A set of two Kendy jars, containers for holy water from stone Shivalingas in Champa temples from the 6th century, is on display at the Da Nang Museum. The set is believed to be the only one in Vietnam.
Antique collectors are usually possessive about their collection and generous with sharing their passion.
They are getting a rare chance to do the latter as Da Nang Museum in the central coastal city exhibits, for the first time, some 200 antiques belonging to nine private collectors. The antiques are from the Champa Kingdom and several Vietnamese royal dynasties.
“We hope that Da Nang organizes at least one exhibition like this every year so the public can enjoy these antiques. It will help promote antique collection as a trend and thus preserve our culture,” said Duong Thai Binh, one participant collector.
The nine collectors, from Da Nang City and nearby provinces of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Nam, said their items cannot be compared to those in northern or southern Vietnam either in volume or value.
But they are still significant because antique collection has never been a tradition in the region and there are very few people that they can learn from, they said.
Binh is a veteran among antique collectors in Da Nang and central Vietnam, with more than 40 years in the game. He said he caught the passion and gained knowledge from a friend who has since passed away.
He has brought to the exhibition seven Japanese pottery bottles from the 19th century.
Binh owns several hundred items, most of them pottery from the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties, Japan, Champa and the Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945). He also has several bronze and stone artifacts.
The items cost him up to VND100 million (US$4,800) each and he bought most of them when he was earning a good income as a shipping service provider.
But some of the collectors did not have much money to start with.
Ngo Huu Toan began collecting antiques 15 years ago after his employer went bankrupt and he spent all his savings on a car to carry tourists around Hue. While doing so, he came across antique shops and was hooked.
But Toan took a different tack in piling up his own collection.
He went to scrap metal dealers in remote areas, looking for items people used in daily life, not royal paraphernalia.
He started with an old pipe, an old mirror, an old betel nut set, pottery bowls and plates, and some bronze statues. Now he has several hundred items.
Toan kept his habit a secret for a while, but eventually, he had to admit to his wife the reason their tourist car service was not bringing in as much money as others in the area.
His wife said she was not happy when he refused to sell some of his items at times the family was in financial trouble.
But she said she “surrendered” after seeing him staying up whole night just to read about antiques on the Internet or sitting for hours staring at one.
Toan has contributed to the exhibition a pottery Cham pipe and a bronze pipe from Dong Son culture, a Bronze Age period in Vietnam, and sets of slaked lime containers used for betel chewing by Cham people – items dating back to between 10th and 13th centuries.
“They give people today some ideas about the daily life of our ancestors,” he said.
Huynh Van Hoa of Hoi An does not have much money to fund his habit either, but being a former museum expert, he found it difficult to let some items go.
He has brought to the exhibition a pottery vase considered to be the only one of its kind in Vietnam. To buy this, he had borrowed gold from his friends and family. The bottle was fished out in 1997 along with many other items from a sunken Portuguese boat.
It was among many items of Chu Dau pottery, a famous Vietnamese pottery style developed in the north between the 13th and 18th centuries.
But the bottle drew more interest than usual from Hoa as the enamel was intact thanks to the sea water, and it was engraved with four words about the wind and sun instead of images of birds as is usual with most Chu Dau pottery.
Hoa said other Chu Dau vases have not been found in such good condition, and collectors only have pieces. He has refused to sell the vase many times, even to those from the village that used to make Chu Dau pottery .
Other than the vase, Hoa has few other antiques.
“I saw many, I knew they were precious. But I could not afford to keep them.
“It was depressing to see the antiques go away,” he said.
Hoa is not the only collector who has had to see precious antiques go.
“Sometimes it’s enough already that you can come and just see it with your eyes,” said Truong Hoai Tuyen, a coin collector in Da Nang.
Tuyen has more than 200 kilograms of coins including more than 20 that Vietnamese kings awarded people as a medal these days. But he has curtailed his collecting habit recently since he no longer earns much of an income.
He exhibits a part of his coin collection at the exhibition, and has donated a 9th century Cham pottery jar to the museum.
Whether they are rich or poor, passion is the main thing that keeps collectors in the game.
Pham Phu Khanh from the neighboring Quang Nam Province has gone even beyond passion.
He literally worships his antiques. He has embedded four ancient plates in the wall of his family’s altar.
“Any piece of antique contains some spiritual and historical value, so we need to respect them, treasure them,” he said.
Khanh has been collecting Vietnamese and Chinese pottery, and those of the Oc Eo culture that dates back to between the 1st and 7th centuries.
At this time, many Chinese pottery items were made manually on order of Vietnamese Nguyen kings during their visits to China.
Vietnamese kings brought back such pottery for 400 years from the Later Le dynasty (1428–1527), but collectors say the most beautiful ones were from the Nguyen dynasty.
Khanh is exhibiting six Chinese pottery items ordered by Vietnamese kings at the show, including two octagonal vases.
‘The King of Cham relics’
While most collectors at the exhibition have been focusing on Chinese products, Ho Anh Tuan is a Champa man, a devotion that has earned him the nickname “The King of Cham relics.”
Tuan feels “Chinese relics are mostly for spiritual comfort, but Champa relics are a source for scientific, spiritual and cultural research.”
He wants to preserve Cham relics also because they were made manually, not mass produced, and are very few in number.
Tuan is well positioned to pursue his passion. He has money and collecting antiques is a family tradition, with his grandfather and father having dabbled in them.
With more than 2,000 artifacts, Tuan is said to have the most complete collection relating to the Champa kingdom (192-1832). Many items that date back to the 4th and 5th centuries are intact.
One notable item is a set of two Kendy jars, containers for holy water from stone Shivalingas in Champa temples.
They are the only Kendy set known to have been found in Vietnam so far.
Other items include a “raw gold” Ganesha statue standing on a skull, a set of musical instruments, a pen dating back 2000 years, a royal golden mask and a pair of earrings of six ounces of gold that Tuan paid for with ten times the gold.
Tuan is now busy preparing to open his private Champa museum.
He got the idea after he heard foreign visitors in the area expressing their wish to learn more about Champa life and culture after they visited the My Son, a cluster of partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century by the Champa kings in south central Vietnam.
The Da Nang event also showcases Nguyen Dinh Bang’s 11 swords from the Tay Son period, the time of peasant rebellions and decentralized dynasties between 1788–1802, when peasant leader Nguyen Hue became King Quang Trung after defeating the Siam and Qing invaders. He deposed the Nguyen and Trinh lords who held the real power under the Le Dynasty.
Bang gifted the swords to the museum, and Phan Luan has done likewise with his Khmer wooden canoe, nearly nine meters long, that is believed to have been made from a tree at least 300 years old.
The two gifts are among 54 antiques at the exhibition that the collectors have bequeathed to the museum.
Bang said the donations show the collectors’ gratitude for being introduced to the public after years of hard work.
“The exhibition doesn’t have many items that are unique worldwide, but it is an event of significance for local private collectors.
“We feel recognized and respected,” he said.
Nguyen Ba Lan donated a 1945 calendar, the last year of Nguyen Dynasty, saying another reason for his gift was that he wanted to help the young Da Nang museum develop.
Prof. Le Thanh Lan, a renowned calendar expert, says this item is “especially rare.”
Lan said the calendar is more detailed than those kept at the Han Nom Research Library which gathers the country’s important documents in Chinese and old Vietnamese languages.
It has two pages listing 24 “qi” days, each matching a particular astronomical event or signifying some natural phenomenon.
Several months are listed in a longer column as they have national festival days highlighted in red color.
The calendar also marks the death anniversaries of kings and lords in the dynasty, considered bad days during which people should limit their activities.
Huynh Dinh Quoc Thien, head of the research and collection section at the Da Nang Museum, said the scale of the exhibition is small, but “it is a very big milestone in local cultural preservation activities.”
The exhibition is open at the Da Nang Museum, 24 Tran Phu Street, Hai Chau District until January 15, 2013. The museum is open on all days except Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
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By Vu Phuong Thao, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the December 7th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)