Vietnam urged to take back royal treasures from France

Thanh Nien News

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Preservationists in Vietnam's former imperial capital of Hue have asked the government to get back a beloved emperor's bed and rickshaw amid last-minute efforts by the French to keep them.
The items once belonged to King Thanh Thai (1879 – 1954) -- the tenth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) -- Vietnam’s last ruling family -- who was dethroned and banished for resisting French colonial powers.
Tuoi Tre reported that the Hue Relic Preservation Center sent a request to the Thua Thien-Hue Province government and the Ministry of Culture on June 16, asking them to find ways to retrieve the king’s bed and a rickshaw he commissioned for his mother.
Thanh Thai, who ruled from 1889 to 1907 and was known as a patriotic king who was one of three rulers -- including his predecessor Ham Nghi and his son Duy Tan -- to be exiled for opposing the French colonial government.
The Hue center said the bed was likely made for him as a prince and he continued to use it during his rule.
The rickshaw was made of rare trace hardwood and inlaid with mother of pearl.
Research suggests that the king transferred his assets to his chief French guard, Prosper Jourdan in a note written prior to his banishment in 1907.
Historian Duong Trung Quoc informed the Hue center that Jourdan’s children were selling the items at an auction in France on June 13.
Although those children also wanted the items to be returned to Vietnam, France has launched an unlikely last-minute effort to keep them.
The rickshaw, for which Thua Thien-Hue Province made the winning bid of 55,800 euros ($76,000) at the auction is now being sought by the Guimet Asian Arts Museum in Paris.
Katia Mollet, a representative of the museum, said that at the end of the auction the French government offered to buy the cart for the same price, citing auction priority for the host country under French law.
The bed, however, was purchased by Ta Van Quang, a relative of King Thanh Thai, for 124,000 euros ($168,000).
He has agreed to have it brought to Vietnam, Vietnam's ambassador in France Duong Chi Dung said in a letter to the center.
Phan Thanh Hai, director of Hue Relic Preservation Center, said the provincial government agreed to chip in $50,000, the value estimated by experts and antique dealers, to buy the items.
Vietnam's embassy in France raised another 10,000 euros ($13,560) from the Vietnamese community.
Two Vietnamese French, who are residing in France, agreed to represent Vietnam at the auction.
Hai participated in the auction at Rouillac in Tours via telephone.
Rouillac has yet to decide if it should sell the rickshaw to the Hue Relic Preservation Center or the Guimet.
Dung said the embassy will ask to meet with the chairman of the Guimet and French government agencies to argue on the center’s behalf.
“The results will be reported to Vietnam in detail,” he said.
Prof. Phan Huy Le, chairman of Vietnam Association of Historical Sciences, said Vietnam can campaign through influential French scientists and cultural experts.
He said a lot of Vietnamese treasures including antiques, documents and paintings remain overseas – in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and the US.
“I very much wish for a big campaign to gradually bring those items back to Vietnam,” Le said, adding that the government needs to focus on stressing their legal claims to the items, many of which may have been stolen during wartime.
Hai of the Hue center said Vietnam has lost many of its most precious cultural items to overseas auctions due to a lack of both money and information.
At one auction in Paris in November 2010, the Déclin du jour (Decline of day) painting by King Ham Nghi (1872-1943), the eighth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, who reigned 1884-1885 and was exiled to Algeria in 1888, was purchased by an unidentified individual who bid 8,800 euros ($11,900) via telephone.
A Vietnamese woman named To Nga stopped at 8,600 euros.

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