|Picture perfect: Visitors survey the various paintings at a gallery.
by Ha Nguyen
It's the age old problem for collectors in Vietnamese art. US-based businessman Duong Quang Chan wanted to buy several high-end paintings, but his Hanoian friends urged him to employ caution as the domestic market is flooded with fakes.
Domestic art is lagging behind the rest of the world both in terms of composition and theory, diminishing the value of Vietnamese paintings in the international market, where they are frequently left unsold at auctions, art critic Phan Cam Thuong says.
"Viet Nam still lacks a meaningful domestic painting market and artworks' values are often based on appraisals from foreign traders because local painting collectors are few and far between. Painters themselves sometimes criticised each other, causing further confusion over the value of these works."
Large sections of the media have launched special campaigns to promote Vietnamese paintings, but Thuong claims many articles have used incorrect information and inaccurate technical terms.
"Classic works have received cursory introductions, while less valued works have been given exultant promotion. Moreover some paintings fiercely divide critics, causing unwitting buyers to be misled."
|Brushing up: A Vietnamese painter settles down to work on a piece. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
These issues have led to a freeze in the painting market, leaving many artists struggling for cash.
"They do not have enough money to buy materials to paint new works," Thuong says, adding that he knows several young painters with creative minds but without the financial means to fulfil their potential.
In addition, many galleries have been forced to close their doors or eke out a miserable existence selling home decor paintings to locals and tourists who are seeking souvenirs, says painter Do Luc.
The reality is such that galleries in Ha Noi are often split into two types of paintings: one for collectors and the other merely for home decoration.
"Almost galleries must run commercially or they are likely to incurr great losses, says Luc. "Currently, many painters are enjoying financial success because they base their works around current demand." He adds that these paintings often feature bright colours and clean edges to make them attractive for use as home decorations. The prices for these paintings range from US$100-300, while true artistic paintings are facing a terrible backlash as a result.
Young painter Nguyen Anh Tuan says: "It's very difficult to sell a painting for over $1,000 although its real value is much more than that. We young painters are rarely able to sell our works at such a price."
Despite the worsening situation, galleries and painters continue to enjoy success in big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City.
|Picture not-so-perfect: Buyers often fail to realise they are paying for faked or copied masterpieces. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Critics like Thuong, Tran Luong and Duong Tuong say there has been growth in the painting market, but unfortunately it's the result of artworks being downgraded and commercialised.
Thuong says many galleries have sold low quality paintings from dozens of contemporary painters, displaying motley and colourful paintings to show off their technique but lacking in creative ideas.
"Galleries nowadays only help to discover a talented painter if they can make money. Most galleries do not follow the proper standards to champion art. They are weak on sensitive aesthetics and economic powers in order to promote exchanges with foreign galleries," Thuong adds.
Luong believes the approach of galleries in Viet Nam remains unprofessional. Many gallery owners have no painting knowledge and often operate solely for profit, without helping to discover talented painters or support the industry.
These owners often ignore art conventions by displaying different sorts of paintings in the same section such as oil and silk paintings next to realistic and abstract ones.
But according to Luong "No professional gallery does this".
Critic Tuong says paintings at many Vietnamese galleries are often for souvenir purposes only.
Several critics have spoken out over the swarm of fake paintings in Viet Nam. Galleries often sell fake works of current painters while collectors sell copied masterpieces by dead painters.
They act under the assumption that buyers are unaware and generally fail to realise that such practices will damage their prestige. These galleries have seriously violated copyright laws and the people suffering most are the artists themselves.
"It's time to have tougher laws for the art business," Thuong says.
Asked whether the chief buyers in this murky market are locals or foreigners, Luong says Vietnamese tend to buy fewer paintings, not because they have less money, but because their art knowledge is still limited.
"We should promote awareness among local people and help them to know how to enjoy the arts by opening basic classes and inviting artists to talk and exchange views with them," Luong says.
Asked whether the Vietnamese painting market remains in peril, painter Hoang Duc Toan says the strange and attractive nature of Vietnamese paintings that used to attract buyers, particularly foreign ones, has lost its impact, particularly since the country's renewal process began nearly 30 years ago.
|In the frame: Nguyen Thai Hoc Street in Ha Noi, one of the main outlets for selling paintings. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
In addition, Vietnamese paintings are lacking promotion abroad, relying mainly on the relationships of each individual painter or gallery owner.
Furthermore, a number of galleries have sold copied paintings from renowned painters, causing foreign collectors to lose confidence in the Viet Nam art scene, says Toan.
"Many art lovers wanted to buy a painting for their home or as a gift for friend, but they said they didn't know where to buy a real one so they have to come to the gallery to order a copied one," says Toan.
Toan, who is former head of Fine Arts and Photography Department under the culture ministry, believes there are a few solutions to improve the situation. He says: "Painters should improve the quality of their works and its attractiveness, while galleries owners should improve their business approach by introducing Vietnamese paintings to art lovers inside and outside the country."
"Significant help is required from the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association and local art establishments through exhibitions and frequent meetings to exchange views and experiences, while healthier galleries could play a huge role in developing the domestic market.
"The Vietnamese art world should try to take advantage of support and co-operation from Vietnamese embassies abroad to popularise Vietnamese paintings."
Asked about the history of fake paintings in Viet Nam, Toan says Vietnamese painting circles were in uproar when they saw the work A Girl in Garden by famous painter Nguyen Gia Tri advertised on the Asian Art News in Singapore, while the painting was being sold in Hong Kong market.
Painting experts and collectors who have visited Singapore and Hong Kong said foreign collectors are often reluctant to buy Vietnamese paintings because they are afraid of buying a fake, says Toan.
A fake painting is often copied from a famous painter's work which has sold well in the market. They are often leased to other painters to paint works under their style and then sign their names on the works for sale, says Nguyen Do Bao, former general secretary of the Ha Noi Fine Arts Association.
He singles out an example from 1997, when several painters borrowed a painting by famous artist Nguyen Sang, saying they wished to repaint the work for study. However, after the painting was delivered back to its owner, people saw a number of very similar works on sale in Hong Kong market.
Painting connoisseur circles say many masterworks by famous painters Nguyen Sang, Bui Xuan Phai or Nguyen Gia Tri which are sold in the markets are often faked.
To deal with the problem, the culture ministry should ensure close co-ordination between relevant agencies such as the police and customs officials, Bao says.
Painter Trinh Cung claims many painters have become rich by producing and selling multiple copies of famous artworks.
"By doing so they have made forgery a very lucrative business," adds Cung.
He says the number of fake works will be reduced if they can be strictly controlled and offenders are fined. Sadly for the artists, Viet Nam is a long way off implementing regulations to tackle such violations. — VNS