Sotheby's acknowledgement of fake paintings a welcome first step: experts

By Linh Do   September 26, 2019 | 08:19 pm PT
Sotheby’s Hong Kong has removed two Vietnamese paintings from an upcoming auction after local experts strongly doubted their authenticity.

The two paintings, "La Thu" (The Letter) and "Hai Co Gai" (Resting Ladies), supposed to have been created by Vietnamese masters To Ngoc Van and Tran Van Can respectively, have been removed from an auction set for October 5-6.

According to art researcher Pham Long, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which also sold a suspected Le Pho painting titled "Doi Song Gia Dinh" (Family Life) for $1.2 million last year, has made a very good decision. "This time, they really listened to our voices from Vietnam," Long told local media.

Long said this was the first time that Vietnamese experts have been able to secure such a decision after protesting on social and mainstream media.

La Thu (The Letter)

The painting titled "La Thu" that Sotheby's Hong Kong claims to have been created by painter To Ngoc Van. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong intended to sell To Ngoc Van’s "La Thu" for $101,000-191,000 and Tran Van Can’s "Hai Co Gai" for $7,600-11,000 at its upcoming auction. As soon as the auction house made the announcement, local experts protested.

Pham Long said that four of the listed paintings were likely to be fakes – apart from the two above-mentioned works, Nguyen Sang’s lacquer painting "Dan Que Viet" (Vietnamese Rural Folks), and another lacquer work by Nguyen Gia Tri titled "Phong Canh" (Scenery).

"If we remain silent and Sotheby’s Hong Kong continues to show fake, low-quality art, not only collectors but the reputation of Vietnamese artists and the Vietnamese art market will also suffer," he added.

"Both "La Thu" and "Hai Co Gai" show problems in anatomy," Long said."The quality of the two paintings is widely different but in general, both are very bad. The figures look coarse and stiff and lack the soulfulness and elegance usually found in the works of To Ngoc Van and Tran Van Can."

The Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum also quickly affirmed that it has the original "La Thu" and "Hai Co Gai" paintings in its possession.

Nguyen Anh Minh, the museum’s director, said the museum has full legal evidence to prove the origin of these paintings. Both were bought in the 1960s and have belonged to the museum since.

However, of the four suspect paintings, Sotheby’s Hong Kong has only removed two. Explaining the situation, Long said that the auction house has removed "La Thu" and "Hai Co Gai" because the Vietnamese side has indisputable proof. "We don’t always have this luck in all cases," he said.

In recent years, as international appreciation of Vietnamese masterpieces has grown, many paintings by the old masters of the former Fine Arts College of Indochina have been sold for high prices. At the same time, quite a few have been suspected to be fakes.Many local experts have said that fake paintings are depressing the prices of authentic Vietnamese art.

Art researcher Ngo Kim Khoi told local media that paintings by Chinese painter Xu Beihong and Japanese-French painter Foujita, who lived in the same period as the Vietnamese masters, can fetch up to tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, just a few Vietnamese masterpieces have been sold for several million dollars. "Auction houses don’t know what to trust, and collectors hesitate to buy," Khoi said.

Ironically, the real paintings owned by the national museum are being damaged by the damp and humid northern climate. Long cautioned that if the museum doesn’t restore them soon, Vietnamese art lovers may no longer have the chance to enjoy them.

A welcome precedent

For the Vietnamese art market, whose reputation has been tarnished by fake paintings for many years, this incident is a welcome first step towards cleaning up its act. 

The painting titled Hai Co Gai that Sothebys Hong Kong claims to have been created by painter Tran Van Can. Photo courtesy of Sothebys.

The painting titled "Hai Co Gai" that Sotheby's Hong Kong claims to have been created by painter Tran Van Can. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Uyen Huy, Chairman of the HCMC Fine Arts Association, said that after Vietnam opened its market, many foreign collectors began hunting for paintings by the local masters.

To meet this growing demand, fake paintings were created, even by the relatives of the great masters themselves. Collectors then turned to contemporary works by younger artists, but these works were also forged.

"Since then, fake paintings have constantly plagued the market and found their way to foreign auction houses," Huy told local media.

If fake paintings can be found in prestigious auction houses, it also stands to reason that they are common in smaller galleries.

Long said most paintings by Le Pho, Le Thi Luu, Vu Cao Dam and Mai Trung Thu are owned by galleries in France. Yet, it is very difficult to know about these galleries’ dealings. Fake paintings can travel from one gallery to another and are gradually legitimized and sold at international auction houses with faultless records.

"It seems that we have no choice than to trust galleries’ professional ethics," Long said.

Khoi, who lives in France, said most fake paintings are done by Vietnamese people at the expense of other Vietnamese people. Vietnamese painters copy and forge paintings by the old masters and sell them to French galleries. Then Vietnamese collectors buy them because they mistakenly think that these paintings have been verified.

Actually, the relationship between galleries and forgers and middlemen is very complicated, Khoi said, adding, "Quite a few galleries recognize fake paintings, but they still trade them for profit."

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