The seagulls glide and glide over the waters. Hundreds of them. Gliding and flying effortlessly. Catch the wind. Glide a while. Then a swift stroke of a wing and glide again. Stewart is probably up there. I can’t make him out. Too many seagulls in the air. And too many ships in the waters! Reminds me of traffic in Bangkok, Chang Mai or KL, without the motorbikes. Here, ships and boats of all size and hue cross each other at breakneck speed. Well, a few knots’ breakneck speed. They make quite a show, sounding their horns at each other. Painting the water white with their foamy trails. Ferries, tourist boats, fishing boats, one or the other Navy battle ship. Russia and the Black sea are not too far away.
Every now and then a seagull stops in mid-air, flipping its wings madly, suspended in the air, then drops into the water below. Emerges with a fish in its beak and flies away before its buddies come to steal it.
From where I sit at the table of my favourite restaurant, I can see Asia across the strait. And the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge, to the left and North. My table is on the terrace of a remodelled Yali, one of six hundred waterfront Ottoman houses built around the end of the 19th century. Large wooden houses with balconies, terraces, red-tiled roofs. This particular one has been transformed into a hotel. The café-restaurant is on the ground floor, with a huge terrace facing the water and the Asian side. I’m on the European side.
This is my last day in Istanbul. My last breakfast. It is close to twelve. Twenty-five to. Breakfast at twelve? Call it a brunch if you will. I’m not too keen on breakfast. Never seem to get up early enough. My night-owl side. But twelve, or twenty to is still good enough for breakfast. My plane leaves for London at nine this evening. Plenty of time to savour the view. Maybe draw a sketch or two. Sip a cup of çay, the local tea. Watch my seagull friends. And wait. Wait for the twelve rings of mid-day. Has the plan worked? We shall see.
I take another sip of çay. Words suffer from a strange wanderlust. Tea, as Europeans call it was invented in India. Some say tea was the only reason for the British to hold onto the Empire for so long. What were they going to drink if they lost India? Tea, in Hindi o Hindustani is called chai, pronounced tchay. Mispronounced, it evolved into English tea or French thé. Here in Turkey, they call it çay. The French-looking Ç is pronounced tsh. Voilà.
What am I, or was I doing in Istanbul? Well, I’m an arts dealer. I’ll come back to that. My Malaysian passport reads:
Surname: Lung (Lung or Long means Dragon in Mandarin)
Given name(s): Stéphanie
Nationality: Malaysian. (I also hold a British passport. Easier on visa requirements)
Eye colour: black (That is a most stupid question, where I come from, most people have dark eyes)
Date of Birth: (we’ll skip that won’t we? I’m from the last century anyway. End of. But last century for the rest of my life. When I see teenagers born in this century, now 15, or 14, I sort of get into shock…)
Place of birth: Georgetown, Penang province, Malaysia
Let’s ignore the bar code and other strategic, Homeland security, anti-terror information no doubt embedded in the document. So. I’m a Chinese woman, born in Penang, Malaysia, thirty something years ago. My family has been in Penang for a long, long time. My great-grandparents are buried in the Chinese cemetery in Georgetown. And so are all my ancestors ever since. I go and visit them every Chinese New Year. Burn incense. Say a prayer. Pay my respects. Remember those I knew and loved. Particularly my parents who left too soon.
I studied arts history. And art. In various places, including London and Paris. One year at les Beaux-Arts. Though a bit outranked by New York now, Paris can’t be put aside if you have any interest in art. And a year in Paris is worth millions. That’s what my father used to say with a crooked smile: he footed the bill. I lived Rue de Poissy, number 10 if I recall, one block away from the Quai de la Tournelle, and the Seine at the back of Notre-Dame. Five blocks away from Saint-Michel, one block from Saint-Germain. A few more to the Jardin du Luxembourg. What can I say? Worth millions. That’s where I decided I wasn’t so keen on pushing my own art. Though I still draw a sketch a day in my moleskin or Daler Rowney art journal. Come rain, sleet, snow, monsoon, hurricane or typhoon: one sketch a day. Keeps the Doctor at bay. So instead of selling my own art, I decided to become an Art Dealer. I know, sounds like a drug dealer, but allow me to feel more like a curator.
I’m one of the three top ancient art merchants in South-East Asia. I have clients everywhere: Singapore, Hong-Kong, New York, London, Paris, KL, etc. Anything before 1900. Well, 1950 for some items. Stones, jewels, Buddhas, sculptures, wood, Indonesian wayang kulit (shadow puppets), you name it… I buy all across South East Asia from Thailand to Indonesia. Most times, pieces are brought to me. Some, many, are fake. I can spot a fake Thai Buddha head from a mile away. Those we sell to tourists. As copies. No cheating. Rip-offs from temples? We sell them back to the temples. The temples are very wealthy. If they can’t afford it, we try selling to the local government. Only if that doesn’t work do I sell it to the Musée Guimet, or the Met, or the British Museum. Don’t look at me as if I were emptying Asia of its traditional art. The Met has one the greatest collections of impressionists in the world and the French, for once, don’t bitch about it. They’re not asking for restitution. Some might criticize me, but I’d rather send a good Asian piece to Paris or London where it will be seen by millions of visitors, than smuggle it away into a rich Silicon Valley tycoon’s cave. Those? I sell them the really good fakes. For millions. They can’t tell the difference anyway. And a girl has to make a living, right? 🙂 Kidding. Or maybe not. 🙂
And, of course, China is now a massive buyer. They destroyed so much in the Cultural Revolution, now they’re trying to re-stock. Being Chinese, I speak Mandarin and Cantonese, so it helps. And I do get good Chinese pieces from time to time.
I also have a project in which we’re building or beefing up national museums in Bangkok, Phnomh-Penh, Kuala-Lumpur, Jakarta. Trying to save some of the best objects for them to buy on World Bank money. And, I’m starting a small museum in Georgetown, my hometown in Penang. An ambitious project, though we’re only a small province, and Georgetown is a small town, I try to make deals with some of the largest world museums, and the small ones, by exchanging pieces. An example: I have truckloads of Thai Buddha heads. Very good quality. The Greeks have truckloads of Greek sculptures. Let’s swap a few heads and I can open a world art wing. In Penang. Rather than in KL. Now I’m practical: if I can’t generate enough interest for the Penang Museum, I show the Kuala-Lumpur card.
That is the main reason why I’m in Istanbul. (They also have truckloads of Greek sculptures though they don’t advertise it.) And lots of Persian or Ottoman art, the latter I am very interested in. It would make a lot of difference region-wide if I could get a few good pieces back in Penang.
Quarter to twelve. I look at the seagulls. At the waters of the Bosphorus. And wonder: who, if anybody, will show up at twelve?
Ottoman Yali on the Bosphorus. Source: Wikicommons. Author: Moonik
The Topkapi Palace used to be called the New Palace. As the Pont-Neuf in Paris is now the oldest bridge there, Topkapi is now (one of) the oldest palaces in Istanbul. Built in 1465 by Mehmet the second, conqueror of Constantinople, it was the main palace of the Ottoman Sultans for four centuries, until the middle of the 19th century. A treasure cave for someone like me.
I had had a rather promising meeting with high-ranking directors of the museum in the morning. I was trying to arrange a temporary exhibit with pieces from the Palace to be shown at the new museum in KL, sorry, I keep saying that, so much shorter than Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. I’d mentioned, in passing, that since a majority of Malaysian population were Muslim, an exhibition of Ottoman Muslim Art was sure to draw crowds. One of the directors had lifted what had been till then a bored eyebrow and asked me to elaborate.
“Moslems? He said. I know about Indonesia being the largest Muslim country in the world, but I’m not very familiar with Malaysia. Please forgive my ignorance.”
“Not at all, I said. There are many religions in Malaysia, But Muslims account for 61.3%”. (I had checked on my I-phone before the meeting. Smiled.)
“Interesting, said the director. The other religions?”
“I could tell you from a cross sample of my friends in Penang that there probably are ten or twenty more religions, but according to my faithful phone, Buddhism is the second religion, 20%, then Christians, 9%, Hindus, 6% and a number of other smaller religions.”
“Are you a Muslim? The director asked. I see your head is not covered.”
I smiled, which is my best technique to get out of trouble. “I’m a Buddhist, with maybe a sprinkle of Taoism and Confucianism.”
“Just curiosity. Forgive me for intruding. Now, the fact that more than 60% of the Malaysian population is Muslim could be an argument with the higher echelons. Turkey as you know is in a double process of modernization and retrieval of our Muslim roots.”
“Indeed, I said. Also, Mr Director, bear in mind that Jakarta is not far away. And we could think of a several-stop exhibition, first in one city, Jakarta, for instance, then Kuala-Lumpur (and Penang). Or vice-versa.” (And then I would have to smooth egos of the second museum director wherever: ‘How come the exhibition’s first display was not in my city?!’. Or rearrange the pieces in a different way, rename the exhibition.)
“Very well Miss Lung, the director said, handing me his card. Mail me in two weeks. My assistant handles all my mails. He will schedule another meeting. Feel free to visit the museum as our very personal guest. I’d love to take you around, but I have a previous engagement. But maybe my assistant could do you the honours?”
“Oh, no, thank you very much. I do not want to take more of your and your team’s time. Maybe after our next meeting?”
So, rather pleased with the meeting, and alone and assistant-free, I wandered, as I always do in a museum. I don’t follow established routes. You know: gallery one, then two, then three. I don’t rent an audio guide. Just let my eyes and the labels guide me. Plus my faithful phone to check a doubt.
Film buffs will surely remember the 1964 (I wasn’t born, ‘case anybody asks) movie Topkapi, by Jules Dassin, with Melina Merkouri, later to become the Minister of Culture of Greece. The movie is all about stealing major jewels in the Topkapi Palace. And it would be worth it. There are huge collections of Ottoman art, miniatures, porcelain, calligraphic manuscripts, jewellery, costumes. It also contains holy relics of Islam such as the Prophet’s cloak and sword.
I was looking at a woman’s magnificent diamond and pearl bracelet. Through the glass case, it looked late 18th or early 19th century work when a voice behind me said, right to my ear:
“You have very good taste. This is one of the best exhibits of the museum.”
“Do you always sneak out on people from behind, Philosopher?” I said without turning around.
“Ha! Ha! He said. Mes excuses Stéphanie. I saw you from a distance, and I wanted to surprise you.”
I turned around. Jean-Louis, aka the Philosopher was standing a foot away, dressed in his customary casual way: Doc Martens, jeans and a loose checkered shirt floating over his trousers. Intense blue-grey eyes. I’ve seen X-ray machines that seemed less powerful. Dark chestnut hair thinning a bit on top but cropped short, a fashionable 3-day beard and moustache. A charming smile. He kissed me twice, once on each cheek. Not once. Twice. Trust the French to take advantage of any situation. French-Lebanese, actually, I think his grandfather was from Beyruth. He was born in Paris and sooo French! I’d met him at a party a few days before. Exchanged a few words. More than a few actually. He was handsome. Smart and funny. I called him the Philosopher, because he taught literature and philosophy at the University, and he probably was one of the most intelligent persons I’d ever met. Sharp, analytical, veeeery well read, yet not arrogant. Not so French in that respect. He knew stuff about Penang I didn’t. Can you imagine? An interesting man to learn a few things from.
“What are you doing here ‘Philosopher’? I asked. Taking your class out? Where are they?” (Looking around)
“No, he smiled. Today is a no-class day. So I figured I’d take a break and re-visit Topkapi. I also heard you say you where going to have a meeting here. So I took my chances. And I didn’t get your phone number the other day.”
“Ha! You have some nerve! I don’t think I believe you. About the phone number, you didn’t ask. Now, why is this bracelet soooo important? So tasteful?”
As we turned back to the glass case, I looked closer at the bracelet. Four mixed rings of pearls and diamonds. 24 K gold threads and lockets. It was indeed beautiful. Jean-Louis said:
“I’ll tell you over lunch. It’s a little past one. If that’s OK with you?”
“It is, I said. Arnavutköy?”
“Arnavutköy it is. I didn’t know you liked the grilled fish in the Albanian village.”
“I don’t, I’m a vegetarian, but I love the view.”
We went to the very same restaurant I’m sitting at now, having my last breakfast in Istanbul. On that day, older men at distant tables were smoking shisha, or narguileh. In India, they call it hookah. It is quite a ritual. Friends share the same narguileh. Chat slowly between puffs of fragrant smoke.
We took a table by the sea. Well, I’m not sure it qualifies as Sea. I forgot what the small sea is called on this side of the straits, on the other, northern side, is the Black Sea. I sometimes feel I have the memory of a goldfish. Need to write down or draw everything. Down south one reaches the Mediterranean, that I know, but this particular stretch of water below the Bosphorus? Can’t remember.
Stewart the seagull or one of his friends saluted us with a screech from above. The sky and waters were blue. The sun was up. Close to Paradise.
Arnavutköy means ‘the Albanian village’ in Turkish. I don’t know whether there still are many Albanians around but it’s an old area of Istanbul that I adore. Old wooden houses, small cobbled streets. One of the few areas where one can find a church, a mosque and a synagogue all within walking distance. Plus the fishing boats and the seagulls on the water. Even closer to paradise. Jean-Louis ordered a grilled sea bass. I ordered a salad. I’m a cheap date. I don’t drink. I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat much anyway. 🙂
“So, Philosopher, I said. Why is this bracelet so tasteful, as you said?”
“According to rumour, it belonged to… but wait, do you know Marie-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie?”
“(One of) The (few) problems with the French, my dear Jean-Louis, is that you expect the rest of the world to know your two-thousand year old History. By heart. Do you know the difference between the Zhou and the Sui dynasty in China?”
“I apologize, he said with a mock-contrite smile, I don’t, and even worse they sound exactly the same to me. Marie-Rose was…”
“That I know, I said. Joséphine de Beauharnais, the Empress, Napoleon’s first wife and one and only love.”
“My compliments, Tiffany,” the Philosopher said.
“Thank you. Now what does she have to do with the bracelet?”
“Joséphine was a Creole, born in the French Antilles. A distant cousin of hers was Aimée du Buc de Rivery, born in 1776 in La Martinique. She was ten or thirteen years younger than Joséphine. When she was 14, her parents sent her to a convent in Paris to complete her education. In 1793, at the height of the Terror, the nobles were tracked down and guillotined. The nuns shipped Aimée secretly on a boat bound back to the Antilles.”
“And?” I asked, wondering about the link between this Aimée something and the bracelet.
“The story – which some say is a myth – tells that the ship, sailing out of Marseille, was attacked by Algerian pirates, the officers and the crew massacred and the passengers sold as slaves in Algiers. Aimée was seventeen then. The Dey of Algiers offered her as a present to the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid 1st. She converted to Islam and became the Sultan’s fourth legal wife in the Harem of the Topkapi palace.”
“Just fourth hey? Why not first?”
“Yeah well, such are things. She also became the adoptive mother of the Crown Prince Mehmet II, and was named the Sultan Validé Nakçidil…”
“Meaning? My Turk is a bit limited.”
“Something like the Queen Mother of the Ottoman Empire, Jean-Louis said. She was very popular, building hospitals for the poor and the needy. She died in 1817 or 1818. She is said to have received the extrême-onction, the last catholic rites in the Topkapi Palace at the hands of a catholic monk.”
“Let me guess, the bracelet is hers?”
“Yes, her tomb is still here in Istanbul. In Fatih.”
“Oh, I know the area. Quite nice. I like it. I feel like I have to dress up from head to toes when I go, because it is very conservative. It’s called the First Istanbul, right?”
“Exactement. So the bracelet belonged to Aimée the blonde Sultan Validé Nakçidil.”
“A lovely story. Almost too good to be true, but I understand your initial comment. With a story like that it could reach a good price on international markets.”
“Really? He asked. How much?”
“I personally know a couple of clients who would pay five or ten million cash. But of course, the bracelet is inside the Museum. Which makes it a bit complicated. So forget it. Nice story though.”
“It is, isn’t it? And you really have clients for that? Five to ten millions?”
“Yes, I nodded. In my business, you meet all sorts of clients. I do know one or two who would buy the bracelet without any question asked. To them it’s petty change. Now, would I sell it to them, IF, and that’s a big IF, if it reached my hands, is another question my friend. I’m not sure jail is worth ten million dollars. Maybe twenty? (Smile) Do you want some of my salad? It’s delicious but I’m done.”
Through coffee, which is a near-nuclear product in Turkey – sooo strong – we talked about the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks, philosophy, re-made the world a few times. I listened mostly. Men like to talk. 🙂 And Jean-Louis was a good storyteller. Very knowledgeable about Turkey. After the two obligatory kisses, he managed to get my Cell number. The I-Phone. The Blackberry is Top-level clearance. And he invited me to a party over the weekend. Ok. (Might) see you there. Au revoir.
“Tiffany! You know this is not a wheel of fortune right?” My father says with a smile.
“Yes Daddy, but it’s so much fun to spin it.”
“And then all the rubber stamps start flying away?”
I grin a broken smile. I’m ten years old. One of my front teeth is missing. The tooth fairy came last night. Very generous. I’m visiting my father at his office. A long time ago. Lots of papers, dossiers, filing cabinets full of treasures, or so I imagine. He writes only with a fountain pen. Gold tip and gold cap. Blue Parker ink. He uses a brush for calligraphy. He’s taught me some characters: Joy. Happiness. Fun. 喜 (xǐ) means Joy. If you double it: 喜喜, it means Double happiness, traditionally associated with marriage. Not that I was then or am now interested in marriage at all. 喜 That would be the chinese equivalent of a 🙂
Why was my father calling me Tiffany? Stéphanie is difficult to pronounce when you first start mumbling your name. The first time I said it to the great pride of my parents, it came out as “Thffni”. My father was delighted. He said: “’Tiffany’, she knows her name!” My mother, ever so practical said:
“Her name is Stéphanie. She said Thffni, not Tiffany. Not her name.”
“Doesn’t matter, my father said, children have to be rewarded for their efforts. From now on she will be Tiffany.”
And for a few years I called myself Tiffany, until one day, around ten and a half, I told my parents not to call me Tiffany anymore. That my name was Stéphanie. They exchanged a smile and Tiffany was gone. At least it later on spared me the stupid lines from a few idiots proposing “how about having breakfast at Tiffany’s?” (and the night before, right)? It is harder to get breakfast at Stéphanie’s. Trust me.
But then I was still just ten, still Tiffany, sitting on my father’s lap and playing with the Wheel of fortune.
“Old man, do not insult my intelligence!”
“Hanimefendi, Hanimefendi, I wouldn’t dare,” the flea market vendor says.
When one thinks Istanbul, a few clichés come to mind, Saint-Sophie, or the Bazaar, where many an action film ultimately sets up a chase, either downstairs, inside the Bazaar, or outside on the roof. The flea market is more “shady”, less travelled by. At least by tourists. This particular vendor was named Süleyman. He’d been recommended to me by some Turkish friends. “He has access to good stuff, just be careful, what he tries to sell you”. And right they were. Süleyman was average height, average weight, with cunning dark eyes, long hair and beard. And a true crook as I like them. I like honest crooks. They’re easier to deal with. And much more fun than the dissimulated crooks who seem to run around everywhere. And run the world.
“So, old man, I say, if you keep showing me fakes, I’m going.”
“No, Hanimefendi, no. Here is a genuine piece you will find nowhere else.” He hands me an Ottoman Imperial Alem.
“Another fake, Süleyman. I’ve seen the same at the Naval museum. Here, I even drew a sketch on my journal.” I open my Daler Rowney art journal, find the drawing, show him the sketch and go on:
“And to make it worse, the gold paint is not even dry, look at my fingers. I have golden fingers now. This should be gold leaf, not gold paint.”
“I give up, Hanimefendi. I confess, I was only trying to…”
“Sell me cheap fakes? I’m interested neither in fakes, nor in cheap. You disappoint me Süleyman. I was told you could find me real, valuable pieces of Ottoman art. Not junk.”
“How valuable do you mean?”
“Measured in hundreds of thousands,” I say. (Millions is for the clients)
“Dollars, old man.” I see his eyes widen, then almost close to a shrewd slit.
“Hundred thousand dollars, Bayan? (Have I gone up a rank or two from Hanimefendi to Bayan? I will check the meaning later on) Why didn’t you say so in the first place? You have clients for that? In that price range?”
“Yes, I do. But not for fake painted wood. And you already know I can tell the difference.”
Süleyman strokes his beard. Looks around his miserable, shabby shop. Then back at me.
“If you really have that kind of clients, Bayan, I have access to very precious objects.”
“What kind?” I ask.
“16th, 17th century ottoman calligraphy. Even a few Greek heads. Or Persian art. Very old. Some very unique pieces are crossing the border every day because of the war. How would the payment be done?”
“You haven’t shown me anything worthy and you ask about payment? Ha! Don’t worry about that. It would be deposited in any account of your choice. Anywhere. You do have offshore accounts I imagine?” I look at the shabby shop and wonder.
He smiles. Nods. Strokes his beard.
“I do. How do we proceed? Some of those… items are not easily accessible.”
“First you send me a few pictures. Here’s my cell phone number. (Not the Blackberry. Not on your life) Do not send me pictures of fakes, I can tell, even on a phone. Do not take pictures at Topkapi or similar places. I know what they have.”
“Even Topkapi pieces can be… obtained, if we measure in hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“I have not heard that. First send me reasonably good pictures. A brief note on the piece and its origin. Price. Suggested. Then I will tell you my selection, my final price and you bring them to me at a place of my choice. You know the restaurant in Arnavutköy, in the old Yali?
I give him the name. He nods. Knows the place.
“And the payment? Pardon my insistence, but some details are important.”
“I understand, Süleyman Bey” (He now deserves a Bey if he can do what he says.) If the articles are genuine and the price is right, I’ll make an immediate transfer from my computer to the account of your choice. And no VAT.
“We have an agreement then Bayan. Meanwhile, allow me to present you with this gift, a very small thing, but very true. Very Turkish.”
“Thank you. It is truly beautiful. Early 19th century?”
“I see you have done your homework. Late 18th century, when the Sultans were importing all kinds of craftsmen from Europe and Persia. The porcelain is quite unique.”
“Mersi Süleyman Bey.”
Weird as it may sound, the Turks say thank you in French, when they want to be formal: mersi, though the spelling is different. The Philosopher laughs about it. He says: “Those were the times when the world looked at us for elegance and good manners. Plus maintenant. Not’ny more!”
To be continued…
All characters, situations and events are entirely fictitious and but the product of the authors’ bonkers imagination.
All illustrations, except for the Yali photograph © Tiffany Choong.
Text © Brian Martin-Onraet spiced with quotes of Tiffany Choong.
Visit Tiffany’s blog at: