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The Tales and Trails of an Asian Arts Sleuth

For the past 13 years Rhett Mundy has combed Asia's jungles and villages, searching for interesting artifacts

In a remote corner of Indonesia, the word spread rapidly: A foreigner was in town. He was buying old shadow puppets made of water buffalo hide. He didn't mind if some were slightly tattered. And, he was willing to pay cash.

One by one, family elders visited the tall, blond young man, bringing boxes of mythical warriors, painted maidens, and fierce gods that had entertained villagers for years. He took the puppets, they took the money, and both sides left grinning.

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"Actually, they were laughing about it," recalls the foreigner, Rhett Mundy, in his cluttered Asia Gallery warehouse in Boston's Brighton neighborhood. "With that money, they can get whole new puppet boxes and keep the art alive."

Welcome to the world of Asian antique collecting, where the sale of wild demi-gods and serene Buddhas can leave both the buyer and the seller with clear consciences. Some dealers in antiquities knowingly buy and sell illegal or stolen artifacts, but Mr. Mundy says there are some black-and-white rules in this sometimes gray business.

"I'll deal in anything," he says, patting the head of a 300-year-old Chinese horse, "but I won't touch living temples" where worshippers still gather. Even today, some of the world's more respectable museums and collectors don't ask for details on how some relics are obtained, he notes. "Museums are some of the biggest crooks in the world."

Mundy's travels have taken him from the jungles of Java to the Himalayas of Nepal and the bustling markets of China and Japan. All he does is shop, ship, and sell. Nice work if you can get it.

And he knows how.

Over the past 13 years, Mundy has filled his bulging warehouse with ornate furniture, ancient Japanese chests, vivid silk kimonos, sinuous dancing maidens, and exotic handicrafts. A walk through the aisles is an adventure itself, occasionally bringing you face to face with a seven-foot bug-eyed demon or a meditative monk.

Two or three times a year, Mundy heads off to Asia with a fat wallet and an open plane ticket. Unlike his competitors, Mundy buys at the source, not from the middle-man antiques dealer in Bangkok or Kyoto, where reproductions and authentic pieces mingle and meld.

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Sometimes Mundy rushes off for a war-zone auction in Cambodia and Burma, where the thunder of artillery can be heard in the distant hills.

Here, the sellers are military commanders who gather up the spoils of war from the territories they conquer. Chinese, Thai, and occasionally American collectors gather there and place their bids.

While Mundy says he prefers dealing with rebel groups, even the war spoils of a conquering despot are worth a look.

"The piece I buy is either going to rot in the jungle or it will be burned by the military," he shrugs. "[If I purchase it], it's preserved for life.

"For Asians, trade is a big part of their life," he continues. "Even the military folks do it on the side, and now, it's almost a congenial relationship. I'm one of the regulars."

Mundy has also developed a network of families throughout Southeast Asia who barter on his behalf. In return, Mundy shares a percentage of his profits with them.

Once or twice a year, he fills huge shipping containers with this collected bounty, and has them sent back to Boston.

Here in the US, Mundy's customers in Massachusetts communities range from casual collectors to Asian refugees. "I sold a Buddha to some Vietnamese immigrants in Lynn and they're using it in their new temple. Same thing with the Laotian community in Lowell," he says. "It's cool to be able to help out like that."

Mundy's first foray into antiques trading began in the early 1980s, as an English teacher in Kyoto, Japan. Using a few bartering terms in Japanese, he visited the flea markets and collected a box full of old cotton and silk kimonos. An interior designer in Boston bought them on his return. "That box paid for my whole trip," he says.

Gradually, Mundy learned the trade by talking with collectors and museum experts, while developing his own knowledge and tastes.

For himself, he collects small silk geisha dolls and bronze statues of Quanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion and mercy.

For his customers, Mundy has brought back items as large as an eight-foot stone Buddha or, in one case, an entire wedding hall from Kunming, China, or trinkets as small as a set of finger cymbals.

On one of his first trips Mundy crossed the Burmese border, hoping to visit a rebel area overrun by the military. He was arrested on the spot, charged with "insufficient paperwork." This landed him in jail, "just a dark box in the middle of the jungle" near the Thai border.

When he failed to return after a few hours, a friend waiting for him across the Thai border used his connections to the Thai government and arranged for Mundy's release.

Ironically, Mundy himself had become a commodity. A Thai official negotiated Mundy's price, "and the next thing you know, a motor scooter shows up and they took me out of there," he says with a laugh.

If antique collecting and trading has its swashbuckling moments, it is also hard work, Mundy says. "Nine out of 10 people in the antiques trade go out of business in two years," he says.

But even with such a failure rate, he still gives prospective antiques traders encouragement.

The key is to buy with your eyes and sell what you love.

"If you really love a piece, you can sell it," he says. "You can explain what makes that piece special to the customer. And they'll love it forever."

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