Longtime Bangkok resident Anders Normann celebrated his recent birthday with a special announcement to his friends. He is now the official “caretaker” of the beautiful and historic Thai-Danish icon, the golden robe of Vice-Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu.
After a century after it was presented by King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, to de Richelieu, titled Phraya Cholayuth Yothin, upon his retirement from the Royal Thai Navy, of which he was the only foreign commander-in-chief, the robe resurfaced in Denmark a couple of years ago when the vice admiral’s grandson decided to put it up for auction.
Kept over the decades carefully packaged in a bank vault, the robe was in perfect condition, the gold threads still glittering, the unique marine motifs and floral and vine patterns on the robe as well marked as the day the owner last wore it.
And if the robe could speak, it would have grand tales to tell. Tales of how its owner, an officer in the Danish Navy, arrived in Siam in 1875, bearing a private letter from King Christian IX of Denmark, offering his services to King Chulalongkorn during the height of European colonial expansion into Southeast Asia. He was put in command of a series of battleships, and played a prominent role in the Gunboat Crisis in 1893 when the French sent gunboats to block the Chao Phraya River estuary.
He also served the king in various other capacities, acting as the king’s adjutant general. In 1883 he accompanied two royal princes to Europe for education in Denmark, during which trip he also negotiated the purchase of ships for the navy as well as ammunition. In 1898, he accompanied the Crown Prince Maha Vajiravudh on visits to the Russian tzar and tzarina (the Danish Princess Dagmar), to the king of Sweden and to the king of Denmark while attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in Britain.
He was an adviser of Queen Saovabha when she was Regent during King Chulalongkorn’s state visit to Europe.
He was also a close friend and confidante of princes Damrong Rajanubhab and Prince Devawongse, who held the positions equivalent to the Minister of Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively.
Prior to his retirement, he was rewarded for his services to the crown with the royal decoration of the “Most Illustrious Order of Chula Chom Klao”, which included this particular golden robe.
The robe had to be returned to Thailand, its country of origin, thought Normann with conviction. As chairman of East Asiatic (Thailand), the 125-year-old Danish company he has represented since his arrival in Thailand over 40 years ago, and as honorary consul general of Denmark in Thailand, his Danish-Thai links are immaculate.
“I consulted close Thai friends and taking my 42 years in Thailand combined with my great respect and affinity for the county into consideration, I arrived at the conclusion that it was my ‘tacit duty’ to purchase the robe. The world economic meltdown fortunately cushioned the financial compensation somewhat,” he explained to an esteemed and symbolic gathering comprising director-general of the Crown Property Bureau Chirayu Isarangkun na Ayudhya and his wife and Thanpuying Oranuch, the Royal Thai Navy’s assistant chief-of-staff for civil affairs Vice-Admiral Dumrongsak Haocharoen and his wife Surasri, Khunying Tipyavadi Pramoj na Ayudhya and the Danish Ambassador Michael Sternberg.
“However, deep in my heart, I knew from the day that I came across this iconic and historically most important Thai-Danish treasure, that the robe belonged in Thailand, and once here, it should never leave again!”
As a collector of Southeast Asian antiquities, Normann cherishes every single item in his vast collection, which he keeps at his riverside condominium and also at his wellness centre and museum, Nicolie, on Silom Road. Here guests are allowed to share the beauty of these artistic treasures while they enjoy personal pampering. It is here that he plans to display the golden robe, a historic Thai-Danish legacy that has finally come home.