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No Appraisal Needed for a Rewarding Career; Nathan Lauer ’97

The winter air is frigid just outside the Gobi Desert in China and southern Mongolia. Two square blocks of concrete slabs and metal awnings house rows and rows of eager merchants. They call out in English hawking antiques above the sound of the dusty wind. The avid collector could find something truly remarkable if he or she looked hard enough. If you do, you might also find Nathan Lauer ’97.

Lauer buys and sells antiques from Asia for Mandalay Road Trading Company, a business started by Lauer and his parents in Bainbridge Island, Wash. He has collected Chinese artifacts from approximately 4 B.C. to the 19th century. Some of his Vietnamese pieces date back more than 1,000 years.

While Mandalay Road’s success has a lot to do with the Lauer family’s foreign connections (Lauer’s father was in the military and collected antiques abroad), he says he has a very good sense of what he wants. When trying to make a buy, Lauer calls it an “inter-cultural tap-dance … You can easily get taken in if you don’t know what you are looking for or you are too polite,” he says.

When he goes abroad, Lauer’s favorite place to explore is Beijing’s “dirt market.” It was there he found a Mandarin Square featuring a five-clawed dragon from the 19th century. A Mandarin Square is a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an imperial Chinese official indicating his rank, and the five-clawed dragon is an image exclusively used by the imperial family.

The young collector speaks a spattering of French and a moderate amount of Chinese. But, he finds it an advantage to be an American. “[Merchants] assume I’m a tourist and that I don’t know what I’m looking at,” he says.

One merchant tried to sell him a brush pot, a pot used by artists to clean their paint brushes. The pot was made of chicken wing, a type of wood assessed as the third most valuable in China. However, the man asserted that the wood was zitan, the most valued wood. “I looked at him and laughed,” says Lauer. “About 10 to 15 other people in the market started laughing when I told him what it really was.”

The embarrassed merchant sold Lauer the then depreciated pot for $15. Later, after the value was more accurately assessed and researched, Lauer sold the brush pot for $400. But it’s not always that simple.

“Anything over $400-$500 has to be proved,” he says. Lauer spent six months researching the marks that lichen roots made on a set of stone panels. “My friend thought they were 13th century but I knew they were 16th century,” he says. “Just because someone says that’s what it is doesn’t mean that is what it is.” Lauer had a hunch that the piece was from the 16th century. It was just a matter of proving it.

“My history degree trained me for the research,” says Lauer, who transferred to Albright from George Mason University. “Dr. deSyon really mentored me.”

Lauer is still using his Albright ties to help the research process. Because a scientific approach is so important to achieve credibility in his field, he recently contacted Albright biology professor C. Susan Munch to help him research an unidentified substance on the pair of sandstone panels.

While he and Munch were unable to identify the substance, Lauer’s hunch, that the panels were 16th century, was correct. And the lichen root proved it.

– Kellie Connors ’07

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