Vietnamese art authenticity issue at global auctions raises concerns

By Phuong Linh   June 9, 2024 | 06:00 am PT
Experts are warning collectors that fake Vietnamese paintings are going under the hammer at international auctions, making it imperative that they research thoroughly before buying.

At a Christie's Hong Kong auction in late May, Nguyen Sang's "Portrait of a Girl" was sold for HK$176,400 (US$22,588) and Nguyen Tu Nghiem's "Ancient Dance" for HK$1 million ($129,000), but both faced skepticism from experts about their authenticity.

The painting Portrait of a Girl believed to be by the renowned artist Nguyen Sang. Photo from Christies.

The painting is purported to be Nguyen Sang's "Portrait of a Girl." Photo courtesy of Christie's

Referring to "Portrait of a Girl," collector Ly Doi raised doubts saying it resembled a silk artwork - meaning it is a possible fake - by Sang depicting Ngoc Ha, wife of Colonel Nguyen Kim Son.

The brushstrokes are unlike Sang’s, and the auction house website listed the date of the painting as 1971 whereas the original was known to be dated April 30, 1978, he said.

The portrait of Ngoc Ha with delicate brushstrokes was painted by Nguyen Sang in two days. Photo by Ly Doi

The portrait of Ngoc Ha with delicate brushstrokes was painted by Nguyen Sang in two days. Photo by Ly Doi

As for "Ancient Dance," Doi observed variations in lacquer techniques from Nguyen Tu Nghiem's style. The artist was a part of Vietnam's quartet of legendary painters alongside Sang, Bui Xuan Phai and Duong Bich Lien.

The painting's value might have been inflated due to its rarity and the artist's renown, Doi said.

Art researcher Ngo Kim Khoi said buyers usually monitor the market closely, and so it remains unclear why they would invest in the two artworks whose provenance is disputed.

Christie's has said it would study the information provided and respond accordingly.

Dubious Vietnamese paintings have made an appearance at international auctions for years.

In 2019 Sotheby's Hong Kong caused a stir in the art community for selling works attributed to famous artists like To Ngoc Van and Tran Van Can.

Local artists quickly denounced them as copies, leading to the auction house’s withdrawal of the paintings.

Again in late 2021 Sotheby's had to remove the painting "L'image traditionnelle d'une maison de paysan" (Nha Tranh Goc Mit or Cottage By Jackfruit Tree) associated with Nguyen Van Ty from an auction for similar reasons.

The Vietnamese art market has also faced the issue. At Vu Xuan Chung's 2016 exhibition in HCMC titled "Paintings Returned from Europe," 15 out of 17 works were deemed fake.

The two others, attributed to Ta Ty, turned out to be painted by Thanh Chuong circa 1970-1971, causing the latter a great deal of frustration.

Experts blame the prevalence of counterfeit Vietnamese art on insufficient measures to verify authenticity and weak enforcement.

Le Quang of Le Auction House said the art market is flooded with fakes.

There is a longstanding practice of knocking off works by renowned painters, complicating the determination of originals' provenance.

This painting attributed to Nguyen Tu Nghiem at Christies auction is suspected to be a fake. Photo from Christies

This painting attributed to Nguyen Tu Nghiem at Christie's auction is suspected to be a fake. Photo from Christie's

Artist Vu Dinh Tuan noted an increase in counterfeit paintings since 1986, when Vietnam began its economic reforms. Art became increasingly valuable at that time. According to art researcher Pham Long, since Le Pho became the first Vietnamese artist to sell a painting for over US$1 million in 2017, the number of fake paintings in the market has been on the rise. The increasing prices of Vietnamese paintings have driven this surge in forgeries

Counterfeit paintings are predominantly Indochina artworks because of their high market value, the artists' passing, and the absence of authentication documentation.

According to Duong Anh Nga, a member of the HCMC Bar Association, although Vietnam has laws against art forgery, the absence of specialized appraisal agencies hinders thorough authentication.

The Le Auction House representative said that not every auction house has an appraisal team capable of assessing all paintings by Indochina artists.

"However, this is something our country still lacks," Doi said. He even wondered about the fines for Vietnamese who bring back a confirmed counterfeit painting.

With his years of art collecting experience, Quang advises buyers to thoroughly research before purchasing.

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