Once upon a time there was a Danish Naval Officer. His name was Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu, and he wanted to make something of himself.
One day, he went to the Danish king and said:
“I want to go to Thailand.” The majesty looked at Richelieu, gave him his blessing, and sent him to South East Asia with nothing but a few clothes and a private letter to the King of Thailand.
After months of travelling, Richelieu arrived in the exotic country. He made his way to the royal palace and knocked on the gate.
“I am Richelieu,” he called, “I am here to see the King.”
A small guard looked at him and said that he would show him to the king’s official, but the Dane stood his ground.
“No,” he said with determination in his voice. ”I have a letter from the Danish majesty, and I wish to see the king.” The guard let him in.
When he met the king, he produced the letter, and the king was impressed. The two of them became friends, and one day the king asked him to go work on a ship in the Royal Thai Navy as second commander in chief, but Richelieu had higher ambitions than that.
“I’d rather be captain,” Richelieu said, and although the job was not open right away, only a year or two passed by, and the Dane was made head of the entire navy.
Designed for the Admiral
It may not have happened exactly like that, but this Hans Christian Andersen like story is in fact true. Andreas de Plessis de Richelieu became the first and only foreigner ever to be head of the Royal Thai Navy.
After 25 years of faithful service to the King, it was time for Richelieu to return to Denmark, but before he left, the King blessed him with many precious gifts. The Danish Admiral received diamond covered silver platters and golden bowls, but the most precious gift of all was a golden robe made especially for him. Covered with marine symbols such as anchors and ship’s wheels, the robe was one of a kind and a magnificent piece of handiwork to be worn at all formal ceremonial occasions.
Richelieu brought the robe with him to Denmark, where it spent the next many years wrapped up in silver paper in a box. Before the Admiral died, he passed it on to his daughter, who later passed it on to her only son. This grandchild of the Admiral is now 80 years old, and his greatest wish for the robe is that it be brought back to Thailand where it was originally made.
An unknown item
Anders Normann has lived in Thailand for the past 43 years, and he could not agree more. As an antique art enthusiast and with an enormous collection of his own, he believes that the golden robe is the most important antique with Thai-Danish relations. To him, it was important that the robe would end up in the hands of someone who appreciated its importance and who wanted to preserve a piece of history for future generations. So he bought it.
“I got a phone call from Bruun Rasmussen, one of the oldest auction houses in Denmark, who told me that they had come across a special garment. I am a Director there and they wanted me to take a look at it because they couldn’t figure out where it came from and how much it was worth,” Anders Normann says.
“Up until then, the robe had been completely unknown. Nobody knew it existed, but the moment I saw it, I got goose bumps. I instantly knew that this was something unique and very, very special.”
He made an arrangement with the owner to bring it back to Thailand with the intention to put it in a museum so that the public could come and admire this amazing piece of Thai history and craftsmanship. But they were unable to find a suitable buyer, so, as a temporary solution Anders bought the pricy robe himself. Exactly how much he had to pull out of his pockets, he does not want to share.
“That’s for me to know and you to guess,” he says with a cheeky smile. Then he adds:
“It wasn’t cheap though, I’ll tell you that.”
On display in his home
For a while, Anders Normann kept the robe in his riverside penthouse apartment as part of his enormous art collection, and he often opened his door to visitors who wanted to see the royal artefact. He kept it on a mannequin to really show off its beauty until the day he opened his home to a group of local textile conservation experts.
“They nearly had a heart attack when they saw the robe hanging there,” he says with a laugh.
“They made me feel so selfish for wanting to appreciate its beauty everyday. I hadn’t even thought about how it would wear on the robe to hang like that.”
Because according to the new experts, certain measures should be taken in order to preserve a piece of unique and quite heavy fabric like the golden robe. They introduced him to one of the world’s leading textile conservation experts, Julia Brennan, and she convinced him that, for one thing, it needed to lie down. The robe weighs about eight to ten kilos and the sheer weight of the gold threads would eventually tear the fabric. With his love for antiques, this knowledge was enough for Anders Normann to take it down immediately and do whatever he could in order to preserve it the best way possible.
At the moment, Julia Brennan is at Anders Normann’s luxury spa, Nicolie, where she is working on the robe and repairing the tears and other damages that it has sustained over the years. The top floor of the building has been sealed off for the sole purpose of restoring the royal garment.
As he leads the way up the stairs to the top floor of his spa, anticipation builds up. Anders Normann’s excitement is contagious. He has told the story, described the robe in detail, and after all this talk, finally, there it is. Lying on a white sheet is the Admiral’s robe.
Despite its old age and the fact that the material is very fragile, it is very well preserved. Part of the reason is that it has spent the past 100 years in Northern Europe where it has been kept in a box away from sunlight and unexposed to cockroaches and other fabric loving insects.
Some areas sparkle bright, which gives you an idea of how the entire garment looked a hundred years ago. Now, age has given it a bit of patina, which makes it look almost multicoloured. By a closer look, you can see that the robe consists of solid gold beads and sequins that have been sewn onto a very fine netting.
For the public to see
To put the least amount of pressure on the fragile gown, the Admiral’s robe will be put on display lying down in a glass showcase at Nicolie Wellness Centre. A mirror will be placed underneath to show both the front and the back without risking deterioration.
And this is of the highest importance to Anders Normann. The whole reason he is doing it, and the reason he is collecting art at all, is that he wants to preserve a part of history for future generations.
“I am very happy that the robe is now in my possession,” says Anders Normann. “It gives me the possibility to do with it what I think is right. It is important to keep this piece of history, because even though we shouldn’t live in the past, but we should be able to understand it and learn from it,” he concludes.
That is why he will soon be opening the doors of Nicolie to the public. When the robe is up, everyone is welcome to stop by to take a look at the magnificent piece of garment that was given to a Danish Admiral. The robe has now made its way back to where it was originally made, and it is as unique as the piece of Thai-Danish history that it has to tell.