Hong Kong Auction House pulls suspected fake Vietnamese painting from sale

October 07, 2021 - 08:47

Sotheby's Hong Kong auction house has announced it will withdraw a lacquered wooden screen which is suspected of being a copy of an artwork by Vietnamese painter, Nguyễn Văn Tỵ (1917-1992), from the upcoming sale on Sunday over concerns of its authenticity.

HÀ NỘI — Sotheby's Hong Kong auction house has announced it will withdraw a lacquered wooden screen which is suspected of being a copy of an artwork by Vietnamese painter, Nguyễn Văn Tỵ (1917-1992), from the upcoming sale on Sunday over concerns of its authenticity.

In an announcement sent to Ace Le, a Vietnamese independent curator and art researcher in Singapore, the Hong Kong auction house writes: “Sotheby’s has become aware of concerns over the authenticity of Nguyen Van Ty’s L'image traditionnelle d'une maison de paysan (Lot 778, Modern Art Day Sale, 10 October, 2021). Sotheby’s takes issues of authenticity seriously, and will withdraw this work from auction and conduct further investigations.”

Sotheby’s has taken the measure after many Vietnamese art researchers and even the family of the late painter raised concerns, affirming that the artwork is not authentic.

Earlier, the lacquered wooden screen titled L'image traditionnelle d'une maison de paysan was posted on Sotheby’s website for an expected price of HKD700,000-1,000,000 (US$89,000-128,500), prior to the upcoming Modern Art Day Sale on Sunday.

The introduction about the artwork reads: “This work is comparable to L'image traditionnelle d'une maison de paysan (1958) by Nguyen Van Ty at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Hanoi.”

The 'L'image traditionnelle d'une maison de paysan' lacquer, suspected of being a copy of Nguyễn Văn Tỵ's artwork on Sotheby's Hong Kong website. Photo courtesy of the auction house

As soon as the item was introduced on Sotheby's website, it raised concerns among the Vietnamese art community about its authenticity. In particular, painter Nguyễn Bình Minh, Tỵ's daughter and former deputy director of Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, confirmed the work being auctioned by Sotheby's is not original.

According to the artist, her father only created the jackfruit tree lacquer painting measuring 67x105 centimetres, titled Nhà Tranh Gốc Mít (Cottage By Jackfruit Tree) that was displayed at the National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1958. The artwork was moved to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in 1960 and was preserved and displayed there until now. Painter Tỵ was posthumously awarded the Hồ Chí Minh Prize for literature and art in 2000 for this painting.

“In fine art, there is no artwork ‘comparable to’ another,” said art researcher Ngô Kim Khôi.

“I reckon that this term has been deliberately studied with the aim of creating an ambiguous meaning to deceive those with little experience in collecting antique paintings.

“Sotheby’s did have a major oversight when listing a consigned work without having consulted the artist’s surviving family first. And his daughter, Nguyễn Bình Minh, isn’t just anyone – she is the former deputy director of the Vietnam Fine Art Museum, and an artist herself,” Vietnamese art curator Ace Le wrote to Việt Nam News.

However, according to him, the auction house’s decision to withdraw the lot is indeed a constructive and welcoming move.

“It shows that they have been listening to the Vietnamese art community, and are willing to fix their wrongs. We need to encourage such diligence,” he added.

Speaking with Tuổi trẻ newspaper about Sotheby's decision to pull the work from its upcoming auction, Minh said that she highly appreciates the auction house's receptive and demanding attitude.

However, she also hoped that the research of paintings, especially those by late artists, should be implemented more carefully and thoroughly to avoid similar cases that might seriously affect the artist’s reputation and cause damage to the art market.

Nguyễn Văn Tỵ (1917 - 1992) graduated from the Indochina College of Fine Arts and was part of the generation of Việt Nam's great lacquer artists. He was the first General Secretary of Vietnam Fine Arts Association.

Critical issue

Many fake paintings of Vietnamese artists, particularly of those who graduated from the Indochina School of Fine Arts at the beginning of the 20th century have been publicly traded by many international auction houses worldwide.

The problem, according to the art researcher Khôi, “is a dilemma for the budding painting market of Vietnamese fine arts", as the state law lacks transparency in protecting the copyright of art.

Earlier, Sotheby's Hong Kong also withdrew two artworks, Lá Thư (The Letter) by Tô Ngọc Vân and Hai Cô Gái (Resting Ladies) that were believed to be fake.

In mid-July 2020, French-based auction house, Tajan, removed five out six paintings associated with famous names of Vietnamese art such as Nguyễn Gia Trí, Dương Bích Liên and Bùi Xuân Phái from their July 21 sale after concerns over their authenticity.

Other masterpieces of Vietnamese art, Tô Ngọc Vân’s Thuyền Trên Sông Hương (Boat On The Perfume River) and Lady of Hue by Lê Văn Đệ were auctioned for $57,000 and $89,000 respectively by Christie's. However, two identical works are being displayed at Hanoi Fine Arts Museum.

“Works from Indochine days have gone through a test of time, and exude a special appeal to a majority of Vietnamese collectors, who still yearn for modern art that follows classical aesthetics conventions,” said art researcher Ace Le.

“As they keep breaking record prices, speculators have been joining the fray, actively scouting for investment opportunities. Lately, I have seen many of such, and they are based anywhere – Việt Nam, Southeast Asia, China or Europe. The problem is, they only care about whether the work could be flipped onto the next buyer, at what profit, without actual care for authentication."

Both art researchers said it is of utmost importance to firstly build a strong foundation of copyright and art laws.

“The art community – associations, museums, practitioners, collectors, dealers, researchers, etc. – with the help from the media, must band together to share information and boycott false works and false sales.

“Lastly, in the longer run, there is a need to build not one, but a number of independent authentication agencies, who have enough domain expertise and technical equipment to provide the much-needed services to the market,” said Ace Le. VNS