When the Titanic sank, little did the world know that even almost a century later, its antiques would be auctioned to fetch thousands of dollars. From old pictures of the ship, to crockery and jewellery and even letters penned by the survivors have been sold worldwide, and antique aficionados have stopped at nothing to acquire them.
However, not taking away anything from the legendary cruise vessel, the fact remains that nautical antiques and artefacts have always been popular among collectors, mainly because of their unique utility.
Cruise ships, like Titanic, are now few and far between, but there are others like fish, oil and car carriers as well as cargo ships which have now become the centre of attention of these collectors. Generally, depending on the type of vessel, a ship’s lifespan ranges from 25 years to 50 years. Eventually when it nears its end and is dismantled, the contents are largely divided into scrap and aggregate. The latter, called aggre for short, includes nuts and bolts, chains, transformers, boilers, stoves, ladders, fridges, tools boxes, cables, drills, etc. Then, there are the artefacts like lights, lamps, telescopes, watches and compasses.
“When a ship breaks at Gadani, the beoparis from places like Waqar Kanta, Noorani Godown, Tiger Kanta, Faqira Godown and Sher Shah buy the aggre in containers, and then they sell the artefacts to us,” says Mohammad Ismail, who runs a shop near Civil Hospital, Karachi, “Almost all artefacts are made from brass and copper — a few are in wood. We repair and polish those relics, and then sell them,” he explains. Depending on the weight — most of the stuff is sold by the kilo — the amount can vary from Rs1000 to Rs40,000 and more.
Ismail remembers the time when foreigners would regularly visit his shop and buy these objects of art as souvenirs. But given the law and order situation, that is now a thing of the past. His ‘showroom’ is crammed with every imaginable nautical antique — oil lanterns, electric and search lamps, ship and welding portholes, ship telegraphs, among other stuff — although he admits that they are not really older than perhaps 40-50 years. “That’s as old as a ship can be, so how can you expect the telescopes and lamps to be older than that?” he argues. Most of the buyers, he says, know what they are looking for, and are willing to pay a decent amount for it.
Photo courtesy gujratmarine.com
According to Nasir Khan, who has set up his few wares at a window sill across Metropole in Karachi, a majority of his customers are foreigners or ‘foreign-returns’ who understand the value of these antiques. “I would not sell my collection to just anybody,” he claims, “I want it to go to someone who appreciates its true worth, and which is why I’ve priced them high,” he defends himself. Khan claims that his grandfather who was in the British Army in the pre-partition days started the business of selling antiques at the location, which was handed down to his father and now he is taking it forward.
“For some, collecting artefacts or antiques is a hobby, for most, it transcends into an addiction,” concurs Ruheena Malik, an antique collector, who also sells them at a restaurant she runs. “They are always on a look out for such stuff, and are willing to dole out any amount for it.” These artefacts are exclusively created for ships and hence not available just anywhere. Since many ships are bought from Japan, and the West, the make is different too. Malik feels that most beoparis are not aware of the real worth of these relics and sell them for peanuts. But people who buy them, particularly collectors, fully appreciate the beauty, the durability and history of these objects when purchasing them.
“It’s like buying jewellery; the worth is bound to increase, and you can pass these on to the next generation,” says Malik. However, Malik does caution that the business can be quite risky. One has to plough through an enormous amount of junk before discovering something worthwhile. “I once found an entire copper chest, which when repaired and polished was a thing of beauty.” Even then, there are chances that it will be a long time before one finds a suitable buyer for that artefact.