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Artisan Vu Kim Loc had his most hair-raising experience seven years ago when he received two wheat flour sacks from the National Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi.
The bags contained thousands of dull gemstones and gold items mixed with mud, dust and the saliva of woodeaters.
Loc, who had helped restore several artifacts made of gold over the past 20 years, including a traditional golden hat of the Cham people, was now given a task turned down by several senior local goldsmiths before him.
He had been asked to restore four Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945) imperial crowns with some 2,100 details.
“Despite my 20-year experience as goldsmith, I could not figure what I was going to do with the stuff. I did not even know the names of some details,” Loc said.
Unlike Western-style royal crowns which are made of precious metals and stones, those worn by Vietnamese royalty used gold, pearls and other gemstones along with decomposable materials including leather, tortoise-shell and best quality fabric for their frames.
The work to restore the crowns was almost a mission impossible for Loc and the museum’s staff. The crowns, with nothing left but the messy golden details, had been kept in the worst condition by the Central Bank since 1961 before being handed back to the museum in 2007.
The four crowns are among nearly 3,000 artifacts of the Nguyen royal collection, handed over together with imperial seal and sword by Emperor Bao Dai when he abdicated to the new provisional republican government in 1945 at the height of the August Revolution. Some parts of the collection were lost during the war.
The new, independent government, because of the financial crisis it was in as well as the French attack during the First Indochina War that forced it to flee the capital, wanted to use the collection into the public treasury to meet war expenses, but all such proposals were turned down by President Ho Chi Minh, who argued the collection represents the country’s history and culture that should be preserved.
After the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the royal items were kept by the Ministry of Finance before handed over to the Ministry of Culture, which entrusted them to the Museum of History.
However, in 1961, the royal seal used by empress Nam Phuong was stolen when it was first exhibited together with other artifacts, so the government decided to move the collection to the warehouse of the central bank.
“We assume that as war tooks years, the collection, including the four crowns were thrown into a depot or a cave where they were destroyed by woodeaters, yet the person in charge had made no report about the collection’s condition. Rather, they put the rest into the sacks,” said Nguyen Thi Huong Thom, head of the museum’s Department of Technique and Preservation. “Thanks to details like dragons and front-head decorations, we could still recognize the Nguyen Dynasty hats.”
Ancestors’ marvelous gold-smithery
After nearly half a century, both Thom and Pham Quoc Quan, who was director of the museum when it received the artifacts from the bank and initiated the restoring project, admitted that even in their dreams, they didn’t expect that one day they could see the crowns with their own eyes. And what they saw in reality was beyond their wildest dreams since they could never imagine the artifact in such a bad condition.
Sack number one contained just one crown, whereas the second has 1,400 details of three, built in different periods and wornt by different emperors. Of the four, one was called binh thien (keeping the peace on earth) and was put on by the emperor during in a heaven-worshipping ceremony in the former royal citadel of Hue in the central province of Thua Thien–Hue. The rest were xung thien hats or cuu long (nine dragons) crowns worn by Nguyen emperors in general court at the Thai Hoa Palace in the citadel.
Quan, who approached Loc later for help, said several factors impeded restoration work. The crowns had lost their own frames. Sufficient documentation on making royal regalia in Vietnam was not available. There was no precedent to such restoration work.
Loc, who finally took the courage to work on the stuff two weeks after Quan sent it to him, found himself admiring the skills of those who had made the crowns.
“The items are a perfect combination of different handicrafts practiced by the top, best royal craftsmen at that time,” he said. For instance, while the smallest items that modern goldsmiths can make is of 0.25 millimeter thick, scales on dragon body, delicate fire clouds attached to the crowns by spiral springs, are only 0.1 millimeter thick, he said.
With the nation recently losing several of its cultural treasures to dubious, ill-conceived restoration work, Quan and his team did not want to take any “false step.” They sent people to other provinces and even abroad to get more clues and guidance on the task they had undertaken.
A statue of Emperor Khai Dinh (1885–1925) wearing his royal regalia, including a nine-dragon crown, in Khai Dinh Tomb, a photograph of Khai Dinh wearing a binh thien crown, as well as a portrait of Emperor Dong Khanh (1864–1889) were used as the base for the restoration work.
Tran Duc Anh Son, former director of the Hue Royal Antiquities Museum in the former feudal capital of Hue, said that thanks to documents and records containing regulations on costumes worn by royal families and officials in the past, the style, decorations and colors that people of different ranks had to use were known. This helped the team trace the origins of the crowns as well as their original details, he said.
According to Loc, the hardest job was to build the crown frame, which had to be based on the size of belt and fringe along its base, and the bac son for the peak. The experts made 56 samples with spongy moss before making the right size for each crown.
It was also difficult to decide which material was suitable for the crown’s body where the golden decorations were to be attached.
Copper wires 0.26 millimeter thick were chosen and woven before being painted in black.
“Welding broken gold parts was most stressful,” recalled Loc, “because if we didn’t pay enough attention, the heat might melt details like the dragon heads which are just 0.1 millimeter thick.”
It also took the team months to clean the 2,100 details off woodeaters’ saliva which is hard to wash off. Eventually, after 11 months, the restoration work was done before being displayed for the first time together with other nearly 100 artifacts and documents related to ancient Vietnamese jewelry at the museum on Trang Tien Street, Hoan Kiem District, from August to December.
“Though jewelry under Nguyen Dynasty is not seen as being very diverse, design-wise, the artisans’ talent in doing justice to the items is by itself most impressive,” said Son.