The Universe of Everything: Chile’s Biggest Antiques Centre

The word ‘stuff’ can be applied in pretty loose terms but in this vast warehouse they seem to have nailed the definition. It is literally piled from floor to ceiling with stuff. Retro jukeboxes stand next to life-size marble statues of the Virgin Mary, while a Sphinx replica is perched on top of a mahogany table the size of my flat and surrounded by luscious fronds. There are dazzling chandeliers, immense grandfather clocks and children’s go-karts from another age. This is the Centro Comercial Balmaceda-Brasil, Santiago’s most fascinating antiques market, and the only one of its size in Chile.

 Lights and lamps
Lights and lamps

At first glance, the gaudy pink galpon next to the main road offers little in the way of interest but step inside and a whole new world opens up. It is one of two buildings in Santiago, along with the Estación Mapocho, designed by Gustave Eiffel, the French architect whose other works include a little-known tower in Paris. It began life as a terminal and garage for the city’s train and tram network, then for buses, before becoming a centro comercial in the sixties. It is over one hundred years old and, despite its rickety appearance, has remained standing through earthquakes, political upheaval and ‘progress’ (demolishing old buildings to make way for apartment blocks).

There are over 200 locales that make up Balmaceda-Brasil, some specialist, others haphazardly random, and the rest somewhere in between. The proprietors also oversee the market itself, giving them all an equal input into its management, and keeping it free from corporate takeover. One of these dueños, Antonio Melivilu, has worked here for over forty years and is a voice of authority on the centre.

 Typical aisle inside the galpon
Typical aisle inside the galpon

He is very clear about one thing in particular. “This is not a feria, it is a commercial centre”, he says, which seems to be fair comment given the long residency of those who work here. “I started off selling clothes here when it sold more general goods, but we changed to furniture and ornaments in the Eighties. There is nowhere else like this in the country”, he states proudly.

There is a gentle flutter rather than a swarm of people ambling through the many aisles of the galpon. Is the slight out-of-the-way location a hindrance sales-wise? “People often come here when they want something in particular”, says Don Antonio. “I also rent things out to TV or film companies who use them on their sets. For example, if they need a wardrobe or whatever for a period drama they know they can find it here”.

The set of just about any popular film could be recreated here. There’s the Victorian elegance of the Titanic’s ballroom, the retro yet futuristic vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the classical tones of an ancient Greek temple. The sheer contrasts on display throughout Balmaceda-Brasil make simply browsing around, an event in itself. The imposing grandeur of majestic four-poster beds with velvet drapes or of eighty-piece porcelain tea sets is offset by the light relief of Japanese toy robots, table football or, for the slightly older child, the 1978 Playboy annual.

 Entrance to the Centro Comercial
Entrance to the Centro Comercial

It is not only Chileans who part with their pesos in Balmaceda-Brasil. “We get a few foreigners here who want a special souvenir of Chile”, says Don Antonio. “Obviously it’s difficult for them to take furniture out of the country but we sell some smaller items, although most of them don't know about us because there's little publicity".

He laughs at my surprise when I learn of his age. He’s 84 but seems at least fifteen years younger. His long years are belied by his constant dashes along the many passages of the galpon. “You have to stay fit here because you’re always on your feet and lifting things”, he explains. It is then that some customers appear and Don Antonio takes off again, just another day in the Centro Comercial Balmaceda-Brasil.

Centro Comercial Balmaceda-Brasil: Antiguedades Parque Los Reyes
Avenida Brasil 1157
Tel: (02) 688 1348

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