Vietnam some way away from million dollar painting club

By Hieu Nhan   May 8, 2021 | 04:26 am PT
While Mai Trung Thu’s “Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong” smashed the nation’s auction record with a $3.1 million bid, such events remain the exception for Vietnamese works.

On April 18, the masterpiece fetched the highest bid for a work by a Vietnamese artist at the Sotheby's Auction House in Hong Kong masterpiece.

This landmark event, along with several other similar instances of Vietnamese works fetching high prices, have been flagged as a hopeful sign for local artists making good in international markets.

Vu Tuan Anh, general director of the Hanoi-based Chon Auction House, said: "I want my colleagues and I to hold auctions for million-dollar works in the future."

However, other industry insiders believe that such a future is not around the corner.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong by Mai Trung Thu. Photo courtesy of Sothebys.

"Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong" by Mai Trung Thu. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Arts researcher Ngo Kim Khoi said that the bids for Vietnamese works at international auctions are still low compared to other Asian paintings because of several factors, not just the quality of the artwork.

Vietnam’s art auction market was like a child that has not received proper care early on, Khoi said.

"Now, other kids can run while we still cannot walk."

The history of Vietnamese fine art has had an influence on local painting prices. Vietnamese paintings had "disappeared" for a long time, especially after the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l'Indochine, also known as the Indochina College of Fine Arts, was closed in 1945.

In the 1930s, this school had trained many famous artists like Mai Trung Thu (1906-1980), Le Pho (1907 - 2001) and To Ngoc Van (1906 - 1954). Their paintings were displayed and highly appreciated at art exhibitions in Paris (1931), Rome (1932), Germany’s Cologne City (1933), Italy’s Milan City (1934), Belgium (1935 - 1937), San Francisco (1937), Japan (1940), and other places.

However, after the college closed, Vietnamese artists and their works were not seen at international exhibitions for a long time, so many collectors and industry experts were not aware of them.

Then, during the long decades of war, the Vietnamese people did not have financial conditions or market demand for artworks, except among a few rich people. Therefore, there were no collectors in the country in order to form a market for paintings.

During this period, the few artworks produced were not well preserved. They were often damaged by the weather, and lost to destruction wreaked by bombs.

At this time, the art scene developed steadily in other countries and a market developed for their works.

In 2010, the painting "Bali Life" by Chinese-Indonesian artist Lee Man Fong (1913-1988) fetched $3.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction, setting a bidding record for a painter from Southeast Asia at that time.

In 2011, Chinese painter Qi Baishi’s "Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree" sold for $64.4 million. In South Korea, Kim Hwan Gi's "Universe" went under the hammer in Hong Kong for $12.8 million in 2019.

Many fakes

The widespread prevalence of copies or fakes has also made collectors and investors wary of spending big money on Vietnamese paintings.

Painter To Ngoc Thanh, son of famous painter To Ngoc Van, said that when some artist’s works fetch high prices, fakes follow soon after.

"Auction houses do not know how to handle this problem. Even with many buyers, they lack confidence and are afraid. No one wants to spend big money to buy an artwork without knowing whether it is real or fake," Thanh said.

In 2016, Christie's auction house in Hong Kong sold To Ngoc Van's "Thuyen Tren Song Huong" (Boat on Perfume River) for $57,000 and Le Van De's "Lady of Hue" for $ 89,000. However, the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi also hung up two identical paintings. The museum said that they had bought To Ngoc Van's painting in 1965 and Le Van De's painting in 1976.

Thanh said that the two paintings have been copied many times that it was difficult to determine which work was the original one.

In September 2019, Sotheby's withdrew To Ngoc Van’s "La Thu" (Letter) and Tran Van Can’s "Hai Co Gai" (Two Women) from its auction after allegations they were fakes. Le Pho's "Doi Song Gia Dinh" (Family Life) was also suspected by experts to be a fake, although it was sold for $1.1 million.

La Thu (Letter) by To Ngoc Van was said to be a fake version at an Sothebys auction. Photo courtesy of Sothebys.

"La Thu" (Letter) by To Ngoc Van was withdrawn from a Sotheby's auction over allegations that it was a fake. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Khoi said Vietnamese artists were to blame. They copied paintings of artists from the Indochina period and get them into French galleries. Also, the relationship between galleries, collectors, and brokers was complex. Many people know that the paintings are fake but put them up for bids anyway to make money.

"After Bui Xuan Phai's paintings were bought for thousands of dollars, many fake paintings emerged. People joked that during that time, Phai painted more than when he was still alive," Khoi said.

The prices of paintings also depend largely on collectors and investors, according to art researcher Pham Long.

He said most Vietnamese people don’t have an interest in collecting valuable art. People with money choose to invest in real estate, which pays off quickly. Locals have started to pay more interest in Vietnamese artists only in recent years, so they cannot push up the prices of artworks that quickly.

Meanwhile, collectors in countries like China, Indonesia, and other countries have "higher aesthetic perceptions and art habits." This makes the art collection market vibrant and boosts prices, Long said, adding that in such countries, collectors and billionaires actively buy paintings from domestic artists and set up private museums.

In Indonesia, the majority of museums are privately owned. The OHD Museum in Java, founded by Oei Hong Djin, Indonesian tobacco mogul, displays more than 2,000 works of contemporary and modern Indonesian artists.

In China, the He Jing Yuan Art Museum in Beijing is owned by billionaire Li Bing, while the Aurora Museum in Shanghai was founded by electronics tycoon Chen Yung Tai. Meanwhile, one-third of the museums in Singapore are founded by collectors and billionaires.

The researchers also said art collectors and investors will pay more for paintings on seeing their economic benefits. Once that happens, related fields such as auctions, appraisal and artwork management will also develop and become professional. In turn, the market for Vietnamese paintings will become more active and attract more domestic and foreign investors, they added.

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