As the word goes, at the time that the Imperial Capital of Hue fell to enemy hands on July 5, 1885, Emperor Ham Nghi moved treasures from the palace to a secret location, but the fact is that most of the treasures remained in the palace and within three weeks of the emperor leaving they fell into the hands of the French invaders.
French evangelist Henry de Pirey wrote in B.A.V.H (Bulletin Des Amis Du Vieux Hue-1914) that when retreating from the Imperial City of Hue, Emperor Ham Nghi had moved royal treasures in about 950 trunks, of which 400 trunks were full of gold and 150 trunks full of silver and the rest full of priceless antiquities of the country. However, because of the ongoing war, the emperor was able to carry only 100 treasure trunks with him. Not long after, Emperor Ham Nghi was captured and exiled to Reunion Island.
Many people wonder about the location of the royal treasure and wish to seek it, but they forget that within three weeks after Ham Nghi left the palace, the French seized most of the treasure. This has been reported in a document stored in the Archives of the French Foreign Office in Paris.
Father Pène-Siefert said that the French took 113 taels of gold, 742 taels of silver, and 2,627 coins from the camp of imperial guards, and 228 diamonds, 266 jewelry items incrusted with diamonds, gems and pearls, 271 gold items, 1,258 silver bars, and 3,416 taels of gold from the palace of Queen Mother Tu Du. They also took all items which were used by the line of emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty such as crowns, belts, court dresses, king’s bed, tea trays, cups, bowls, and incense burners. The royal treasure also included 24 million coins of gold and silver.
The loot of the Nguyen Dynasty’s royal treasure lasted for two months after the Imperial City of Hue fell to the French in July 1885 and caused so much disrepute than the loot of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing seemed trivial.
In later years, Emperor Dong Khanh continuously demanded the French return the royal treasures looted by them. A document written by the French on March 21, 1888, said that Emperor Dong Khanh reminded them that precious items of royalty lost after the upheaval on July 5 were definitely in France, of which the most valuable item was a string of diamonds made during the reign of Emperor Gia Long and a precious sword incrusted with gems.
One of the most impressive items in the royal treasure was a gold elephant which had exquisite casting. Two high ranking French officials fought each other over the gold elephant. Sadly, the precious item was split into two halves to appease the two greedy men. These are not stories or rumors of French soldiers or Vietnamese government officials but written documents by French Resident in Central Vietnam, Paul Rheinart to Governor General of Indochina, Richaud, on February 28, 1889 with a complaint that Major General Prudhomme had unhesitatingly appropriated precious items and never gave back any of the priceless treasures.
These details which are mostly contained in unpublished documents are stored in the Archives of the French Foreign Office in Paris and were collected and translated by Nguyen Xuan Tho and Nguyen Ngoc Cu and presented by researcher Phan Thuan An in an article published in July 2002 in ‘Tuyen tap nhung bai nghien cuu ve trieu Nguyen’ (Collection of research documents on Nguyen Dynasty).
In the article, after Emperor Ham Nghi was exiled, there were several precious items still in the palace, including royal seals made of solid gold with some weighing upto 18 kilograms, big ancient indigo-blue-Hue flower vases, cabinets inlaid with mother-of-pearl, large jars from China’s Ming Dynasty, celadon jars, and many beautiful 55-centimeter cyan plates.
Even collectors and linguistic researchers like Paul Boudet-witnesses of that period-said that at that time, in Can Thanh Palace or Trung Hoa Palace, there were still 26 golden books written about the enthronement ceremonies of emperors Gia Long, Thieu Tri, Tu Duc, Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai, Duy Tan, Dong Khanh, and Khai Dinh, details of coronation ceremonies of Queens and Crown Prince’s, and 46 seals of gold and precious stones. Now these precious items are either lost or scattered across the globe.
In November 2010, an oil painting of late Emperor Ham Nghi was put on sale at an auction in Paris. The ‘Déclin Du Joir’ (Sunset) oil painting measured 35 centimeters in width and 46 centimeters in length and dated 1915, when the late emperor was living in Alger.
According to Mathilde Tuyet Tran, an overseas Vietnamese, the painting sold for Euro 11,088, eight times more than starting price. This showed the nostalgic sentiments towards late emperor Ham Nghi-and the desire to keep the pages of past rich history of the country alive for posterity.