Ground zero for antiques is the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak area where lots
of shops are stuffed with dusty, dirty artifacts and stacks of repros.
Look for the grotesque, primitive statues out front. Not all pieces are
Balinese; many originate in Nusatenggara and other areas of eastern Indonesia.
Take your time. You may have to lower your sights and buy a clever, well-made reproduction rather than a true antique. Perhaps the only true antique left on the island is Victor Mason's polyphone at the Begger's Bush in Ubud.
Before buying antiques, increase your knowledge as much as possible by referring to the reference books in the booklist and visiting the Bali Museum of Denpasar and the Puri Lukisan of Ubud. Tribal artists don't experiment, but adhere to a rigid iconographical framework. If it's Dayak carvings you're after, study the art books and museum catalogs first. If the piece doesn't conform to the norm, it's suspect.
Probably no place on earth—with the possible exception of Kathmandu—contains a greater density of beautiful "artifakes." These wonderful repros (antik baru, or "new antiques") may be far superior to some of the ugly originals you come across. And the repros cost far less.
If you ask for a true antique, you have to always assume you'll be cheated. Be an investigator first and a buyer second. Looking old and being old are not the same. Pay attention to how the patina—the wear and tear, dirt and dust of an art object—was created. A tukang patina craftsmen (seldom the salesperson) specializes in creating a convincing patina. The seller will deceive you by standing the piece up in the ground, letting it rust in the elements, layering it with dust, grime, etc. Be on the lookout for other irregularities that don't make sense. With a magnifying glass, study the scratches on the surface of old metal objects. The scratches should be of various lengths, depths, shapes, and angles. Scratches of equal length and depth are indications of fakery because they have been uniformly buffed, sanded, and polished. The same applies to woodcarvings as even grooves caused by erosion can be carved.
Often you can tell they were made on Bali because the carvers can't seem to suppress a Balinese style or incorporate typical Balinese motifs. Also, successful fakes are apt to appear in a number of outlets within a relatively short time, so always look around first to see if your "original" shows up anywhere else. You can ask a dealer directly how old a piece is, but he will often whisper the little white lie "This piece is not so old but it is also not so new." Dealers of questionable repute will also tell yarns about a piece. The more elaborate the tale, the less likely it is true. If it's a big ticket item and you're skeptical, ask for a written guarantee stating the conditions of the purchase. This won't really protect you, but it may make the dealer think twice before ripping you off. Always get a photocopy of the documentation (with certification number) for any statue or antiquity to have ready for a customs official at the airport or docks in case he asks.
Leave the really old stuff. A law, Cagar Budaya, was passed in 1993 to prevent the hemmorrhage of antique treasures from Bali. The law states that any object over 50 years old is considered "antique" and must be turned over to the government. The only exceptions are those objects—like old kris and carved stones—still being venerated.
Furniture-making is not really a part of the Balinese artistic repertoire. Today, repro furniture is the one of the fastest-growing industries on the island. Because of tourist demand and the large number of tourists concentrated on Bali, the island has become a frenetic furniture emporium. Agents comb the countryside and villages of Java looking for unusual pieces, buying them up for a song. The furniture is often made of jati (teak) and usually is in decrepit shape. Once fully restored in Bali, the same pieces sell for as much as 10 times the original price in the antique shops of Batubulan, Legian, and Krobokan.
Still, the prices for these beautiful, unique, and authentic antiques are a fraction of what they would cost in the West: antique easy chairs Rp300,000, Madurese carved storage boxes Rp500,000, rustic married cabinets Rp500,000 (married means old wood joined with new wood), wooden benches Rp350,000, Javanese partitions with Islamic motifs Rp400,000, carved prows of traditional boats, wooden buckets Rp75,000, small tea tables Rp125,000, rare and ornate colonial chairs Rp300,000, reclining lounge chairs Rp250,000.
But the supply is not inexhaustable and it's going fast. Presently as many as 100 containers a month leave Bali and Java for the living rooms of Milan, Stockholm, and San Francisco (as many as 500 containers a month of repro-furniture). Some types of furniture have disappeared altogether. Don't even bother looking for Dutch-Chinese (peranakan) furniture with traces of original pigment. Indonesia was cleaned out of these pieces decades ago.
Choose your piece very carefully as there's a lot of junk out there and prices for the good stuff vary considerably. Beware of parts of the piece which are not original and be sure the add-ons match properly. Make sure, for example, that the dealer doesn't replace old teak with cheap, green wood, then use a dark stain so that you can't discern the difference until it's too late. Termites will devour the cheap wood (they won't go near the old teak) and the piece will crack and split once it's been shipped to a cold temperate climate.
Also examine the finishes the dealer uses; most often they slap on dark, unevenly applied shellac which makes a real antique look like a piece of repro-rubbish. If you like the design, buy it plain and finish it yourself or hire a Balinese carpenter at Rp9000 per hour and supervise the work.
Most dealers don't bargain because they can easily get the prices they ask. Wait until you see something you like and (if reasonable) pay the price asked—quickly.
Bali is also fast becoming an international center for primitive art. The competition for the art of the Outer Islands is intense—many pieces were plundered by Indonesian Army officers. A great number of souvenir shops now sell contemporary tribal baskets, bamboo containers, amulets, statuettes, tribal body ornaments and jewelry—all newly made and well crafted.
Forget about finding something original. All the major museum-quality pieces were bought up over a century ago and now form parts of very old European collections. There are no Borobudur Buddha heads or Leti ancestor statues left.
Balinese artists are extremely adept at reproducing ethnographica from all over the archipelago—authentic-looking Asmat carvings, Borneo hampatong figures, Niah, Batak, or Sumba-style wooden statuary. Though not the real thing, these relatively inexpensive "antiques-to-order" are all perfectly legitimate artforms, attractive, worth every rupiah if you can buy something you like for a good price. The best reproductions are made by the ethnic groups right in the place where they live and work.
Souvenirs not to buy, lest customs in your country fine you and/or confiscate your articles, are items made with alligator, lizard, snake skin, ivory. Combs, barrettes, and jewelry made from tortoise shell and souvenirs made of feathers, fur, dried turtles, or butterflies can also be confiscated.
Where to Shop
Individual shops are on the main shopping streets of Sanur and Kuta. The shopping arcades of major resort hotels are another rich source of beautiful antiques at sky-high prices, but make sure what you're buying is genuine and not a repro.
There are literally hundreds of furniture shops, by far the most concentrated in southern Bali within the Mas-Jimbaran-Krobokan triangle. Wherever you see a mass jumble of old beds, decaying screens, posts, stop and dive in. Investigate the high-end big dealers and galleries first. For furniture, check out Polos in Legian, Warisan in Krobokan, Marios near the big Buddha baby on the Gianyar Road. Stay away from the shops on the main drag (Jl. Bypass) where the worst fly-by-night con-artists work. Buy only from reputable dealers.
One of the best of the big dealers is Arts of Asia Gallery, Jl. Raya Tuban, Denpasar, tel. (0361) 752860, which houses a priceless collection of old wayang kulit, woodcarvings, textiles (gringsing, endek, songket), Chinaware, and fine kris.
Don't neglect such first-class galleries as the Polo Gallery in the Four Seasons Hotel, the Kungang-Kunang in Campuan and the Amandari Gallery in Kedewetan (both near Ubud); Baharuddhin's for luscious hand-dyed ikat from Sumba, Flores, Sawu, and Kalimantan, plus beads, baskets, and curios; Kaliuda Art Shop, Jl. Legian, for woodcarvings and ikat from Timor, Sumba and Flores.
Klungkung has a cluster of seven antique shops on Jl. Diponegoro east of the main intersection; treasures can almost always be uncovered in these cluttered, dusty shops. Kerajinan Art Shop can be depended upon. Batubulan also has a row of shops, especially strong on fine old gilded or plain carved wood panels, statues, and old Balinese art objects; also Kamasan paintings, vintage musical instruments, fans, cowbells, wooden kulkul bells, etc. The shops are just south of Batubulan's stonecarving workshops.
The self-appointed arbiter of taste and style, Australian-born Made Wijaya, whose other passions include anthropology, architecture, and gardening for rock stars, has fitted out his Gallery Bebek at the Tohpati intersection (on the way to Ubud) with an eclectic collection of contemporary furniture and objets d'art.