Curio shop

The Weird World of Curio Shops

June 10, 2016

Dusty Hindu ceremonial masks. Carved wooden animal sculptures. Delicate glass vases. Shaman necklaces with beads, talismans and protective idols. These are the kind of things you might find in a curio shop.

A curio shop in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo Credit: Dustin Walker

A curio shop in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo Credit: Dustin Walker
When you enter into the weird world of curio shops you are heading down the rabbit hole of this strange, complex and multi-faceted trade. Eclectic treasure troves of art, artifacts, sculpture and strange and fascinating objects, curio shops are found in many countries around the world. This includes Zanzibar, Nepal, Japan, South Africa and India.

These shops are even found in North America, selling traditional Native American handicrafts, jewellery and art. They are places where odd objects huddle together on dusty shelves, each with their own story.

What are these strange shops, what do they sell and what are some things to consider before bringing these unique and fascinating objects home with you? Let’s take a look into the odd and intriguing world of curio shops.

What is Curio and Who Buys It?

A curio shop feels a little bit like a combination between a museum and the home of an obsessive hoarder.

You’ll find a huge array of things there, from old coins to stone sculptures to musical instruments, masks, books, wooden boxes, bells, clothes, manuscripts and so much more. Some stores specialize in objects with spiritual meaning such as prayer wheels, singing bowls and religious talismans. Every curio shop is different, which is what makes them so interesting to browse through.

Who is the type of person to buy curio? It is often someone who wants something with a little more history and meaning than your basic mass-produced souvenir. It might be a history buff or an art collector, or it might be your average traveller who wanders in with curiosity and can’t resist purchasing an item with a fascinating story.

I interviewed Sid Paralkar of Spoonful Of World, who has travelled the world and gathered a collection of beautiful spoons along the way. Rather than buying a souvenir magnet or a shot glass, he feels that a beautiful designed spoon is a much better memento of his travels.

“For me, each spoon tells a story. Each spoon has its own personality.” he says. “At times, I don’t even need to look at my vacation pictures… …just seeing the spoons in my case brings back all the wonderful memories.”

So what is the difference between an amateur curio browser and someone who takes their collecting very seriously?

I asked Sid and he said, “I guess a serious collector knows when to give up when he/she can’t find a spoon!” He describes the frustration of his friends and family when he drags them around to several shops and doesn’t give up on his quest to find that perfect spoon. For the serious collector, sometimes the joy is in the search.

It’s Not as Easy as You Think

Antique shop in Kochi, India

Antique shop in Kochi, India
Finding curio is not always as easy as you might assume – sometimes collectors have to go on quite a treasure hunt to find the objects they are looking for.

Unfortunately, forgeries are common. Fake artifacts are found all over the world and there is a good chance that the pot or statue that you are considering buying was produced for the tourist market – especially if it seems too cheap to believe. In Nepal, some shopkeepers will even fake patina to make items look older than they are.

Of course, there’s also the needle-in-a-haystack challenge of looking for a specific item.

What About the Ethical Issues?

Before you start filling up your shelves and display cabinets at home with curio from around the world, it’s crucial to consider the ethical issues. Tourists buying curio and antiques as souvenirs can cause problems when the artifacts they purchase are ancient relics that really should be in a museum in their country of origin.

As Kristina Killgrove points out in this article for Forbes, UNESCO created aconvention on cultural property in 1970. 128 countries adopted it and were required to establish laws and guidelines for preventing illegal export of ancient objects.

This means that buying an antique while travelling abroad might actually be illegal and can get you in a lot of trouble. Stolen idols have been an issue in Nepal and theAncient Monuments Preservation Act was passed in 1956 which prohibits export of any item that is more than a century old.

Another very disturbing issue behind buying antiques is that they might come from looting in conflict-torn regions and may be a source of income for terrorist groups. This Guardian article by Mark Altaweel revealed that relics from Iraq and Syria were on display in London antique shops and that the sale of these artefacts directly benefits Isis.

“A common practice is to fudge provenance by claiming an antiquity has been in the family for a long time – and so could not have recently been smuggled.” Altaweel writes, “How could you prove that any of these treasures were smuggled out during the current conflict?”

If you are considering buying an antique at a curio shop, make sure to do your homework to verify that it is not illegal or was not gained through conflict and crime. Antiques should have a long and well documented paper trail. It is never legal to purchase the bones of Native Americans or indigenous cultures, so make sure you stay away from supporting grave-robbing.

Cheap artifacts with hard-to-believe stories are usually wrapped in lies and were probably stolen or smuggled. If something doesn’t seem quite right about the backstory the seller is telling you, walk away.

However, if you do your research and can verify that you are shopping ethically, the world of curio shops offers an incredibly array of beautiful and intriguing objects with stories to tell.

Another way to find curious items…

You can also find ‘curio’ without setting foot into a dusty shop. Grabr is a peer-to-peer delivery site that gives people a way to get hard-to-find items.

If you’re interested, click here to start your curio search.


This article was written by Kelly Dunning.

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