Antique underworld offers above board space

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Underground space for wine storage at 'City Star' hotel a safe rendezvous for antique lovers and collectors

   Antiques on display at the City Star's wine cellar at 13 Bui Thi Xuan Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. The place opened to public in July. Displays will be changed every three months. Photos: Thien An/courtesy of Charming Vietnam

Since this July, retired police official Pham Long Phi has been a frequent visitor to the wine cellar of City Star Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

For Phi, it is virtually a weekly pilgrimage.

The cellar, which previously served as an underground parking lot for the two-star hotel on Bui Thi Xuan Street, was launched two months ago.

Phi, 61, is no connoisseur of wine. What attracts him is a collection of nearly 200 artifacts being displayed at the cellar, which is now serving as the "underworld of local antique collectors."

Last week, the Hung Yen native did not visit the cellar alone. He took along his friend Do Tuan Long, a 40-year-old bonsai artisan.

One of 21 antique collectors who have assisted in the launch of the cellar, Phi, vice president of the HCMC Antiques Association, has lent Nguyen Van Si, the hotel's owner, the best items from his collection for a three-month exhibition.

Phi's motivation in bringing Long along was not merely to show off to the latter his own collection of Vietnamese ceramic items dating back to 12th to 19th century, but to give his younger friend a "first glimpse" into the hobby itself.

"It is my first time here," Long told Vietweek. "I'm definitely interested in antiques, but I am not sure if should start collecting, it takes time and money and patience."

Long said he was amazed at the collection, including big, unique hoa nau (Vietnamese brown patterned ceramics) vases and jars dating back to Ly Dynasty (1009 1225) and Tran Dynasty (1225 1400); Nguyen Dynasty painted enamelware, stone and bronze weapons thousands of years old; silver conferment badges awarded to madarins, as well as Chinese porcelain artifacts.

All the items have been sorted into different categories and displayed in rows of glass cabinets with clear mentions of date, material, shape and owners'names. The owners are members of several antique collectors' associations and clubs around the country, including HCMC, Hai Phong, Hanoi and provinces in the central region.

Long also said he liked very much the warm, retro atmosphere at the cellar, which looks more like a mini museum than a place to store wine. The ambience is the work of Si's friends, Nguyen Anh Tuan, former antique exhibition expert at the city's Museum of History, and collector Hoang Thanh Trung, head of the Thien Truong Antiques Club in Hai Phong.

To get a feel of the sixties and seventies, the designers installed a system of light bulbs that give out a warm, yellow glow that is bright enough for visitors to enjoy and study the pieces closely if they wish.

Wine bottles have been placed below and beside the artifacts, while tea sets of different designs and shapes adorn wooden tables. Visitors can order tasty beverages and snacks while discussing the display.

Near the entrance next to a small bar, a CD player belts out hit songs of decades ago, completing the period picture.

This underground world is hidden behind a very heavy, thick brown black door, and only a small board to its right announcing Co vat - Ham ruou vang City Star  (City Star wine antiques - cellar) exposes its secret.

Long's interest in antiques deepened as his attention shifted from the artifacts and their charming settings to the stories and experiences narrated by Phi and other collectors.

Phi told Long how to evaluate an artifact as well as the difference between Vietnamese and Chinese ceramics.

"Chinese pottery looks like a very pretty city girl adorning herself with luxurious costumes and jewelry, whereas the Vietnamese one is a countryside beauty, who looks simple but charming," he said.

Phi's fascination with old ceramic items began when he saw a very special bowl owned by a street noodles seller near his house. The seller gave the dish to him after he ate his noodles and showed his appreciation for it.

Collector Mai Quoc Thang, 58, a Nam Dinh native and former police official, said: "To tell the truth, we Vietnamese should admit that our ceramic doesn't look as beautiful as the ones made by artisans from across the northern border, because our techniques and skills lag behind theirs.

"But we are still proud of hoa nau since it is unique, from its colors to its patterns."

Picking up a somewhat misshapen vase from the table which is covered with a red tablecloth, Phi showed the piece to Long and other collectors, saying: "Though the piece looks ugly, it is still valuable for it reflects the spirit and love of the artisan who made it hundred years ago."

"Antique collectors, we do not only focus on the outer beauty of the artifacts, but the inner one which is the story of its origin or how it was created. That's why products made by machine or mass manufactured should never be considered an antique no matter how old it is."

Stories around the table went on to news about thousands of ceramic artifacts found from old shipwrecks near the shore of the central province of Quang Ngai recently.

"Indeed, these are of second-rate quality and for commoners, not royal or madarin classes," Thang concluded, "But they still enrich our collection since they reveal the history of the country at a certain period in the past."

"˜Free classes'

In addition to the permanent display every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Nguyen Van Si, who initiated the cellar project, often invites collectors to sell and exchange their artifacts at his place to enhance their own collection.

Every Saturday and Sunday, people can bring their own items to the cellar, and leave their items on a table with red cloth near the entrance to see if people are interested in buying them.

"This [the cellar] and the weekend market are not for business, but a meeting, discussing place for all collectors, antique lovers, and those who have just started collecting to enrich both their knowledge in the field and their collection," said Si, who is often seen wearing a red D&G cap and trousers of bright, block colors, that give him a fresh, youthful look, in comparison with his aged business partners and collectors.

He is only 38, quite young compared to other antique collectors and traders, but as the Hai Phong City native has been a collector since his early 20s, he has the experience and the prestige to run this cellar for no profit, and to convince Phi and others to entrust their treasures to him.

Si, who also owns an antique shop on Le Cong Kieu Street in District 1, told Vietweek that local collectors and traders like him, especially new ones, typically face at least two obstacles to pursuing their hobby.

First, he said, the local antique market is very chaotic and it's hard even for experienced collectors to pick authentic items over fakes.

"The intuition as well as the skills to distinguish the real from the fake is not something one can learn in one or two days, it takes time. Many have paid a very high price, especially in their early collecting days, and they still have not "˜graduated'.

"I expect that the City Star wine cellar can provide "˜free classes' and a trustworthy place for both collectors and newcomers."

The second obstacle, Si said, is that Vietnam has few museums providing little space for exhibiting antiques, while there are many collectors with a big and diverse collection.

 "It's a waste and a loss if the collection is not disclosed to the public."

"Artifacts are like dear children to the collectors. Which parents on earth do not want to show off their kids?"

Moreover, once the collection is made known to the public, their value increases, and if the owner wants to sell one item or part of their collection, they can easily sell it directly to the right buyer at a higher price, Si said.

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