Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Money lovers hoard for a good reason

Ha Noi is home to generations of money collectors who are preserving national treasures as they pursue their hobby. Hoang Trung Hieu helps them count their cash.
In a silent house in Giap Nhat, a village in Ha Noi’s Thanh Xuan District, a white-haired octogenarian pores over his set of ancient coins with a magnifying glass.
He is Nguyen Ba Dam, 86, locally known as "Mr Ancient Money" for his extensive collection of Vietnamese currency. In more than 70 years of collecting, he has accumulated over 400 kinds of ancient Vietnamese money, as well as currency from more than 150 countries.
His oldest coin is a Thai Binh Hung Bao coin issued in 968 during the Dinh dynasty, recognised by researchers as the oldest Vietnamese coin.
As he painstakingly prepares a pot of tea, Dam describes the three-quarters of a century he has spent collecting money, beginning when he was eight years old.
In 1960, he began connecting with like-minded hobbyists through an international association of stamp and money collectors, which allowed him to enrich his collection with ancient Chinese coins dating from the Qin to the Qing dynasties.
In 1976, Dam spent VND100,000 – a veritable fortune at the time – to buy a treasure trove of ancient money from Nguyen Dinh Duong, a famous antique dealer on Hang Bong Street.
"The value of ancient coins is not based on their dates, but their rarity," he says. "For example, the Kien Phuc Thong Bao and Ham Nghi Thong Bao coins are very precious because King Kien Phuc and King Ham Nghi (both part of the Nguyen dynasty) reigned for only a short time, so these kinds of coins are very rare."
Dam says the most unique iron coin in his collection is the Dai Chinh Thong Bao from the reign of King Mac Dang Dung.
Along with normal currency, Dam also collects coins that kings once used as bonuses for their junior officials.
More than money
A collector must also be a researcher, Dam says.
"Money is not only for buying and exchanging in the business world; it also reflects history, including power struggles and technological development, and can serve as the hallmark of an era or a royal dynasty," he says. "Therefore, the collector must have vast knowledge and understanding of history and culture and a passion for such studies."
A former history teacher, Dam has considerable knowledge of ancient Chinese scripts, which has enriched his study of ancient coins. But Dam believes that what makes him a true collector is his personal attachment to the coins and the stories they tell.
"A collector must ‘feel’ the coins, comparing and classifying them, to recognise their real value. Only then can the collector see all the interesting and beautiful aspects of ancient money."
Twenty-two-year-old Nguyen Phat Ha Giang, the youngest of the capital city’s well-known money collectors, takes a similar attitude towards his collection.
"Money is the bloodline of the national economy, and it plays an important role in national independence and identity. Each coin has its own spirit," he says.
In his home on Bach Mai Street, Giang has an almost-complete collection of Vietnamese banknotes and many coins. His banknote collection includes hundreds of varieties, including Indochinese money issued by French rulers, some dating back to 1903, and the currency of the Sai Gon regime of 1954-1975.
Like Dam, Giang has invested considerable funds during his dozen years of collecting: around VND70 million ($4,375). Giang’s collection is particularly valuable because he owns many prototype banknotes stamped with the word "SPECIMEN".
"Specimen banknotes are very expensive," he says. "A set of specimen banknotes issued in 1951 set me back $1,000, and I spent $900 on a set of specimen banknotes dating from 1958 to 1994."
Dam can relate to Giang’s willingness to lose money to nurture their hobbies: foreign collectors offered to pay him $1,600 for an ancient coin they needed, but he refused.
"I consider my collection like a chess set: if it loses a piece, it would lose its value," he says. "If I sell a coin, it will be lost to me forever and may never again fall into Vietnamese hands."
Many collectors share Dam’s aims of protecting Viet Nam’s historical relics.
"Ancient money is evidence of the historical development of currency," Giang says. "If we don’t preserve these items, they may be tossed aside or brought to foreign countries. I want to preserve something for the nation. I wish the State would conduct official studies on ancient money and establish a museum for it."
Professor Do Van Ninh from the Institute of Historical Studies, who has written many books on ancient money, appreciates collectors for serving a national need.
"Thanks to them, the nation can preserve some of its historical and cultural treasures," Ninh says. "They collect money for preservation; they aren’t just dealers, thinking only of profits."

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