'Vietnam’s Mona Lisa' selling for millions no big deal

By Hieu Nhan   April 22, 2021 | 06:28 pm PT
Experts are not surprised that a bidder recently paid $3.1 million for the 'Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong' by Mai Trung Thu.

The masterpiece set the highest bidding record for a Vietnamese painting after it was bought by an unknown buyer at the Sotheby's Auction House in Hong Kong last Sunday.

Vu Tuan Anh, general director of the Chon Auction House in Hanoi, said the $3.1 million price tag was "appropriate," since the painting is rich in historical value and done by one of Vietnam's most prominent modern art painters.

"That figure is completely normal since the artwork was created by a leading Vietnamese painter, associated with local art history and put up by one of the most reputable auction houses in the world," he said.

In fact, he added, the current price of Vietnamese paintings is even cheaper than in some Asian countries. Some contemporary artists from Indonesia or South Korea have works fetching several tens of millions of dollars.


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

The quality of the artwork is the deciding factor for the value of the work, he noted.

On its website, Sotheby's described that the painting as "monumental, yet remarkably tender and intimate."

"The beguiling portrait also captures Mai Thu’s deep admiration of its sitter, a noble lady rumored to be the artist’s love interest. Encapsulating his affections for Ms. Phuong, this work is special within Mai Thu’s oeuvre, as there are only two known works painted of this subject," the auction house wrote.

Fine arts researcher Ngo Kim Khoi said the 'Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong' was the "Mona Lisa of Vietnam."

He first saw the work 30 years ago at the house of Dothi Dumonteil, his neighbor, the former owner of the masterpiece, in Paris, France.

Dothi's real name is Do Thi Tuyet, a French woman of Vietnamese origin. Her husband, Pierre Dumonteil, is an art collector who owns many works by Vietnamese artists. But Khoi did not think then that the work would one day fetch millions of dollars.

He said the painter used gentle colors to depict a pure and beautiful girl, easily connecting with the viewer’s heart. Khoi said that when he looks at the painting, he believes that Phuong is looking at him as though she had many things she wishes to share. The work clearly depicts the image of a Vietnamese woman, from the way she wears the traditional ao dai and headdress to the shape of her face and her sitting posture.

"Paintings during the Indochina period of women wearing the ao dai are always more valuable than other genres," he said.

'Beautiful and rare'

Art researcher Pham Long said the painting was done when Mai Trung Thu had just graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi, known now as the Vietnam University of Fine Arts. It showcases the artist's talent and style, using cool colors and a "triangular composition" to create a sense of peace and freedom.

"This is a beautiful and rare work in the early period of Mai Trung Thu. The painting has more collection value than speculative value," he said.

The name and fame of Mai Trung Thu has boosted the value of the picture, Long felt.

The painter graduated from the first course of the Indochina Fine Arts College (1925-1930).

In an interview with the RFI radio station in France, artist Le Pho once commented that Thu was the best artist of his class.

That is no small praise. Pho is one of the four most prominent artists of the golden age of Vietnamese modern art along with Thu, Vu Cao Dam and Le Thi Luu.

For most of his life, Thu lived and worked in France. According to Khoi, Thu's living environment and past experience play an important factor in promoting his creativity and talent.

Thu's paintings have been exhibited in many parts of the world including Rome (1932), Milan and Naples in Italy (1934), Brussels in Belgium (1936) and San Francisco in the U.S. (1937). In 1964, he organized the exhibition "Les enfants de Mai Thu" in France, which was acclaimed by experts. Many publishers have purchased the right to print cards and prints of his work.

The artist’s works have fetched handsome prices earlier. His "Tea party" and "Elegant lady overlooking the balcony" sold for HK$815,500 ($105,000) and with HK$600,000 ($77,000), respectively.

The high demand for paintings by artists of the Indochina period also boosted their prices, the researchers said.

"Vietnamese art has become more and more valuable. But high prices can only be obtained for the works of artists graduating from the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine," Khoi said.

Tuan Anh said there are many reasons why this work of art is highly valued.

First, the artist was the first of many to step out of the cradle of artists training in Indochina and was lauded by domestic and foreign experts.

In the 1930s, Thu held exhibitions in France that attracted a lot of attention abroad. Secondly, the artist captured a volatile historical period, in Vietnam as well as the world, making their works a witness of history.

"Over time, the number of paintings by Indochinese artists is becoming increasingly rare in the market. They are expensive because of the French training factor and the historical factor, resulting in the masterpieces carrying a piece of history. More importantly, world auction markets like Sotheby's have continuously pushed prices in recent sessions, which helps drive the demand even higher among bidders," Tuan Anh said.

The high prices are also a typical business tactic of auction houses, several experts said.

"When putting down a sum of money, collectors and investors must know if they can get returns on the investment. The price of a painting can't be pushed to a higher level if it is not beautiful or does not have any value behind it. The aesthetic value is another factor that boosts the economic value of the painting higher," Khoi said.

There used to be many fake paintings detected in the Vietnamese market in the past, and collectors and investors did not dare to spend large sums of money on them. But now, experts say, fakes have been eliminated, more or less, and buyers have a team of highly qualified advisors.

Artist Le Thiet Cuong said that according to some sources, the new owner of the 'Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong' is Vietnamese.

"This is a good sign. In the end, all the best artworks should go back to Vietnam, not only paintings but also antiques," Cuong said.

He said many works of this period are owned by foreign collectors. Before 1945, the Vietnamese people did not have the wherewithal to bid, except for a few aristocrats. Therefore, the paintings were mainly purchased by the French in Indochina. Some artists lived or held exhibitions in France, so the paintings are kept by collectors there.

Tuan Anh, who works in the auctioning business, believes that million dollar bids will start to pop up in Vietnam in the future.

"I want my colleagues and me to one day hold auctions for the million-dollar works."

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