Vietnamese art suffers from a reputation for fakes 1

It seems sometimes that fakes are the rule rather than the exception in Vietnamese art. Stories about outrageous fakery abound.  

For instance, three years ago, an exhibition titled “Paintings Returning from Europe” held at the HCMC Museum of Fine Arts caused an uproar when 15 of the 17 works exhibited were found to be fake. Two of them were authentic, but signed with false names.

The lacquer painting titled Rong (Dragon) showed at the Paintings Returning from Europe exhibition. Photo by VnExpress/Thoai Ha.

The lacquer painting titled Rong (Dragon) showed at the “Paintings Returning from Europe” exhibition. Photo by VnExpress/Thoai Ha.

The collection, owned by Vu Xuan Chung, featured works supposed to have been created by some of the greatest Vietnamese painters like Ta Ty, Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien and Bui Xuan Phai.

It was a shock to everybody concerned because Vu Xuan Chung had earlier bought the paintings from an old friend, Jean-Francois Hubert, a senior consultant for Vietnamese art at the renowned auction house Christie’s Hong Kong.

After Nguyen Thanh Chuong, a well-known contemporary painter, claimed that a painting titled Truu Tuong (Abstract) had actually been created by himself in the early 1970s, not by Ta Ty in 1952, the museum convened an artistic committee to appraise the collection.

The committee found that the paintings were indeed fake. The museum apologized to the public. The paintings were returned to their owner, and the issue wasn’t pushed any further.

In recalling the incident, painter Thanh Chuong has told local media about his frustration at the fact that at that moment, Vietnamese authorities missed an unprecedented opportunity to investigate a large-scale transnational forgery ring.

“Neither the museum nor the artistic committee took the responsibility,” he said. “They let the issue pass without being able to protect artists’ right.” According to Thanh Chuong, if Vietnamese authorities had really wanted to investigate, they could have asked Interpol and other international bodies to pitch in.

For many years, it isn’t just the works of the old masters that have been notoriously forged. In Vietnam, many contemporary artists have suffered Thanh Chuong’s fate and seen their works copied and sold all over the place with impunity.

Painter Thanh Chuong shows some original drafts to show that his work had been forged and falsely signed as Ta Tys. Photo by VnExpress/ Tieu Vu.

Painter Thanh Chuong shows some original drafts to show that his work had been forged and falsely signed as Ta Ty’s. Photo by VnExpress/ Tieu Vu.

Automatically fake

According to well-known art critic Phan Cam Thuong, with buyers not caring about genuine products, fake paintings have become so common in the country that many foreigners automatically assume that the Vietnamese art market is basically one for fakes.  

Phan Cam Thuong told a meeting last year that foreign buyers, who make up about 90 percent of Vietnamese art customers, are also those who lose out the most in the dubious Vietnamese art market.

Many painters agree that fakery is lowering the prestige and value of Vietnamese art worldwide. 

According to painter Pham An Hai, after he shares his paintings with friends and colleagues on Facebook, they can be immediately copied by as much as 80 percent, signed with different names, pre-dated and sold openly.

Many works of contemporary painters have been found to be forged and sold cheekily on such websites as xuongtranh.vn and xuongtranhnetviet.com and social media, attracting thousands of followers.

Fake paintings sold by the websites and art factories are diverse, covering all sizes and mediums such as oil-paint, lacquer and silk. Prices range from VND1-5 million ($42.9-214.6) apiece. Contemporary painters whose works are often forged include Thanh Chuong, Pham An Hai, Dinh Quan, and Le The Anh.

Painter Lam Thanh last year discovered to his amazement that his 41cm x 61cm silk painting titled Ms. Xuan had been copied and sold for $14,000, a much higher price than the $2,500 he intended to charge for his work.   

Similarly, in May, painter Ha Hung Dung was astonished when he learned that as many as 15 paintings of his were hung or painted on the wall of a 5-star hotel in Sa Pa Town. It turned out that the hotel had bought the paintings from a wall-painting shop in Hanoi.

Like Dung, many painters don’t even know that their paintings are being copied and sold illegally until they are hit directly in the face with the fact.

According to painter Lam Duc Manh, copies of an unfinished version of his painting titled Autumn Afternoon by Quan Chuong Gate are being sold widely, even on an international website. Manh has told local media that a shop has been copying and selling his works for the past 10 years but he is yet to find a good way to solve the issue.  

According to industry insiders, Vietnamese authorities don’t enforce copyright laws and discipline violators effectively. No case of painting forgery has ever been brought to court. Painters often have to confront violators directly.

Some, like the hotel in Sa Pa, has appropriately apologized and destroyed the fake works. Others simply deny that they are doing anything wrong.

Some painters estimate that as much as 80 percent of paintings sold in the market are fake copies.    

A major difficulty in dealing with the problem of fakes lies in the difficulties in distinguishing between genuine and fake works. Even prestigious auction houses with their supposed expertise can be fooled.

Last year, Chon Auction House, one of a few fledging auction houses in Vietnam, attracted public attention when a silk portrait it exhibited was found not to be the work of the late famous silk painter Vu Giang Huong, but a rendering on silk of an oil painting by Nguyen Van Dong.

Nguyen Van Dong had unwittingly allowed a fine arts student to make a copy, which was then falsely signed and sold.

Dubious reputation

Vietnam has become well known for its faking capabilities. Foreign media outlets have covered the issue more than once.

The origin of fake art can be traced back to the late 1960s. According to The New York Times, to protect original artworks from wartime destruction, the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts commissioned original artists and skilled copyists to make brilliant reproductions to be displayed while storing precious originals in the countryside.

The painting titled Abstract. Photo by VnExpress/Thoai Ha. 

The painting titled Abstract. Photo by VnExpress/Thoai Ha. 

Among other possibilities, when the artists took their works home, they could have made more than one copies and kept the originals. This is a major factor behind the confusion that persists till today, with no one knowing for sure whether or not what is on display is original.

In a conference held last week by the fine arts department to address the completely new field of fine arts evaluation in Vietnam, vice director of the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts Bui Thi Thanh Mai brought up the important idea of archiving artists and their works to help establish authenticity.

The department’s director, Vi Kien Thanh, told the conference that his agency would swiftly carry out this idea and build a national database to document artists and artworks, especially artists who have passed away.

Meanwhile, after years of being ripped off, local painters are banding together to take action to protect their rights.

In May, a group of 9 painters, led by Bui Trong Du and aided by lawyers and journalists, exposed the violations of several traditional dress or ao dai businesses in HCMC that were illegally reprinting the painters’ works on their dresses.

The issue was settled after the violating businesses publicly acknowledged their mistakes, apologized and removed all illegal designs from their operations.

The painters have since opened a public Facebook group called “Phan doi xam pham ban quyen tac gia hoi hoa” (Protesting the Violation of Painters’ Rights) to further monitor the local art market.

Some lawyers have reminded local painters to always register for their works’ copyrights in case of dispute. The two departments of culture and sports from Hanoi and HCMC have also told local media that they are aware of rampant forgery in the market and will investigate any complaint received.

The Department of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition has also stepped up to do its part.

At the end of last year, it established a center to evaluate the authenticity of works of fine arts and photography. This was the second attempt of its kind in Vietnam after the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts started one 10 years ago, but shut down eventually in part because it failed to attract clients.

According to the department’s director, Vi Kien Thanh, in other countries, governments aren’t involved in the appraisal of artworks. The task is usually carried out by NGOs and the private sector. In South Korea, for instance, there are 14 private fine arts appraisal centers, with two of the biggest evaluating 500 to 700 works every year.

In Vietnam, as there is a dire need but no one doing it, the government has to pitch in for the moment, Thanh said.

To carry out its job, the evaluation center will also work with the Ministry of  Police’s Institution of Criminal Sciences in difficult cases requiring advanced technology, he added.

So far, 7 collectors have bought their paintings to the center to be verified. Experts from the evaluation committee saw right away that the works were fake. After having their questions answered, the clients simply took the works home, feeling no need to officially register for the center’s services just to receive an official stamp of fakery.

According to Hoang Minh Phuc, vice president of the Dong Nai College of Decorative Arts, establishing a legally binding art evaluation center is a good idea. However, a truly effective and professional center needs money, technology and human resources, she said.

Phuc also emphasized the importance of building a systematic database on artists, a task that needs the expertise of curators, art critics and theorists, and art managers.

Another factor is the need for a specific legal framework regulating art evaluation that incorporates existing copyright laws. Phuc said it was essential for art students and new artists to be taught or otherwise equipped with knowledge about copyrights and professional ethics to prevent violations.   

Yet another factor is the training of personnel in the science of evaluating and authenticating artworks, which art schools in Vietnam are yet to do.

Phuc told VNE International that at the moment, an artistic committee is often convened to judge the authenticity of a piece or a collection, and the judgement is still based on a general and intuitive knowledge of art rather than scientifc evidence provided by specialized technology required by the field. 

Fakes are not going to disappear anytime soon, but a concerted effort is now on to restore originality and authenticity to the Vietnamese art scene, said industry insiders.