(L) The Young Beggar by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (R) Le Songe du Lendemain by To Ngoc Van.
It could have been another uncontested victory for Vietnamese art.
The day was May 28, 2017. An auction at Christie’s Hong Kong valued a piece named “Le Songe du Lendemain” (Dream of the Following Day) at over $45,000. It’s billed as a masterwork by the renowned 20th-century artist To Ngoc Van.
The event appeared to herald a new era for modern Vietnamese artworks in the international market. It seemed to be the time for cheers.
But only a week later, art scholars and painters quickly raised their concerns on local media, alleging that the painting in question could be a forgery of “The Young Beggar” by Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
Many were also angry that the piece had been tied to To Ngoc Van (1906-1954), a Vietnamese master.
Van, an early talent in oil painting, was among the brightest graduates of the Indochina College of Fine Arts in the 1930s. He was a recipient of the Ho Chi Minh Prize, a teacher at fine arts colleges in Hanoi and Phnom Penh.
But most importantly, he’s a pride of Vietnamese art.
Luong Xuan Doan, the vice president of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, did not hide his displeasure in a phone conversation: “It’s certainly a fake. The painting looks coarse and clumsy; there’s no way it could be To Ngoc Van’s work.”
Other Vietnamese experts believe To Ngoc Van did not paint the art and that the artist wouldn’t have signed his name if he had actually copied Murillo’s.
A descendant of the artist was also cautious. He said he had asked several members in the family and none could confirm whether the painting is Van’s.
Responding to the allegations, Lavina Chan, Senior Vice-President of Christie’s Asia, affirmed the auction house’s due diligence on the painting’s provenance.
“There is no basis on which to call into question its authenticity,” Chan wrote in an email to VnExpress International.
Christie’s sale catalog, written by Jean-François Hubert, senior consultant and expert in Vietnamese art, states that “Le Songe du Lendemain” was first acquired directly from the Vietnamese artist by Claude Mahoudeau, who “recognized early the quality of To Ngoc Van's works.”
The painting has then been passed through two European gentlemen, Chan said.
However, the representative could not look past the resemblance.
“While the artist was indeed influenced by the Spanish artist Murillo, it was not uncommon in that era to follow the footsteps of European old masters,” Chan wrote.
In a follow-up interview, Doan, the vice president of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, refuted that point.
“It’s unusual.” Doan said. “To Ngoc Van had French and European teachers so he could be influenced in the material and the techniques he used. But the great artist painted with a signature style, so he wouldn’t have forged such amazing works of masters like Murillo.”
“It’s an insult to the artist and heartbreaking news for Vietnamese art,” Doan concluded.
An uphill battle
Tran Khanh Chuong, the president of Vietnam Fine Arts Association, is more reserved. But he too is not optimistic when talking about rampant counterfeits on international markets.
“We can’t confirm forgery until an evaluation center provides clear evidence,” Chuong said. “It also costs a fortune to re-evaluate an artwork, even if the inspectors of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism could step in.”
In Vietnam, curators and collectors face immense difficulties procuring artwork. The one and only Artwork Evaluation Center, which belongs to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, closed a few months after its opening in 2010.
“Not many people cared to bring in their purchases for evaluation,” Chuong said. “They think there’s no point in spotting theirs as fakes, even if they have doubts.”
Meanwhile, the most valuable, sought-after art comes from the elites of Indochina College of Fine Arts, whose works in the 1930s are neither registered nor protected by the Vietnam Copyright Office.
Vietnam has long been known for its legacy of fake arts after two brutal wars. The New York Times ran a piece in 2009 describing the chaos inside the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, where hundreds of artworks were replaced with copies to protect them from bombings in the 1960s. These days the real ones cannot be found or evaluated easily.
When the economy opened up and Vietnamese art became more popular abroad, copies proliferated even more.
Authenticity questions become more relevant considering the recent impressive climbs that Vietnamese art has made on international markets.
In April, Le Pho’s “Family Life” hit record-high hammer price of over $1 million also at Sotheby's Hong Kong. An earlier painting of Pho’s, “View from the Hilltop,” had fetched nearly $850,000 in 2014.
Le Pho's "View From The Hilltop" hammered at $850,000 in a sale of Christie's Hong Kong in November 2014.
Christie’s Hong Kong in May sold “La Moyenne Région” by Hoang Tich Chu and Nguyen Tien Chung at closely $600,000, the second highest of the day. Sotheby’s New York in June also saw Vu Cao Dam’s “Joueuse de Lune” hammered at $94,000, the fifth highest of the sale.
But just last year, in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City that honored seventeen pieces of four Vietnamese legends, at least fifteen were alleged to be forgeries.
Painter Thanh Chuong made headlines after claiming that one of the paintings was his. It was displayed as a work of his contemporary, Ta Ty.
The owner of the collections told VnExpress that he placed his full trust in Jean-François Hubert from Christie’s.
Days later, the HCMC Museum of Fine Arts had to form an evaluation panel, which then decided to close the exhibition and officially apologized to the public.
Tran Khanh Chuong said his association, museums and art experts could make their voices heard in national cases such as this, but it’s an uphill battle overseas.
“The question is, who will have the money to re-evaluate the artwork?” Chuong said, ending an apparent rhetoric question with a chuckle.