India 1986

Every tourist knows that souvenir and antique dealers are going to try and rip them off. Don’t they? The bearded stranger seemed to know: when I asked him about his weird sandals he didn’t say ‘I bought them in Riyadh’. He told me, pointedly, that ‘I negotiated half-price for them in Riyadh’.


He wandered around my warehouse, on the outskirts of Jodhpur, and asked about a shield. It was old, silver colour, etched with the name of Shi’a martyrs and with a lucky number grid. He didn’t believe me when I said the boss was made of silver. Fair enough. I doubted he really wanted it, so I gave him a very over-inflated price just to find out what he really wanted. Sure enough he then asked about a chest. ‘Nicely painted wedding scenes;’ I told him, ‘traditional Rajasthani wooden dowry chest - and Rajasthan is the best traditional art in the whole of India.’ It was, I said, nineteenth century and made for a village chief.

He bargained over the chest for a while. I insisted on dollars: I knew he could only get 19 rupees for a dollar whereas I could get close to 40. He knew I’d benefit from the exchange rate, so I did go down in price quite a bit. Then he walked away. A brave tourist tactic, that one, because tourists aren’t usually in one place very long.

He came back on a bike the next day. When he greeted me I showed him the chest. It was all wrapped up. Because, I told him, of the quality and rarity, a museum in Delhi had ordered it and it would leave that afternoon – unless he really did want it. I agreed to let him have the shield ‘for free’ and he handed over the money for the chest. The trick had worked: did he not wonder why the museum, having confirmed an order after his last visit, would be so willing to accept a cancellation?