Çukurcuma is like a coin you find in the pocket of a pair of pants you haven’t worn for a long time - it’s a surprise, the treasure chest of Istanbul. And, with memories and stories, it’s always in circulation!
Looking at the showcases and the precious belongings displayed in them, I walk around the streets of Çukurcuma, a district transformed into a center of attraction thanks to antique dealers and shops that sell secondhand commodities. Some objects pull me into the shop where the scents of wood, paper, and metal mix. I focus my attention so as not to miss even the smallest detail among the collections of goods. The district was once frequented by junk collectors; now, the trade of common and cheap goods has been replaced by the exchange of antiques and old decorative objets d’art. Çukurcuma has become a meeting place for old belongings brought from all across the world.
The district's antique dealers are very experienced and knowledgeable. In other words, they’re like “living libraries.” Their every word is laden with new information and memories as they are familiar with objects from all branches of art and periods. Their shops offer shelter to many objects from furniture to paintings, medallions to precious manuscripts. The eyes of the shopkeepers here are looking for an aesthetic pleasure in every item. And when they find it, they can talk about it for hours. They’re knowledgeable about not only the artistic and aesthetics value of the objects, but also about details such as their origin, production technique, and material. Their shops are a feast for the eyes and the heart! By talking to the antique dealers in Çukurcuma, one sees both the past and the present, and always learns new things.
When I turn into Çukurcuma Camii Street right next to Muhittin Molla Fenari Mosque, I see the word “Tombak” on the left-hand sign before the corner. Frequented by all visitors of the district and established in 1975, the shop is like a laboratory of secondhand commodities run by Mehmet Kösedağ and his assistant Naciye Sepet. Kösedağ is from a family of antique dealers with a collection of his own while his shop is filled with all kinds of treasures. He and his assistant are like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson! He shows us the pocket knives under the glass top display table and says, “I have more of these downstairs, but I don’t have the space to display them.” He lifts a nearby stack of papers, revealing a collection of small bells with silver handles, and others made of ivory or porcelain. One of his rarest collections focuses on mouse traps. He also loves pietra dura bird paintings made using hard stones. He advises antique or vintage enthusiasts to buy only the things that excite them. “Don’t just buy it for the sake of buying it. Every item you buy has a history, and you’re the one to keep it alive. Buy it if you can preserve it.”
Karadeniz Antik, guarded by marble lions, resembles the entrance of an ancient city surrounded by greens. It’s housed in a building that is hard to miss in Çukurcuma. Ömer Gençtürk moved to Istanbul in 1994 and opened this shop to turn his passion for antiques into a profession. He’s especially intent on collecting vintage objects that reflect the Black Sea culture. The handmade cymbals on one of the walls of his store put on a silent performance. “I know which one is made where and when, just by its sound,” he says and adds, “I love the artistry of handicrafts, and there’s no way to compare them. Even a primitive house item can impress you more than a painting by Picasso.” The six-story building resembles a museum rather than an antique shop! As we climb the stories filled with thousands of objects and paintings from various periods, I suddenly see a painting by Fikret Muallâ; its unhampered colors fill my eyes.
Hikmet Mizanoğlu greets me at the wonderland named after himself at Erol Taş Çıkmazı cul-de-sac on Faik Paşa Street. The surrounding statues, porcelains, books, paintings, and vintage furniture give us a sense of being in an exhibition. Mizanoğlu was very inspired by the travels her father and she made to ancient cities and archaeological sites when she was a kid. Following her studies at Boğaziçi University, she graduated from Istanbul University Department of Art History and Archaeology. She then decided to put her knowledge and experience to professional use and thirty years ago, became an antique dealer. She utilizes her know-how to pick Ottoman, French, and Italian items and personally informs people who might be interested in them. Believing that knowledge is the key characteristic for both parties in this business, Mizanoğlu describes the works of calligraphy as her “dears” and adds, “I really enjoy collecting and keeping the finest examples of this art form.” She also offers a golden rule for antique enthusiasts: “Whether you’re buying or selling, knowledge is the only thing you need! If you’re not informed enough, then you have to rely on the trust which gradually forms between the seller and the buyer. In this business, you have to make sure that the door you knock is never closed.”
Şamdan Antique, Sonay Özön’s antique shop right at the beginning of Altıpatlar Street that connects Çukurcuma to Cihangir, strikes your eyes with its magnificent showcase. Having graduated from Mimar Sinan University Department of Industrial Product Design, Özön has been presenting enthusiasts with furniture and objets d'art from the 1930s to the 1970s at his store in Çukurcuma since 1990. Art Deco furniture is especially precious to him for its function, manufacture technique, and variety of materials. Today, those looking for Art Deco furniture or objects always find their way to Şamdan Antique. Özön collects most of his inventory from Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia. He’s proud to see his items drawing attention from both Turkish buyers and foreign visitors in Turkey.
One does not realize how time passes while exploring the antique dealers and vintage shops in Çukurcuma. While the shops are filled with the yellowish romantic light of the evening, I leave the district with many artifacts on my mind. I know that for some days I will be dreaming of the eye of the nightingale, drawers inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Chinese porcelains, and bindallı, women’s garments decorated with embroidery depicting tree branches or floral patterns.