Tucked away in a nondescript 5-story building in Istanbul’s historical Fatih district, Horhor Antikacilar Carsisi is home to more than 200 shops.
“This place never gets as crowded as a shopping centre might,” says Selahattin Simsek, vice chairman of the management board of Horhor Antikacilar Carsisi (Horhor Antiques Market). Simsek, 61, has been at the market for 41 years, following in his father’s footsteps. “When we get 30 visitors a day, we call it a good day.”
The Horhor antiques market is a nondescript building located on Kirma Tulumba Sokak in Istanbul. Before the building was converted from a dorm for students, flea market shacks used to be housed in Galata’s Kuledibi neighbourhood. After the coup in 1980, they had to move to Horhor and ended up creating their own community in the historical Fatih district.
Horhor now has 210 shops and is the biggest antiques market in Europe according to Simsek. In addition to shops selling antiques and retro furniture, there are also repair shops (for upholstery, varnish, gilt) that gently restore damaged goods to their previous glory.
Simsek compares the market to a hospital, saying “We mend things and try to make them functional again. What is on sale here is not how we discovered the items.” The repair shops are located in the basement, and there are also some on the fifth floor, Simsek tells TRT World.
According to Simsek, a visitor can find anything he wants in Horhor, with a wide variety of goods passing through shops, be they antiques, accessories, or retro goods. “Up until the 2000s, in the 1980s and 1990s, everybody used to visit flea shops around them and find goods. Before the Greek folks left Istanbul you would buy from them. Or we would place ads in newspapers. But after the 2000s we opened up to Europe and started going to fairs in the UK, in France. In recent years most goods come from overseas,” he says.
Because of the coronavirus, Simsek says, shop owners haven’t been able to go to antique fairs in a year. Also they have started selling their goods online via Instagram. He doesn’t think it’s a healthy way to shop: “You have to touch and feel the antique. You can’t understand the dimensions or the handiwork on a piece very clearly on the screen. Whereas in a store you come in, you touch. It’s no good – shopping without touching.”
Simsek also has a store in the building, manufacturing new versions of antiques that, for example, don’t work for a client’s desired dimensions. He says he is one of 2-3 rare manufacturers in the building, and that most shops deal in antiques only.
According to Simsek, there is no use for store owners to hang onto goods for fear they won’t be able to replace them. “I once had a customer who wanted to buy one of the goods my father was selling. We agreed on a $7,000 price but when I told my father, he declined to sell it. So I apologetically went back to the buyer, and he was very understanding about it. Nowadays it’s in storage, and I’d be happy to sell it for $1,000.”
Simsek says every antique piece has a time to sell, and if you sell it at the right time, you make money. If you miss the window, you lose. “You need to keep a constant flow of goods in your store,” he says. “You need to follow trends and stock up accordingly.” He gives an example of carafes that used to sell for $2-3,000 five to ten years ago, and were rare, now go for $200-300. Why? Because they’re not in fashion anymore.
“In order for something to be antique,” Simsek says, “it needs to reflect the time period it was made in. Not every old item can be considered an antique,” he clarifies.
“In order to be a successful antique dealer,” Simsek tells TRT World, “you need to read up on history and do research. The more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get, and the more knowledgeable you are, the more money you make.”
Simsek tells the tale of an antique dealer who doesn’t know much, who tags along with other antique dealers from Istanbul to an overseas buying trip. At the expo, he takes a liking to a few frames and purchases them. There are paintings in the frames, but the dealer is interested in the frames, not the pictures, not really. Up until he buys them, no one in his party has taken a second look at these frames.
When the frames make it to Istanbul, he displays them in his store. There are a few potential buyers who want the frames and not the paintings inside them, but they can’t agree on a price so he doesn’t sell. Then another potential buyer takes an interest in the paintings in the frames but the dealer is suspicious and doesn’t sell to him, either. “Then the dealer researches the painting in the frame himself, and it turns out to be a painting by the world famous Seker Ahmet Pasha,” Simsek smiles. “So then the dealer ends up selling the frame with the painting intact for a good amount of money.”
“What I’m trying to say here,” Simsek says, “is that in dealing with antiques knowledge is very important; details are very important; research is very important. Not everything is about money – if you have knowledge you earn more.”
Our second stop is the shop run by Merih Uman. A dealer for 27 years, Uman’s focuses on mid-century modern furniture and accessories. “I used to focus on French antiques, but for the past 10 years or so, I’m selling more of what we call modern antiques, mid-century modern, vintage, furniture. Our store selling antiques is still open on this floor, but I primarily operate out of this one,” she says.
She says she shops from everywhere in the world, but says the best places are, with France being the cradle, Italy and Belgium. Thinking back for an anecdote, she goes back 15 years and tells the story of a man who does her transportation in France, a truck driver who picks up the goods she buys and takes them to a warehouse.
One day, the driver asks Uman whether she would like to see the antiques in his home, as he needs to sell some to buy a new truck. Uman imagines he would have reproductions and not much that she could use, so she keeps postponing. Eventually she has to go see his antiques: “If he ever were to come to Turkey, I couldn’t invite him to my house. He had more antiques than I do at his home.” She ended up buying several items from his home.
Uman says in Europe collecting is a pastime that anyone and everyone does. “Not everyone collects furniture; some collect fountain pens, some collect lighters. But it’s in their blood. I really appreciate that.” That’s why she was in awe of the truck driver who had self-educated himself on antiques by transporting them for dealers for years.
Uman says that’s how she became an antique dealer herself, thanks to her parents who took her to the flea markets at Galata Kuledibi neighbourhood despite her protests, promising to take her to a children’s theatre later on. “It must have left a mark so I became an antiques dealer myself,” she laughs.
Uman also echoes Simsek’s comments about collecting: “A bit of love, a lot of care, and of course knowledge about what you’re buying and selling,” she says. “I get more tired during the pandemic when I’m shut in at home over the weekend, if you can believe that,” she exclaims. “I keep track of overseas auctions until 1am, 2am in the morning. Not necessarily to buy, but to learn. For example there is an auction house in Paris called Drouot, which holds simultaneous auctions in 7-8 rooms every day. I would go and sit there, watching the auction, with nothing to buy or sell. Who buys what for how much, what appreciates more, what doesn’t sell at all.”
“I do my work with the utmost of care, love and honesty,” she says. “There hasn’t been a day that I would open my store at noon, or at 11 am, I’m here in the morning.”
Mehmet Durak, 42, has been a dealer since 1997. “So, 24 years,” he says. For him, being a dealer is purely out of personal interest and not a family tradition.
He sells art deco and modern furniture and accessories in his store. “I buy from France, Italy and Germany, in addition to some pieces from Istanbul,” he adds.
“It’s exciting to make a discovery with an object, to find out its origin, its designer,” Durak tells TRT World. “Even though we don’t necessarily get the financial benefits necessarily, it’s very satisfying.”
Engin Filoglu has been a dealer for 32 years, taking over the family business from her mother. “It’s an exciting job, travelling the world, meeting people overseas, being surrounded by beautiful objects,” he says. “It’s a nice life.”
Filoglu says he goes to antique fairs in France, the UK, Belgium and Egypt. The store has been open for 35 years, and he says he joined his mother two years after she opened the store on the 4th floor. He has another store on the ground floor where his son, who is an interior architect, works. “We have been dealers for three generations,” Filoglu guffaws.
“The feeling of discovery is amazing. No matter how old you are, there’s always something new to learn. It’s a sweet occupation.”