Objects Of Desire5 min read

People whose investment horizons are limited to the likes of stocks, real estate or gold may not give a second thought to amulets, but in Thailand it&#8217;s a flourishing trade with an estimated market value of 10 billion Baht.</p>

Collecting amulets and other sacred items is a centuries-old tradition, some of it founded on Buddhist religious beliefs, some of it linked to superstitions. In the past it was a low-profile activity but in recent years it’s become very mainstream.

Watcharapong Radomsittipat, a well-known amulet expert, says the trade is being fuelled by widespread media coverage _ radio, television, magazines and, more recently, websites that make news and information easily accessible to the general public and seasoned collectors.

There’s no denying, he adds, that the general unease in the country at the moment has people looking for hope in places they hadn’t looked before.

“The lack of happiness and confidence of people in society is a key factor driving them search for something divine, which they believe they can always depend on as it can take away their fear,” says Mr Watcharapong, who owns an amulet booth at the New World amulet center. He is also an owner of a magazine two websites.

According to Mr Watcharapong, there are now 20 to 30 websites that offer amulet information and e-auction or e-market services. His own two websites handle about 10 million baht worth of e-auction transactions per month, with as many as 100,000 items up for bid.

The amulet boom has spread into related businesses including coin manufacturing, amulet frame and container making and other fields. That’s good for the economy because it creates jobs, says Mr Watcharapong.

But he cautions that it should not get too commercialised. Collectors who really care about amulets should remember what attracted them in the first place, which is their spiritual value and the peace of mind amulets bring. “Things could get dangerous if people do it only for investment or speculative purposes.”Mr Watcharapong compares the concept of investing in amulets with an investment in stocks _ a fundamental approach is safe while price volatility is often the result of rumours or even manipulation by unscrupulous traders.

“The price in the market should reflect the true fundamentals of the sacred items. But if the price surges too high and too quickly, then it is probably be something like stock price manipulation.”

Yet, unlike stocks, there is no hard and fast rule to determine the price of amulets. There are no any mathematical approaches to determine future or target prices of amulets, which can often be totally unpredictable.

There are a number of cases, Mr Watcharapong says, in which prices have gone up by 1,000% or higher within just a year or a few years. “I once bought a Jatukarm-Ramathep (a well-known amulet) in 1995 at only 49 baht. Now, 12 years later, the price has gone up to over one million baht,” he says.

“However, many of my friends used to buy some amulets at prices that were too high, and then the prices took a nosedive after only a short while.”

One well-known collection, Benjapakee, used to command prices of five million baht or more but they fell by half during the economic crisis, he recounts.

Generally, older amulets are more costly than new issues. The most popular item among collectors today is Jatukarm-Ramathep, named for two great warrior kings of the Srivijaya Kingdom.

The amulets were created more than 20 years ago but they have lately attracted huge amounts of media attention for miracles claimed by their holders. The tales have fired the imaginations of the general public and celebrities alike.

“It’s a simple rule of demand and supply,” Mr Watcharapong says. “And the media play a big role in driving the demand in the market.”

Other factors affecting prices include the model, scarcity, beauty, condition, the ritual ceremonies performed to make an amulet sacred, and the popularity of the temples where the rituals are held.

“The ritual done to bless the items must be done by highly revered monks who are admired by a majority of Buddhist adherents. The more venerable and well-known the monks are, the higher the demand will be in the market. Likewise, the more well-known the temples are, the more popular the amulets will be.”

For the novice collector, however, it may take time to get a fix on what acceptable par value prices are for amulets.

One more caution is that there are a large number of counterfeit items in the market _ few amateur collectors can tell the difference. Charoen Prachuabchai, a 33-year-old grocery seller who has been an amulet enthusiast for the past six years, says that, like many beginners, he learned his lessons the hard way _ buying amulets at higher prices only to find out later that they were fake.

“That was only a loss of several thousand baht. Yet, I learned my lesson that I needed more time to study and get to know them better,” Mr Charoen says.

Today he has more than 50 amulets on his shelves at home, most of them the well-known Jatukarm-Ramathep models. One of them, acquired in 2004 for 300 baht, is worth more than 20,000 baht in the market now.

Mr Charoen says that the materials used to create amulets are also very important price determinants. The more special the material, the higher the price. For instance, some amulets are made of soil from holy lands, 108 types of filaments or bear’s canine teeth _ all can be set at high prices. Of course, the fewer copies there are of any item, the better the chances of price appreciation.

In the end, though, Mr Charoen says it’s not about money. The essence of amulets should be to help people calm their hearts and minds during times of trouble _ ” a guiding light in a tunnel,” he says with a smile.

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