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An antique collector with purpose (July 16, 2003)

Pham Ngoc Dung
Pham Ngoc Dung refers to western publications on ceramics to find and approximate date for his objects.
He looks like the bandit character he played in the famous Vietnamese motion picture Bi Vo (The Woman Thief), mainly thanks to the heavy beard he sports.

One-time Wingchun instructor, actor, film director and university lecturer, Pham Ngoc Dung, 44, now throws himself into a more sedate pastime as a hunter of antique ceramics, heading to far flung corners of Vietnam chasing porcelain relics from the past.

Dung was the younger son of Hanoi's once-famous trader Pham Ngoc Minh, owner of a printing firm that earned him a distinct position in the old city - Minh was enraptured by ink and the printing process, but it was not to become a passion for his son.

From his home in a lane off Dang Dung street in Hanoi, Dung spoke about his eccentric passion as Ho Tay's gentle breezes wafted by - a home that looks like a mini-museum with antique ceramics perched on all the furniture.

Dung's collection now numbers around 1,400 antiques, he has donated 76 items to the Vietnam Women's Museum, 40 items to the Traditional Culture Institute, 150 items to Ho Chi Minh City College of Performing Arts and 150 others to the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi.

"To protect the country's cultural heritage, it's not very different from protecting its freedom and independence," said Dung as he shared the motives behinds his generosity.

"During the war, so many soldiers and civilians shed their blood and gave their lives to the country, and now I'm giving something back to help preserve our common heritage. It's a just cause."

Pham Ngoc Dung recalled that his father was also an antique lover, but the US bombings of Hanoi in 1972 damaged most of their antique collection in Yen Phu street, and Dung decided to start a new one when peace returned.

His collection of rare ceramics had an opportune start around 20 years ago, when Dung was shooting the movie Dat Me (My Motherland) in the district of Xuan Mai in Hoa Binh province.

As he sipped tea at a street stall, he noticed a set of antique bowls that were being used by the stall owner to support the table legs.

Dung immediately asked to buy the bowls, but the bewildered owner could not understand why this young man wanted to buy such dirty and partly broken ceramics, but Dung's insistence resulted in their sale for just nine dong.

And so Dung came to possess a precious, 1,000 year-old Ly Dynasty flower decorated bowl set.

From that point, the money he got from acting and script writing was directed to buying antique ceramics.

Dung travelled extensively to villages and remote areas of north Vietnam whenever there was information about rare ceramics finds.

Dung once travelled to Hau Loc district in Thanh Hoa province at the news of the discovery of an ancient Ty Ba vase.

But again he was trumped, because the vase had already been sold to a Hanoi collector, and it soon drew an army of antique admirers from across the city, with one offering US $1,000, but the collector refused what was a substantial amount of money at the time.

In 1988, this same collector fell on hard times and reluctantly told Dung he wanted to sell the vase at just VND 7 million (US $460), however, Dung only had VND 2.5 million to hand and had to borrow from acquaintances to get the rest.

What eased the dealer's pain at selling the Ty Ba vase was that he believed only Dung really understood its value and would preserve the antique.

In early 1993, a That Phat ceramic teapot (Teapot of the Seven Buddhas) was found in the district of Ky Anh in Ha Tinh province, as the news got out, antique collectors from Thanh Hoa swarmed to the spot and the teapot was sold for VND2.4 million.

Pham Ngoc Dung
Dung examines a small lime pot, believed to date back to the 16th century, that was burried with a woman who used it to mix lime with betel nut.
Dung had also headed to Ky Anh determined to have it, but he was too late, a collector in Thanh Hoa offered him the teapot at a price he could not afford. Some time later the teapot turned up at a Hanoi antique dealer, who sold the item to an artisan specialising in antiques reproduction, then when the artisan needed to raise some cash, the teapot ended up at another Hanoi antique shop, when Dung wandered by one day and spotted it, and without uttering a word, bought it for VND 4.5 million.

In another instance, a family in Ha Tay Province unearthed a pair of 18th century ceramic nghe (sacred half-lion, half-unicorn figurines) that a local brick maker had immediately purchased for VND 20,000.

This man then tipped Dung off about the new discovery, as he had done a few times before, demanding VND 450,000, and despite Dung's extra money going towards home renovations he decided to buy them.

A few days later, the brick-maker arrived at his door and asked for the figurines back, saying that he had "forgotten" that $700 was tucked inside the ceramic animals, however, Dung knew that the man had found another customer prepared to pay more, and wanted to cheat on him, so he rejected the demand.

With his passion and persistence, Dung has collected around 1,800 items over 22 years, mostly ceramic artefacts from the Ly and Tran dynasties (11+ - 14th centuries AD).

A graduate from Hanoi College of Performing Arts, Dung recently completed his master's thesis on antique collectors in pre-1954 Hanoi.

One of the reasons that over one-hundred antique collections around that time had been scattered, he argued, was that the owners did not work hard enough to train the upcoming generation to preserve these cultural relics.

Dung pointed out that he is not the first to donate part of his collection to government-owned establishments.

The prominent collector Vitcing Hong Sen stipulated in his will that his house with its furniture and collections was to become a museum for the people of Vietnam - unfortunately his house is now in a state of disrepair as his relatives haven't taken proper care of it.

"It's really upsetting to see Master Sen's collection being neglected," Dung said.

To try and avoid this mishandling in the future, Dung will give antiques to schools and museums for students to learn and appreciate the country's rich history of craftsmanship and arts.

"If our foreign friends can donate precious things to Vietnam's museums, why can't we Vietnamese?" (VNS)

Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper


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