Vietnamese heritage ‘up for grabs’ by private collectors

VietNamNet Bridge – At the risk of offending many people who consider themselves protectors of ancient culture, this writer would like to focus on the many collectors, domestic and foreign, who consider Viet Nam as a lost-and-found treasure trove of antiquities – which it is. And, without attempting to go into the Government guidelines for acquiring and even selling these priceless pieces of the past, it seems fair to say that, in world terms, the protection of this heritage leaves much to be desired.

Ancient wonder: Pilgrims visit a restored Cham tower in Ninh Thuan Province.

Ancient wonder: Pilgrims visit a restored Cham tower in Ninh Thuan Province.

Take for example the Japanese collector highlighted in the pages of this newspaper recently. Over many years, he managed to buy a fantastic collection of artefacts, much of it from the ancient Cham kingdoms of Central Viet Nam. In HCM City, this apparently well meaning gent established a museum and warehouse filled with golden Hindu and Buddhist deities – hundreds of them. And city authorities gave him their blessings.

The revelation comes at a time when Italian restoration experts and local farmers combined to repair the 1,000-year-old, or more, Cham religious monuments. Local farmers were overjoyed to be asked to work on the project, which included discovering “lost” techniques for laying hundreds of thousands of bricks by gluing them together with the resin of a local tree – as the Cham builders apparently did.

The result? A towering, stupa-like pagoda in glowing orange brick. The result is overwhelming. It brings the Cham nations back from the past and breathes life into their unique culture. The dream-like quality of the finished work, exudes power, which the Cham indeed had. As merchants and sailors, they had, for several hundred years, perhaps the biggest maritime trade in Southeast Asia.

Some of the temples started to crumble for lack of attention – a process sped up during the American War when many were hit with artillery fire.

Even during the French colonial period, Cham heritage seemed to be largely lost in the past. The haunting old buildings peered out from the jungle like sketches in a boy’s adventure book. One or two restorations of the temples were attempted, but perfection was not the aim until the Italians came.

As much as collectors proclaim their sincerity and interest in preserving the past, they are, accidentally or deliberately, overlooking one important aspect. That is, that many of the objects they have bought or “found” were from specific areas, including many of the Cham relics housed in HCM City.

In the world of art and antiques, an object is more precious, financially and culturally, if its provenance is given. Religious objects found in situ (where they were originally placed) are particularly precious.

The authorities, and collectors should understand that religious objects have far more significance to everyone if they are placed back in the culture, or in this case temples, from which they came. Imagine being able to visit a Cham temple with its large internal niches filled with exquisite statues of Shiva, Buddha and other religious figures. It is enough to take the breath away.

So, this is a plea for the authorities to clamp down before it is too late.

They should not be led by the nose by collectors. Viet Nam has had a particularly interesting history over the last 5,000 years. Think about Dong Son bronze ware, Co Loa, the Cham kingdoms and the Mekong city state of Funan for starters. All this heritage belongs to the people in today’s Viet Nam – not to private collections here or overseas, unless there is genuine Government approval.

Cham heritage is about the evolution of a tough but highly cultured society linked through half a dozen city kingdoms and states. Scattering ancient antiques in district museums here and around the world is like tearing pages from an unwritten book.

by John Ball

Source: VNS