ANTIQUING in Bulgaria is not for the faint of heart. You have to be prepared for all variations of commerce from refined galleries to musty dusty storage rooms. At this time of year, the high-end galleries are anxious for business, but don't expect that enthusiasm to translate into haggling or dealing. Many of those proprietors take items on consignment and firmly stand by their high prices. Having said that though, if you are into the hunt and don't mind getting dirty, there are bargains to be found in Bulgaria.
"Americans and Europeans are some of our best customers" according to Katya Stefanova, an art and furniture restorer with Batex Corporation. The reason why foreigners make up the majority of antique shoppers is because young Bulgarians do not want old things. The wealthy classes here would rather buy the latest Italian imported furniture and luxury items to tangibly show friends, family and neighbors an appearance of their success. "The reality, though," according to Stefanova, "is that a vintage chair made by a designer in the 1920s and professionally restored, is still worth more than the new Italian imports. And that chair is only going to increase in value over time."
Knowledgeable collectors can cash in, but the expression caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) takes on new meaning in this part of the world. There is large-scale manufacturing of fake antiques in Bulgaria. Special items of note are the brightly coloured wooden boxes (usually red, green and white) with Turkic designs found in just about every shop in Sofia. Open it up and see the fresh new pine interior and you'll instantly know it's not an antique. Also be wary of the plethora of stamps, Roman coins and fake icons.
The good news though, is once you've found a personal treasure, you can bring new life to it through the services of a professional restorer. The Batex Corporation craftsmen can work their magic for a reasonable fee and you too can watch your investment rise. The firm was founded with contracts for the restoration of historic buildings like the British Council Library, the Academy of Science and the Seebank. They have grown into a full service company offering correct historic fabric patterns for antique chairs and sofas.
Below is a review of some of the top antique destinations in Sofia. Enjoy the hunt!
· Antique Zlato-rog - Two shops owned by Mr. Stoycho Mlechev-ski (mlechevski@ hotmail.com). The shop at 10 Pop Bogomil Street, (phone 983-3508) is a small shop that is more of a storage space with nice selection of cupboards and household pieces. All are in need of restoration. Don't miss the area around the corner downstairs where there is a dimly lit storage room full of interesting large furniture items. A very nice English-speaking staffer is there from 10-6 M-F and 11-3 on Saturday. Additional shop located at 45 Konstantin Irechek Street, 954-7627.
· Antique and Russian Shop Chirco (firstname.lastname@example.org) Located just around the corner from Luciano's restaurant at the corner of Rakovski and Moskovska (29 Moskovska Street, phone 989-6363), this shop is worth a visit for the nice selection of clocks (both table top and wall mount), antique musical instruments, guns and the usual fare of small silver pieces. Despite the name of the shop, I didn't see many items that were Russian but I was impressed with the hand-carved turn of the century wooden Victrola.
· Viga owned shops - A consortium of antique shops owned by Julia
Varbanova. The most famous one is in the underpass between the presidency and Tzum (at 1 Dundukov Street, phone 980-7355). This is where former US president Bill Clinton purchased an item while shopping with his daughter Chelsea. This is the Western-style antique shop with careful attention to display and design. The prices are high but the selection is great. English-speaking help is available.
· The antique shop at 50 Alabin Street (980-5407 phone), (a side street near the McDonalds on Vitosha) is usually where you will find Julia herself. This small shop contains many treasures especially if you are interested in collecting those silver belt buckles found on traditional Bulgarian costumes. I have been successful here purchasing small picture frames and a nice pair of men's cuff links.
· The last store in the Viga chain is located at the Kempinski Hotel Zografski (phone 68 52 50). Convenient parking out front makes this an attractive shopping destination even if you have to search for the shop down a long hallway to the left of the lobby bar. Again, the presentation is professional and this is where you can find beautiful antique pocket watches, silver items and collectibles for your china cabinet but the prices will be commensurate with other goods at a Western-style hotel.
· The Maxido Shop at the Hilton is owned by Daniella Nikolova, this little place is squeezed in between the beauty salon and the travel office. Unfortunately they don't get a lot of new items regularly, but what they do have is desirable. I've had my eye on an antique amethyst bracelet selling for 600 euro. It's a real bargain for similar pieces in the West. This is the spot for unique gift items such as rings, watches, bracelets and the occasional candlestick. It's worth a peek inside every couple of months to see if has been any product turnover.
· When you see the mannequin in an army uniform propped up outside, that means the men at Cohort are open for business. I love this little shop located at 40 Denkoglu Street, a side street off of Vitosha. As the sign implies, they specialise in military antiques, ex-communist paraphernalia, old photos and a scattering of old tin-type toys. The owner is friendly and knows the Western resale value of most items but is interested in dealing with regular clients. He has a steady stream of new products weekly and it's worth visiting this shop regularly.
· And what about the famous antique market in front of Nevsky Cathedral that is open daily? All the antique shop owners I spoke to believe the market is filled with fakes - Roman coins, stamps, icons and recently produced Russian hats. Knowing that, you can still find the occasional architectural antique that will always be a point of discussion and remembrance from your time in Bulgaria. Also keep an eye out for medical and scientific instruments as well as old telephones, office desk sets and radios - all hot collectibles and gift items valued around the world.
The Batex Company contact is Katya Stefanova at cell phone number 0888 27 7002. She is an extremely knowledgeable art and furniture restorer and fluent English speaker.