Two Vietnamese paintings fetch 1.5 mln euros at French auction

By Hieu Nhan   October 5, 2022 | 03:43 am PT
Thang Tran Phenh's paintings "Choi Bai" (The Card Game) and "Xem Boi" (The Wizard) sold for 780,000 euros (US$773,700) and 715,000 euros at an auction Tuesday by Lynda Trouve.

They were offered at the "Indochina -Chapter 14" auction in Paris live on the company's website.

French auction house Lynda Trouve had predicted a price range of 30,000-50,000 euros for each painting.

Collector Pham Hoang Viet, who had tuned in, said there was much back-and-forth between two collectors, before "The Card Game" went for 600,000 euros (excluding surcharges).

"Both the paintings are quite large and look stunning on silk. Phenh frequently depicts traditional Vietnamese activities like playing the Tam Cuc card game and fortune-telling in his work. His major silk paintings are even rarer.

"In 2000 Hong Kong auction house Sotheby's auctioned off one of his silk paintings. The prices of his paintings have increased since then as a result."

The Card Game by Thang Tran Phenh. Photo courtesy of Lynda Trouvé

'The Card Game" by Thang Tran Phenh. Photo courtesy of Lynda Trouve

Art researcher Ngo Kim Khoi said this is the highest price that Phenh's paintings have ever fetched.

"The piece obtained a premium price since it was introduced at the prestigious Paris Colonial Exhibition, and Phenh's silk paintings are extremely rare."

"The Card Game," created in 1931-32, depicts two men and three women dressed in traditional attire engaged in a game of cards.

The artist's signature, seal and two lines of ancient writing can be seen on its top left corner.

Scholar Chau Hai Duong translated the lines as follows: "On a leisurely spring day playing cards / Whoever wins or loses, don't laugh."

"The Wizard" emerged at around the same time. It shows three figures seated around a platform with a plate and three incense sticks. A male fortune teller in the middle is holding up a porcelain plate while two women are watching him work.

The ancient characters in the top left corner of the image read: "Women seeking fate / fortune-teller making predictions."

The auction house claims the two silk paintings belonged to Leopold de Stabenrath, a press correspondent in Hanoi from 1975 to 1997.

The Wizard by Thang Tran Phenh. Photo courtesy of Lynda Trouve

"The Wizard" by Thang Tran Phenh. Photo courtesy of Lynda Trouve

Due to moisture and the passage of time, some mold has developed in the artworks.

The auction house first attributed it to another late painter, Tran Binh Loc, because of the ideograms "Tran Binh" in Sino-Vietnamese in the bottom left corner.

They later credited Phenh after learning it was his pen name.

Before the auction, Khoi revealed that he had assisted Sebastien, a representative at Lynda Trouve, in determining that the true author was Thang Tran Phenh. The auction company also updated a photo caption to reflect the correction.

Thang Tran Phenh (1895-1972) is one of the most well-known artists of the Vietnamese fine art village of the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with painters Le Huy Mien and Nam Son.

From an early age, he had an aptitude for art. He was awarded the fine art prize by the Tien Duc Enlightenment Association in 1923.

In 1926, at the same age as famous fellow artists like To Ngoc Van and Vu Cao Dam, he was accepted into its second batch by the Indochina Fine Arts College.

Two oil paintings and a silk painting by Phenh are currently on display at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi.

Many of his works, including "The Card Game" and "The Wizard", were taken to France and Italy in the 1930s to be displayed at the Paris and Rome Colonial Exhibitions.

In 1931, after completing his studies, the artist decided to focus his efforts on creating works specifically for stage performances.

He then took a troupe on a nationwide tour of Hanoi, Hai Phong and Nam Dinh before shutting it down in 1943.

The artist joined the resistance movement against the French at the end of 1946, moving his family to Bac Giang Province so that he could work for the 10th inter-Department of Information and Propaganda.

He and his family later moved back to Hanoi in 1954.

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