephant, Ming plates, bowls, dishes.