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Monday, January 4, 2016

The Mother of All Trash-Treasures

I have written before (here and here, for example) about my passion for trash both on a professional level (what it reveals about a culture's values) and on a personal level (treasure-hunting memories with my dad!).  Today I shall report specifically on furniture treasures -- and the best trash EVER.

In some ways, the Korean trash system is far superior to what I've seen in the US.  Here, thanks to a 20-year-old national law, folks pay for their trash by weight/size via special trash bags available at any grocery or convenience store. This approach strongly encourages people to recycle and to put food scraps in designated bins outside every residential building.  In other ways, though, Korea is a far more wasteful society then the US because there is virtually no consumer market for used items (#missingGoodwill).  Perhaps this is because secondhand items are a sensitive reminder of post-war poverty and famine.  Add to that some a Confusion/Buddhist value system that frowns on taking things from one’s “dirty” home to a new/clean one, and you get a LOT of perfectly good furniture piling up (note: you have to buy trash stickers for these items, but it's only a few bucks).

True, it's pretty shameful in Korea (even more than in the US) to hunt through the trash (except for elderly box-collectors, who roam the streets with overloaded carts to make a little money selling cardboard to scrapyards).  Even so, my beloved TA's reaction to my particular hobby  (despite her support of all things green and vegan)  was telling.  When I suddenly pulled our van to the edge of the road and hopped out to grab a lovely wooden picture frame, she was stunned (of the full mouth-hanging-open kind).  “Professor!!!”  she breathlessly exclaimed, with eyes very wide.  I felt my father’s grin steal over my face, and I made a great bulletin board out of that frame that hangs in my bedroom.

To be sure, most modern Korean furniture is made of pressed sawdust and plastic laminate (faux wood grain), which is pretty horrible (but it "looks Western" which in Korea means "good").  I have quickly learned that such dreck is not worth salvaging.  But despite the heaps of cheap furnishings, I have found worthwhile stuff to use, sell, or give away.  Here are some recent examples:

Elisabeth and I found a lovely wooden dresser
to replace David's plastic one. After watching us
struggle for awhile to lift this monster, a Korean man (out for a smoke break)
took pity on us and helped load it into the van.  :) 

Huge framed art for the 5th floor hallway! A very traditional Korean work with trees and a tiny
Buddhist temple tucked into the mountainside.

Some western-style Art for the lobby.
And lovely found pots grow bamboo in our hallway.

And a giant kimchi pot - it was cracked and no longer useful for fermenting.
But for Christmas decorating in our building's lobby?  Perfect.
So we've found lots of good things we can resuse or pass on to others.  But last week -- oh the bliss! -- we found the Mother of all Treasures. These three Korean antiques date from the post-war period (1950-1960s) and feature elaborate, hand-crafted mother-of-pearl (abalone) designs inlaid in black lacquered wood.  We saw the mirror and vanity/dressing table first, when we got out of the van to visit friends in a nearby high-rise.  I forced our family back to the trash pile and made them help load it into the van.  Then I spotted a matching pair of  bridal chests  Oh my heart!  Nick and friend Josh nicely drove the mirror/vanity back to our place and then returned to load up the two chests.  Even the kids didn't complain about being rather squished on our drive home and now we LOVE THEM (the furniture, I mean.  Not the kids.  Oh, wait, yes - I love them too, of course).

Here they are.  

Black lacquer mirror and vanity stand with inlaid mother-of-pearl. 
Vintage Korean furniture 40+ years old.
I found it in the trash. 

A pair of black lacquer vintage Korean mother-of-pearl (abalone) inlaid bridal chest.
We're using them as coffee tables and storage.
Did I mention that we found these in the trash?

Detail of a chest door; I love the subtle color variations
in this thumb-sized bird and can't imagine the patience it
took to create even this little section..

Detail: knob on the table/bridal chest

Birds and forest animals are the primary themes on these pieces.

Did we win the Dumpster Find of the Year or WHAT??  Oh, yeah.  I win.  I'm the dumpster MASTER! :)


  1. You always win in my book :-). Go trash!!!!! Go SBL!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Great find! they are beautiful!

  3. Wonder what they would be worth on Antique Roadshow, Hmmm. They are beautiful!, and what fun too.

  4. Holy Cow. I too found 2 of these sitting next to a dumpster. I couldn't believe someone would throw them out. These have the EXACT mother of pearl design but the doors are a little different. Instead of the two smaller doors on the side, there are just 4 full size doors (like your 2 center doors) on each of the 2 I have found. The only issue with them is that one of the doors was missing the knob and I've been searching for years for a replacement. How cool.


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