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March 10, 2010

Bargaining for an old al Koran

Tom McLaughlin

Pontianak, Borneo Island, Indonesia – Pontianak translates to vampire or ghost in Indonesian. According to local lore, the Sultan of Sambas was riding a horse through his kingdom and saw a lady with a hole in her back. This was at the time the area was a snake infested lowland swamp, like Washington is today. He then named the area for vampires.


We had been repeatedly warned about pick pockets, con artists, confidence men and purse snatchers. One modern twist is the ATM machines. We were told by friends that Russian technology had been sold to bandits who installed them in street side machines. They could then read both the pin number and the credit card number when one attempted to get cash. “Always use the ATM machines inside banks” they advised.


I have always been interested in books and had a thriving Internet book business for about 10 years. I dealt in genealogical volumes but when libraries and government organizations started putting information online for free, the books became obsolete. I am not complaining as I had a good profitable 10-year run. And I have a great book collection in storage.


My interest has never wavered and I became intrigued with very old al Korans, the holy book of Islam. These are handwritten volumes in Arabic characters. My beautiful new wife reads the ancient alphabet, so she has been a great help in making selections. Also, the market value (just go to eBay and see what they are selling for) was a motivating factor.


I went to an antique shop well aware of the many fake antiques on the market. I read in the Asian Wall Street Journal where large vases are now being produced from the same soil and kiln operated by artisans over 900 years ago. They are impossible to differentiate from the originals and even museum officials admit they cannot tell the difference.


The owner of an antique shop I visited had three al Korans for sale. I carefully looked over the volumes and selected one and handed it to my wife. She declared that yes it was real Arabic text and not just scribbles. The book was unique in that it was not decorated with Arab, Persian, or other Middle East art, but with local work reflecting the Batak tribal people. I wanted it and badly. I asked the price. When told it was $1,000, I walked away.


We came back two nights later and had another look carefully reviewing each page. I was salivating but he wouldn’t budge from the price. I told him we would be back after three days of visiting Sambas to the north. I told him we would return to our hotel and if he would adjust his price to leave a message.


In Sambas, I ran into a communication problem. I kept telling people I wanted to purchase Koran lama (very old Korans). They kept looking at me quizzically and I couldn’t understand what the problem was. Both of us did not know that Koran means newspapers and I was telling people I wanted to purchase very old newspapers instead of the holy book. I should have said al Koran! No wonder people kept handing me newspapers, I thought.


Returning, no message awaited us at the hotel desk. We walked back to the store and the owner was not there. We told the ladies we were still interested. She made a call and he returned on his motorbike 10 minutes later. We exchanged pleasantries and I told him of all the old Korans we had seen in Sambas (not, because all we saw were old newspapers) and his price was way out of line. I then proceeded to list all of the faults of the one I wanted.


I then offered $300. Stunned at the very low price, he countered at $800. We chatted some more about family and I went to $350. He made a phone call and dropped to $650 and said not a rupee less. Absolutely no way; I countered at $400. I said if he wanted to change his mind to contact me at the hotel. We would be leaving for Ngabang to pan for diamonds early in the morning. I got up from the stool and started to leave.


The price dropped to $550. I said $500, but only if we could get a few extra things from the store thrown in. He agreed. My wife chose four silver antique Malay bangles. We shook hands.


Did I get a good deal? Could I have gotten it lower? Is it a fake? I have no idea. Was it worth it? You can judge for yourself by checking eBay. I have an email with pictures into a buyer of old Korans in Switzerland and am awaiting a reply. I will let you know. Meanwhile, I have an ancient book for my collection that I really like.


 . . . . life is good


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