Tea has a special place in the heart of Toma Clark Haines. “The first time I went to the Paris Flea Market, 17 years ago, I was terrified,” she recounts. “It’s at the edge of the city, not in a great neighborhood. I was by myself, I didn’t speak French at the time, and I really wished I had a friend with me. But I found something I fell in love with.”
That something was an Empire tea pot, white with gold trim. And seven years later, when Clark started her antiques tour company, The Antiques Diva & Co., her beloved tea pot was incorporated into the logo design.
Sadly, after years of being part of her dining room décor, Haines lost the tea pot in a house fire. But her custom antiques tour service is still thriving, and this fall it’s expanded to offer locales that will be of particular interest to true tea lovers: Asia.
As of October, Antiques Diva tours are available in six Asian locales: Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Although these private shopping tours are designed for antique aficionados of all kinds, tea-related collectors have the opportunity to enjoy a customized tour that will focus on their specific areas of interest.
Angela Somwaiya oversees a staff of four guides for Antiques Diva’s Asian tours. No stranger to the world of antiques, Somwaiya lives in Bangkok and is the proprietor of Paul’s Antiques, a favorite gallery and restoration studio among diplomats and expats for its Burmese teak furnishings, Thai collectibles, and other Asian artifacts.
An expat herself for more than 20 years, by way of America, Somwaiya has spent enough time traveling Asia for her own business to foster relationships with everyone from the most prestigious dealers to private citizens, and she’ll be sharing her connections with the guests on her tour.
A typical tour begins with being picked up by the guide in a private car. Somwaiya says the day might include visits to collections at private homes, off-the-beaten-path shops and bustling markets, all with the guidance of one who knows the local culture and has insider tips to score the best finds. A can’t miss stop is at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the Bangkok version of the Paris Flea Market, where there are not only antiques but also stalls selling herbal teas and other goods. Diva guides will help translate, negotiate, and arrange for shipping. A stop for lunch is usually part of the tour, and it might end with a tea ceremony or cocktails.
Antiques Diva tours, which began in Europe, have become known among teaware collectors who are looking for the inside track on rare finds. From digging up hotel silver in France to enjoying cream teas (and picking up the necessities to recreate them at home) in the Cotswolds, U.K., Haines says that her guides often get requests for tea-focused stops. “We had clients from New Zealand who did wedding rentals,” says Haines. “They wanted to be able to stock up a whole inventory of English tea pots. In about 8 hours, we were able to help them buy 5,000 tea cups, tea pots, and creamers!”
Expansion into Asia is part of Haines’ long-term vision for her company. “We are the largest antiques touring company in Europe, with 21 local tour guides and eight countries,” she says. “But I have always wanted the company to be a global source.” Asia, she says, was a natural next step.
A Tea Lover’s Tour in Asia
“In general, the custom of tea drinking in Southeast Asian countries is influenced by Chinese and British culture,” notes Somwaiya. “In all of these countries, you can find Chinese and British tea sets made in a local style.”
Among the treasures to look for are antique Benjarong (“five-color”) painted porcelain, Celadon tea sets, Burmese silver tea sets, and beautiful serving trays embellished with lacquer, mother of pearl, bronze, and carved wood. In Laos, one might expect to find ornately carved rosewood tops for Chinese tea ceremonies, and Vietnam is a good source for Chinese porcelain tea sets. Vintage and antique textiles to be used as tablecloths at the tea table, would be another treasure to seek, particularly in Laos, which is known for its beautiful textiles.
Because the tours are private and entirely customized, the day could also include experiences like high tea at the antiques-filled Siam Hotel or at the Author’s Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel; a visit to the Elysian Tea House, or a tour of a tea plantation in Northern Thailand.
But undoubtedly, the opportunity to be invited into private homes to view and purchase antiques and collectibles, is one of the high points of any Antiques Diva tour. Haines says that in Bangkok, Diva guides have access to six or seven private homes. “That’s where you really get access to the culture,” she says. “You’re seeing the locals living with these items, interacting with them. When you’re on a tour it’s really like you’re with a friend, who introduces you to their friends.”
The cost of an Antiques Diva tour in Asia will vary since it is entirely customizable, but a party of two can expect to pay around $700 for the touring services. Clients, says Haines, might go on the tour just for the experience and end up buying nothing, or they could fill an entire container to ship back to the States. “For a lot of our clients, I suspect they’ll be looking for what I like to call ‘perfectly packables’—meaningful small items that can fit in a suitcase, that would serve as a memory of the day.”
To learn more about Antiques Diva’s tours, or to book a tour, visit AntiquesDiva.com.