Virtues and Vices of an Antiquarian
by G. Hernandez
I arrived at don Ramon's house on a Friday afternoon, after roving around the city for a while. Located in the heart of Guadalajara's Mexicaltzingo neighborhood, his place is the home of a true antiquarian. After the customary greetings and hand shakes, El Ruso, as he is known among friends, agreed to divulge the details of his life the virtues and vices of a man in the antiques business.
Sitting in his foyer, Ramon comments that he first got into the business by accident back in 1959. "I was still in school and selling combs by the San Juan de Dios market, trying to make enough to get by," he notes.
"Back then the bull fight ring, El Progeso, was still functioning in the area. The whole San Juan de Dios neighborhood was more interesting in those days, people from all walks of life would meeting there. After they built the Plaza Tapatia the old neighborhood changed."
"It was in the old San Juan de Dios," he says, "that I met this guy that everyone referred to as El Indio.' He used to sell old coins. Every day around two or three o'clock he'd pick up his things and say, Well, I've made my lick for the day (200 to 300 pesos),' and he'd leave. I never believed him, he was always badly dressed and never had a penny in his pocket."
"One day," continues Ramon, "a gentleman came looking for El Indio whose real name, by the way, was Salvador Serrano to sell him a handful of coins. Well, since Serrano had already left for the day, I asked the guy how much he wanted for the lot. He started at 40 pesos, but after dickering with him for a while, I managed to get him down to 15," Ruso says with satisfaction.
"Later that afternoon another fellow, Jesus Cerda, comes by looking for El Indio. This fellow says he buys old coins from him all the time and wanted to see what he had. Well, since El Indio had already left, and since I had just bought this little handful of silver from the other guy, I showed him what I had. He asked me what I wanted for them. I didn't know anything about coins back then, so taking a shot in the dark, I told him I'd go 100 pesos. He dickered me down to 80. That was a lot of money in those days."
"So, that's how I got started first with coins, then buying and selling keys, spurs and branding irons. Later, as I got more involved in the business, I started handling retablos, paintings, books and other stuff."
Ramon notes that he was then living in a place that was "just one notch above a homeless shelter." Hooked on buying and selling old coins, he remembered a jeweller, Salvador Hernandez, owner of the shop La Esterlina, who had a reputation for buying and selling gold and silver.
"I'd take my coins over to Salvador Hernandez, who had a shop on Javier Mina street, near the Hospicio Cabañas. He'd always pay me a very fair price. One day I took him some five centavo coins, minted in 1905. He paid me three pesos each for these, but I remembered that on prior occasions he had paid $25 each for the same coins. I was curious about the disparity. Hernandez explained to me that the coins he paid twenty-five pesos for had been minted at the Culiacan, Sinaloa treasury. Those coins have a little C stamped on them, indicating their origin. The ones he paid me three pesos for had a M on them, meaning they were minted in Mexico City. The Sinaloa coins were a special edition, so they are worth more."
Ramon was fascinated and eager to learn more. He convinced Hernandez to loan him one of his books on antique money. Ramon, with some difficulty, was able to get the publication translated to Spanish, and that's how he began studying numismatics.
"In this business of antiques," says Ramon, "one has to be honest. You might be able to beat' a client once or twice, but pretty soon they are going to catch on and start putting a bad word out about you. Then you're stuck with a rotten reputation and no one will buy from you. So, if you know what you're doing, if you study your reference books and deal honestly, well, you'll be set for life."
Ramon Alvarez, who was born in 1931 in El Grullo, Jalisco, adds, "It is possible to make a good living in the junk business.' I was able to put my children through school with my buying and selling. All my kids are professionals now one is a lawyer, another is in tourism, then there is a chemist, an architect and a public accountant. They all have successful careers in their fields."
El Ruso' was one of the founding fathers of Guadalajara's first weekly antiques flea market, El Trocadero. The market opened in 1989, thanks to his inspiration and that of Javier Torres Ladron de Guevara, who was then director of the city's modern art museum; Mario Collignon; Tony Piraino; Jaime Huerta; Rodolfo Santana and Luis Rivas de Alba.
He continues, "We would set up in front of Mario Collignon's place on Bernardo de Balbuena street. It started out with just seven spots. We would have a bottle of rum or tequila, snacks, play a few games of dominoes and buy and sell antiques. Towards the end, the place grew to accommodate 40 dealers."
"It was in 1995 that Alma Arias Hernandez, Guadalupe Moreno and Antola Ronovich approached city officials about finding a new spot for the market. They were given the Plaza de las Republicas to use once a week, which is where the market is currently located." The plaza is on Av. Mexico, in Guadalajara's pink zone, between Av. Americas and Chapultepec, just a few blocks from its original location. It runs every Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm, rain or shine.
Although some of the charm of the original Trocadero has been lost over the years, that same bohemian flair can still be enjoyed every Thursday evening in the foyer of Ruso's Mexicaltzingo home. Ramon hosts an informal weekly auction there, very similar in style to that of the old flea market.
Dealers each bring a few items to put on the block and prices are very accessible. Refreshments, snacks, lively conversation, tall tales and horse-trading abound. The evening event often lasts into the wee hours, and on a good night Ruso may even be inclined to belt out a few songs. For some real Guadalajara folklore, stop by Ramon's and join the fun. Tel. 3-613-1652