The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts has apologized for hosting an exhibition in which 17 paintings purportedly by four of Vietnam’s most influential 20th-century painters proved inauthentic. The entire collection belongs to one Vu Xuan Chung, who says he acquired them from Jean-Francois Hubert, a Christie’s senior consultant for Vietnamese art.
In a press release issued this week to local media, the museum said it arranged a private meeting on Tuesday with managers, art experts, and local artists to discuss the validity of the works in the exhibition. They found that 15 of the 17 pieces are copies of works by the late artists Bùi Xuân Phái, Nguyễn Sáng, Dương Bích Liên, and Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm (who passed away just last month); two are genuine paintings by other artists that now sport forged signatures by political artist Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc and by painter and poet Tạ Tỵ. The show, titled Paintings Returned from Europe, opened on July 10 and ended yesterday, with the forged works remaining on display until the show’s close despite the committee’s recent revelations, according to Vietnam daily Tuoi Tre News.
Visitors’ concerns about the paintings’ authenticity emerged shortly after the exhibition opened, according to Dan Tri International, but museum management decided to review the works more closely only after painter Thanh Chương visited the show and saw his own painting, “Truu Tuong” (in English, “Abstract”) hanging on the wall. His name as well as the work’s date of completion had apparently been painted over, replaced with what seemed to be Tạ Tỵ’s signature. The museum’s vice director, Hua Thanh Binh, said that he did not take part in the evaluation process, having been abroad in the US, but that Chung had provided the necessary certificates of authenticity. That process, however, is not quite the most reliable one.
“My normal routine is having collectors send me photos of the paintings via email,” Binh said. “If the painters are still alive then I’ll send them the photos for confirmation. If they are dead then the collectors must show us the paintings for evaluation.”
Chung and Hubert both maintain all 17 works are real, with the art expert even sending local media an old photograph of the four legendary painters with the painting in the background, featuring Tạ Tỵ’s name. Locals, however, did some sleuthing of their own to locate the original image, and have found that Hubert apparently simply pulled an incredibly shoddy Photoshop job.
The paintings have now been seized for further investigation, as local artists in particular want Hubert held accountable.
“The Christie’s expert must explain why the paintings he claims to be real have been found to be fake, ”Luong Xuan Doa told Tuoi Tre. Hubert has not been available for comment; Hyperallergic has reached out to the museum but has not heard back. The real victims here, though, may be Chung and his wife, who seem to have believed they had purchased 17 authentic paintings and said they simply wanted to give Vietnamese people the opportunity to see previously unexhibited works. For the rest of us, the very ridiculous scandal is a reminder that just because an object is in a museum doesn’t necessarily mean it’s genuine.