The Korea Herald


Blast from the past

Itaewon antique furniture street exhibits a variety of antique items from all over the world

By Lee Woo-young

Published : Feb. 22, 2013 - 20:38

    • Link copied

Sixty-five-year-old antique collector Lee Seong-wook is a regular visitor to the Itaewon antique furniture street.

Lee, who has been collecting antiques as a hobby since he was a young man, said the story that each piece told drew him to the antiques.

“I can have a silent conversation with them. I am attracted to the story of each piece and its rarity,” said Lee, who was shopping at the Antique Village Gulliver, one of the antique shops in the foreigner-dense district of downtown Seoul.

On the opposite side of Hamilton Hotel stretches a 500-meter street, where more than 80 antique stores are gathered. This is where the culture of collecting antiques began in Korea.

“I have been here for 18 years. I was one of the starting members of the street. There were only two to three stores when I first started my own shop,” said Cho Hye-jin, the owner of Home and Gardens, which specializes in European porcelains such as French Severe, German Meissen and Dresden and Royal Vienna.

Stories unfold

A cluster of antique shops started to form six to seven years ago, which is now called Itaewon antique furniture street, according to Choi Chang-wan, owner of the Antique Village Gulliver and president of the Itaewon Antique Furniture Association.

Each shop features different antique items ranging from furniture and ceramics to cameras and motorbikes. Furniture and ceramics are popular items, but some shops target the niche market with vintage furniture and clocks made in the 1900s. 
Customers browse antique furniture and chinaware at Gangnam Antiques in Itaewon, Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald) Customers browse antique furniture and chinaware at Gangnam Antiques in Itaewon, Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Antiques are commonly defined as objects that are more than 100 years old, and vintage items are considered to be usually 50-100 years old. Antiques are usually perceived to be pricey by many people because of the prices they see at big auctions.

“We need to change the prejudice people have toward antique items,” said Choi in an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday. “The value of antique goods is in their history, not the price tag.”

Choi, who started his own antique shop in 1995, said stories would unfold when he looked at his collections.

Looking at a Kodak film camera, he imagined the journey of the camera.

“I wonder how many people owned the camera before it reached me ― it must have crossed the Pacific Ocean. What the world was like when they viewed it through the lens is also an interesting point,” he said.

Cameras are one of his major collector items along with sewing machines, clocks and gramophones.

“You can also see how designs have evolved throughout history from these collections,” said Choi.

Owners of the antique stores in Itaewon said they had fun guessing the original stories of items they purchased at large antique markets in France and England, though in reality, they did not really have the chance to learn the real stories behind them.

Among vintage shop owners here, France is the center of the culture and where they all go to find rare items of their own, said a manager at Passe, another vintage shop on the Itaewon street.

Jeong Geum-taek, who runs Gangnam Antique shop, used to visit markets in Europe once every three months before, when the economy was stonger.

“Now I don’t go that often,” he said.

He said antique shops have been struggling since the fall of real estate prices in Korea.

“It has a lot to do with the real estate market. As people don’t move around, they don’t buy furniture anymore, not to mention antiques,” said Jeong.

He recalled the days when antiques sold like hot cakes, even when the items were about two to three times more expensive than they are now. That was only five or six years ago.

Still, regular customers haven’t changed, according to Choi.

“Some people drink alcohol or dance to relieve stress. The regulars come because they like it. Antiques fascinate them constantly with their stories,” said Choi. 

Start your own collection

Choi recommended people start their own collection.

“The easiest way to do is start collecting something that is related to your job,” said Choi. “If you are a writer or a journalist, you can start a collection of pens.”

The hobby of collecting can also change one’s point of view toward things they use everyday.

“You start paying attention to their details and care more about their designs. The appreciation of what surrounds you will enrich your life,” said Choi.

He believes keeping what’s made in the past is as equally important as inventing new items.

“Korean companies don’t pay attention to keeping what they have already made. Hyundai Motors doesn’t have a complete model of their first car Pony and LG doesn’t have their first radio tube,” he said.

“Knowing how things we are using now have evolved throughout time is important. Innovative inventions don’t appear out of nowhere, but are an accumulation of technologies and know-how over centuries,” Choi noted.

By Lee Woo-young (