Antiques & Collectibles in Central, Southern Mexico:
Selection, Fruitful Avenues, Cautionary Notes

Copper ritual mask, c. 1940s, Mixteca, Oaxaca

The Sunday open air stalls at Lagunilla in Mexico City, the expansive roadside shops just north of San Miguel de Allende, the stores and weekend marketplace at Los Sapos in Puebla, and good old fashioned picking in the state of Oaxaca. Each provides a fruitful avenue for acquiring antiques and collectibles in central and southern Mexico. Of course there are many more, but over the past two decades this transplanted Canadian has found success pounding the pavement (often in the case of Oaxaca barely passable dirt roads and pathways) in these four venues.

The Selection of Antiques and Collectibles Available in Central & Southern Mexico

While the selection and quantity of antiques available in central and southern Mexico is impressive, those searching for depression and other collectible glass might be in for a surprise. There is very little glass from American, Canadian and European factories available in Mexico, relative to what one finds in Canada and the US. And when one does come across quality antique glass, in most cases it’s expensive. However, hand-blown glass (vidrio soplado) has been manufactured in Mexico since the 16th century, though a different quality than the glass one encounters back home. Mexican glass is relatively common and priced to sell, usually in excellent condition in terms of original hand-painted designs and without chips or cracks.

One comes across a fair bit of military memorabilia including weapons, vintage books and coins, tiles and other ceramic pieces, advertising signs for products and cinema, as well as other smalls. Naturally, religious artifacts are prevalent, including retablos, ex votos, cherubs and crosses.

Iron has also been forged in Mexico since the 16th century, generally holding up well with time. In fact ironworkers in modern Mexico, at least in the southern half of the country, are arguably the best of all the building trades in terms of workmanship. Locks and keys, railings, gates, frames, in addition to tools and weapons and a plethora of other iron products, are encountered without difficulty in Lagunilla, Los Sapos, San Miguel de Allende, and even in the few antique stores in Oaxaca.

Collectible stone pieces are available in virtually all shops and markets, in particular grinding stones (referred to as metates with manos – the hand piece) used for mashing corn, and mortar and pestle sets (known as molcajetes) for pulverizing predominantly spices, herbs and chiles. One sometimes stumbles upon hand-hewn limestone cornices off of convents and government buildings.

Both rectangular and dome – topped wooden chests are widespread. The painted or stripped baúl (pine blanket box for Americans and Canadians) is often found with its original four – legged base. Doors off of administrative buildings and ex – haciendas are massive in terms of height, width and thickness, frequently found with original hardware in tact. Tables, wagon wheels and implements round out the other main wooden collectibles one can find throughout this part of Mexico.

Select Locales for Finding Antiques and Collectibles in Central & Southern Mexico

The Sunday open air Mexico City antiques and collectibles market known as Lagunilla extends for several blocks, and is accessible by walking from any of the hotels close to the zócalo, and of course by taxi. There are a few antique stores in the area as well, although the vendors with stalls constitute the main attraction at Lagunilla.

Many travel books caution about safety and security at Lagunilla, and some dealers warn about being in the area approaching dusk. However antique hunters should be fine, provided normal precautions are taken: do not venture off to what would appear to be a “seedy” area; do not flash large wads of cash; keep cameras and purses in front and close to the body; and yes, it would be imprudent to wander around the area as night approaches.

The quaint quarters in downtown Puebla known as Los Sapos, about four blocks from Puebla’s zócalo, are also a haven for collectors and dealers. The weekend market is admittedly small, especially for those accustomed to the Christie Classic Antique Show at Dundas, Ontario, the expansive sales at Brimfield, Massachusetts, and similar large, outdoor antiques and collectibles markets in Canada and the US. But one can find gems at Los Sapos, both by scrounging through the Saturday and Sunday stalls (not all the same vendors attend both days), and to a lesser extent in the shops within three or so blocks of the open – air marketplace. Lamps and chandeliers stand out, especially in the stores, at prices hard to resist.

Highway 51 leading out of San Miguel de Allende en route to Dolores Hidalgo is a fruitful route for finding antiques, especially larger pieces. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, given that many of the ex-patriots living in San Miguel de Allende are of significant means. It’s curious that prices tend to be exorbitant San Miguel proper, yet accessible only a few miles away in the several shops and sprawling outdoor antique yards flecking both sides of the highway. Get out of the city, be it with a rental car or by hiring a driver, and stop at every outlet.

While Oaxaca does have one extremely large antique store (on Calle Abasolo) with a particularly impressive selection of jewelry (and almost everything else), for its size Oaxaca is a wasteland for collectors and dealers, and prices are steep relative to what one finds elsewhere in central and southern Mexico. You have to go to the rural areas. But picking is hard work, and as is the case throughout Canada and the US, there’s never a guarantee.

Oaxaca is noted for its craft villages, market towns and colonial churches in the countryside. But these towns and villages have been pretty well picked over since the travel boom which began in the 1960s. Accordingly, it’s imperative to venture beyond the usual tourist stops. Virtually all of the antiques and collectibles enumerated above can be found in Oaxaca’s hinterland, in addition to the occasional early craft item (i.e. fanciful wooden alebrijes, ceramics, textiles).

The central valleys of Oaxaca are purportedly where the chango mezcalero originated. Chango mezcalero is a baked clay receptacle painted as a monkey, used for holding and serving mezcal, the alcoholic beverage derived from the agave plant. The same $20 whimsically painted ceramic bottle produced beginning around the 1930s, fetches $500 or more on a couple of Mexican antiques websites. But like everything else, they’re getting harder to come by.

Cautionary Notes for Antiques Aficionados Traveling in Central & Southern Mexico

Mention of pre-Hispanic artifacts is conspicuously absent from the foregoing. There are two reasons:
•The law prohibits buying and selling archaeological pieces, and of course their export. One periodically hears of even Mexicans winding up in jail or subject to stiff fines as a result of trading in pre-Hispanic pieces.

• Reproductions represented as originals are big business, even at the pre-Hispanic ruin sites, another reason to stay clean of archaeological pieces. If it’s represented as a repro, then go ahead. Query how vendors at Lagunilla can flog pieces they represent as legitimate pre-Hispanic artifacts, out in the open, if they are indeed originals. Campesinos sometimes approach foreigners stating they have just come across pieces while plowing. While certainly it happens, and there continues to be artifacts being unearthed all the time, these farmers have access to reproductions as well.

Other antique and vintage collectibles which are being reproduced and are sometimes represented as old, include advertising signs, metal cantina trays, ex votos, papier maché “puta” dolls, ceremonial masks and ironwork. Of course well – made reproductions are often quite attractive and are suitable as home decor, but unless certain, don’t pay prices which correspond to the value of true vintage collectibles.

In some cases contemporary well – worn implements may appear to be antique, but are not; nor is there an attempt to misrepresent. Take for example, metates. Some are pre-Hispanic, while others could be only 30 – 50 years old, since some Mexican women today still grind corn over a large flat river rock. After decades of use it appears no different than a metate which was worked 1,500 years ago. [The best way to score a worn metate while picking in the countryside, is to bring along a brand new one, three-legged and machine made, to trade. Cash often won’t cut it, because you might be met with “if I sell this to you, what will I have to grind my corn tomorrow morning.”]

Another class of collectible that may or may not be antique, yet without attempt to misrepresent, is galvanized metal containers in a variety of shapes and sizes, for making tamales (tamaleras), and for carrying milk, water and other liquids.

Wood is at times difficult to bring into the US and Canada. The laws in Australia are even stricter. Pine, copal and other soft woods are susceptible to insect infestation, akin to termites. The problem is known as polilla. Tell-tale signs are tiny holes in the wood, or if it’s been sitting in one place for a while, a white powder can be found alongside the piece. If in a shop, look around the base before picking up anything wood.

When buying contemporary collectible alebrijes, and other wooden products, ask what precautions have been taken to prevent polilla infestation. In San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca, the high end workshop of Jacobo Angeles and María Mendoza uses both soaking in a gasoline / insecticide mixture, and leaving in a special oven for a number of hours, so as to enable the workshop to guarantee its work.

Finally, resist the temptation to awake before dawn to get to the markets before anyone else. In most cases antiques and collectibles dealers with stalls at the outdoor marketplaces do not arrive and set up at the crack of dawn, like they do at markets like Christie or Brimfield. If you arrive at 8 a.m. (before virtually all other pickers and collectors) you’ll be there while the vendors are setting up, and if you arrive at 10 a.m. there will still be stalls being arranged. Having provided this advice, guess who nevertheless awakens at 7 a.m., and gets to the markets as soon as possible thereafter, invariably first succumbing to relaxing at a sidewalk stand for an early breakfast of hot chocolate and tamales, yes, before heading off to the market?

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( ) ©

Owner of Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( ). Alvin Starkman (M.A., Social Anthropology York University; LL.B., Osgoode Hall Law School) leads personalized tours to the craft villages, market towns, pre-Hispanic ruins and more off-the-beaten-track sights in the central valleys of Oaxaca. He consults to documentary film production companies working in the region, writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca for magazines, newspapers and travel websites, and is a bimonthly contributor to The Upper Canadian Showcase. Casa Machaya combines the comfort and service of a downtown Oaxaca hotel with the quaintness and personal touch of country inn accommodations