Forget stamps and coins; Thailands collectors tend to do things on a far bigger scale, as Duangporn Choktippattana discovers
Enjoy more photos of each collection here.
The passion of a collector is immeasurable. There is no limit to how much time someone should devote to a collection, nor how many items should be amassed, provided money is not a concern. Suffice to say, Thailand is blessed with a legion of discerning collectors, many of whom have invested in building museums to display their treasures for wider public appreciation. For example, in June, businessman Boonchai Bencharongkul was listed as a Hero of Philanthropy by Forbes Asia. In the near future, the former telecommunications magnate plans to establish a large private museum in order to house his exemplary collection of Thai artworks. In other cases, collectors may shy away from putting their valuables in the limelight, preferring to collect more discreetly. The possibility of setting up a museum is not completely dismissed; rather it is postponed, due to the sheer scale and value of the collection. Here are stories from Thailands distinguished collectors, ranging from successful businessmen to a former police chief, who have dedicated their life and resources to these objects of beauty.
In the far corner of the King Power complex on Soi Rangnam, a few hundred Buddha sculptures and amulets glisten against the jet black interior of VR Museum, named after founder Vichai Raksriaksorn. Completed in six months, the museum was built on a round space that could have generated profitable returns had it been put to commercial use. All proceeds from entrance fees go to the King Power Foundation focusing on youth and education. It takes passion to do this project, says Vichai, CEO of the King Power group of companies. One reason for having soft music lulling in the background is to create a soothing ambience, as if entering a monastery. But an alarm sounds if visitors try to touch the artefacts. On display along the curving walls are antiques that carry steep price tags because of their exceptional condition. The slightest imperfections on the features of a Buddha sculpture can drive its price down by tens of millions of baht, Vichai says, but I avoid buying those. His ultimate goal is to make VR Museum a knowledge centre for Thai Buddhist art, although it does contain some pieces from other parts of Asia.
In its first zone, the museum traces the early evolution of Buddha statues from the ancient kingdoms of Gandhara, Dvaravati, Srivijaya, Lopburi and Pagan from the second to 12th centuries. Vichai is fond of the second-century Gandhara sculptures. The empire may have spanned Pakistan and Afghanistan, but its Buddha statues boast distinctly Caucasian features thanks to the strong influence of Greek art. Encased on the walls is a sizeable collection of miniature deity figures like the Hindu Ganesha and Vishnu, and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from Mahayana Buddhism. The second zone centres on amulets, the highlight being the Great Quintet set comprising five tablets crafted by revered monks throughout Thailand. Not to be missed is a rare showcase of 13 of the best preserved amulets gathered together into one set. An iPad enables visitors to zoom in on the image of each piece and examine their details closely. The third zone brings together life-sized Buddha sculptures from various eras of Thailand. Vichai has erected a large glass display at the end of the walkway especially to display a majestic Sukhothai Buddha in a subduing Mara pose. The statue is hidden behind a veil, which is lifted when visitors step into the area, as loud temple music blasts out. Texts depicting Buddhist mantra are projected onto the glass display just as the Buddha is revealed.
The business mogul affirms that VR Museum has one of the countrys most comprehensive Buddhist art selections. He began collecting the pieces two years ago after buying a Buddha statue as a gift for a friend. To Vichai, his collectibles are not mere objects for religious worship. Its interesting to learn about their history and the processes involved in creating them, he confides. These items are sourced through Buddhist art specialists whose trust had to be earned. I approach them by telling them that I plan to register all my collections as national property. Once they learn that my intention is to prevent these works of art from being taken outside Thailand, they are willing to help me. In fact, one day Vichai hopes to host workshops at VR Museum where the public can directly interact with these specialists. I want visitors to be well-informed on the value of these priceless Buddhist works, he says.
Pol Gen Sant Sarutanond
Seven years after retiring from his post as the national police chief, Police General Sant Sarutanond is free to spend time with his covetable collection in his six-rai home. Although the 67-year-old has no plans to open his antiques for public viewing, they certainly befit the display of any world-class museum. I inherited 1,000 items originally collected by my uncle, Police General Krasien and my grandmother, Chao Chom Somboon from the court of King Rama V, he says. Since he was 25 years old, Sant has been the sole owner of these objets dart from Thailand and abroad. He has also added his own conch shell acquisitions to the collections
No corner in his living room is left unoccupied by antiques. First to catch the eye is the colourful chinaware. From my uncle I received mostly pieces from the Ming and Qing dynasties, Sant explains.
I completed his collection by acquiring pieces from the Neolithic era, as well as from all the dynasties leading to the time of Puyi, the last emperor of China. Exposed to these fine handicrafts since youth through his uncle, its almost by instinct that Sant can accurately identify genuine chinaware But for added security, he avoids counterfeits by buying via big auction houses such as Christies or Sothebys. When making his own purchases, he conducts price negotiations within the range set by these international institutions. Among his prized possessions are Benjarong porcelain tea sets bearing the Chakri dynasty emblem. Other sets are designed by King Rama V, with patterns that play on the kings initials. From his mother, Sant was given gigantic Asian elephant tusks, some measuring over two metres in length, others being rare examples of black ivory.
Yet the retirees most venerable treasures, at least 100 million years old, are conch shells that can only be found along the Himalayas mountain range in Tibet, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Totalling several hundred pieces, the shell collection is stored in a separate house. They are used in religious or royal ceremonies, and are adorned with precious stones and gilded in gold or silver, Sant notes. The biggest ones measure over a metre long and were used as horns to create sounds. The rarest, however, are the shells that spiral in an anti-clockwise direction. It is an abnormality that afflicts one out of every two million conches, affirms the expert. His second oldest assets are the tusks of mammoths, now extinct for 15 million years. He owns pieces of mammoth ivory with meticulous engravings in them. Its strange, but people who want to give up their collectibles often approach me and ask me to buy them, he says. Maybe they know that I will take good care of the antiques.
Marble statues and gazebos bedeck the driveway and garden. Initially young Sant gained only a few statues from his uncle. The rest he collected over 40 years, often from his trips to Europe. They are primarily from the art nouveau and art deco periods, typically created a century ago in France and Italy. I have them in pink, green and white, with the latter fetching the highest price, he says. The statues are carved into delicate female figures or other characters from Roman and Greek mythologies. The gazebos are flown in and then assembled at his home.
Since there are no children or siblings to whom he can pass his collections, Sant contemplates giving these precious items to a museum or foundation where they can be appreciated by new generations of Thais. Ill come up with a concrete plan when I turn 80, he says.
A Mecca for car enthusiasts and the mechanically illiterate alike, Jesada Technik Museum in Nakhon Pathom features around 1,000 vintage vehicles, including tiny bubble cars, buses and aircraft, laid out in endless rows. Right now I havent done much to the museum so it looks like a warehouse, admits its eponymous founder, Jesada Dejsakulrit. However, in two years Ill finish building a proper establishment on a large plot neighbouring the current one. Itll have a retro design complete with indoor and outdoor displays.
The museum is the result of 15 years of effort that Jesada put into finding the quirkiest and rarest of car models. Undeniably its a major advantage that he works in the industry, his day job being CEO of Chase Enterprise (Siam), which manufactures firefighting and emergency rescue vehicles for use in Thailand and abroad. The unassuming entrepreneur reveals that he is fascinated by bubble cars, having amassed 300 of them. These European micro-cars were only produced between 1950 and 1970, which is why they are featured in so few museums. Europe is also where Jesada found most of his valuables, having bought cars such as the BMW Isetta, Trojan, Velam and Velorex direct from their owners; the exception was the Messerschmitt KR 200 which was bought via Christies. Jesada Technik Museums other showstoppers include amphicars that can drive through water, German NSU cars with rotary engines, plus motorcycles, cycle rickshaws and London and Parisian buses. From Thailand came vintage Fiat cars that decades ago served as taxis in Nonthaburi.
Nonetheless, the 63-year-old divulges that a lot more expenses are incurred after the cars are purchased. Sometimes the cars need repairs to both the interior and exterior. In Thailand there arent many repair centres with the skills or passion to do a good job, so in a year I can only get four to five cars fixed, he says. Many more vehicles, lined up 200 metres from the museum, are waiting to be patched up.
Recently the museum launched an activity where children can step aboard one of its disused propeller aeroplanes. In a simulation of an international flight, each passenger on Jesada Airline is given a passport and greeted by flight attendants. It is clear that the collector wants his brainchild to offer more than just beautiful
displays. We dont charge an entrance fee, and weve been attracting largely students and group tours. Hopefully I can make the new museum more educational by, for example, cutting open a couple of cars to show how the engines work. Next on his checklist is the purchase of a San Francisco bus for the schoolchildren to explore.
Last year Jesada Technik Museum made headlines by organising a micro-car parade in honour of HM King Bhumibols 83rd birthday. A trail of 76 micro-cars, 23 veteran cars and buses filled up Ratchadamnern Road. On December 5 this year Im aiming for 120 micro-cars, Jesada says. The real highlight though, is next year. I plan to ask micro-car associations from other countries, like America, to join in the parade as well. We will facilitate their stay here. The museum has orchestrated such a feat once before, during the Thailand 2010 Citroen Rally. It saw members of the French association Tractions Sans Frontières driving their Citroen Traction Avant cars from Malaysia through to several provinces of Thailand with the museums collaboration. I will always think up new activities, Jesada says. If I have enough cars from around the world in my collection, it might even inspire Thai carmakers to come up with their own unique designs.
In 1937, when Chokchai Bulakul was born, his parents business was at a low ebb. I never had any toys or luxury goods like my older siblings, Chokchai recalls. So I told myself that when Im older, I would collect as many things as I can. The boys pledge would, several decades later, evolve into the five-storey Chokchai Museum, housing 3,000 of his most beloved and memorable collectibles.
On the museums third floor is an exhibition chronicling Chokchais life. It shows that I struggled to get to where I am today, he notes. Fifty years ago, I only had 20,000 baht to start Chokchai Farm, which later landed me with debts of 900,000 baht. Everyone should realise that, like me, they can build up their success and wealth. One of his earliest collecting passions was for matchbox cars, bought while he was attending middle school in Hong Kong. Today hundreds of his model automobiles are showcased on the museums fourth floor, besides items including memorabilia from the farm, his childrens toys and a gigantic jade boat from China which took three years to create. Nonetheless, it is on the second floor that the 74-year-old unveils the assets dearest to his heart. On view are 400 guns, including his first Winchester rifle and Colt pistol from America where he completed high school and university. Upon returning to Thailand, Chokchai set off into the wilderness of Khao Yai, determined to turn it into the lucrative cattle ranch thats known today as Chokchai Farm. I lived onsite and used guns as a protection against animals and thugs, although I never actually shot any of them, he remarks. He also owns the worlds largest rifle, in addition to a pistol with his name stamped in gold. Moreover, the avid photographer collects film cameras, some of which are also made from gold. I waited three years for a Leica lens that I ordered from the factory, he recalls. Another tele lens from Nikon, weighing 23 kg, is used to take pictures of the moon. Antique Linhof cameras are also favourites. Several animal horns crafted from resin decorate the walls, gifts to him from the late Dr Boonsong Lekagul, founder of the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife in Thailand.
In contrast to his deep intrigues for mechanical objects, Chokchai is so charmed by the sparkle of crystals that a room is dedicated to carrying his 800 Swarovski figurines. My oldest pieces are the coffee grinder and windmill, he says. Theyre available in very small numbers since 90 years ago Swarovski wasnt using mass production. The company also presented him with a 20-kg diamond-shaped crystal. Only seven pieces went out to the market. The eighth piece they gave to me, he says, proudly. Another notable piece is the Black Bull crystal statue, shown exclusively at the Chokchai Museum and the Swarovski Museum in Austria. Downstairs, by the first floor, are 10 classic cars, among them his first vehicle, a Ford Crown Victoria from 1955.
The 300-baht entrance fee also covers visits to Chokchais albino animals such as lions, crocodiles and foxes. The last stop is the classical Thai house presenting rare replicas of Thai porcelain. Now retired, Chokchai is fully devoted to overseeing his museum. Theres no more room to expand it, he says. If anything, Id have to build a second museum at a different location.
1st floor, King Power Complex,
Soi Rangnam, Bangkok
Open daily from 10:00 am 6:00 pm
Jesada Technik Museum
100 Moo 2, Ngewrai, Nakhon Chaisri, Nakhon Pathom
Open from Tuesday to Friday, 9:00 am 5:00 pm
Viphavadi Rangsit Road, next to Chokchai
Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00 am 6:00 pm