Small treasures

IT'S Friday, just before 5 a.m., in a small open square a mile southeast of the Tower of London. Lights flutter and dart through the first misty breath of October like butterflies caught strangely out of season. It could almost be a scene from an old black-and-white movie: ``The search is on. Shadows of figures silhouetted in the sweep of the flashlights. High on the moor...'' But no: This is Bermondsey Market in the heart of London - one of the capital's foremost antique markets, and the figures wrapped up against this early fall morning are dealers and collectors searching out the elusive bargain, or the pearl of great price.

On the south side of the square a small group has gathered around a man in a green overcoat who is pulling Oriental treasures from two boxes of scrunched-up newspaper. A tea bowl, a vase, a small lidded jar of exquisite beauty. I pick it up. It nests in my hand, its form perfect.

``Sixty pounds,'' he says, in a gentle monotone, quietly producing another blue and white wonder for the school of small hands hovering around the edge of the stall. I have no way of telling if it is a bargain. Already a man is looking over my shoulder, a man whose experience might answer the question for him.

At 7 o'clock, when the second wave of visitors - more casual - comes with first light, I might have asked him to tell me more. At 5 it's profes-sionals; patient, but expert. The question remains un-asked. I know it will be gone by 7, but I came to look for photographs.

I put it down, move off, and the man over my shoulder picks it up....

Later another collector of photographs gives me his card. ``I started like you,'' he smiles, ``and I've been coming here for over 30 years.''

It occurs to me that we are not drawn here merely by bargains. There are other markets for that. We have come by torchlight to reverence two things: the skill of our forefather craftsmen and a man who can pick up a small lidded jar of exquisite beauty and pay 60, knowing its worth.

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