At a workshop on art copyrights in late March 2009, some art critics and painters said they believed the Vietnam Fine Art Museum was displaying some fake paintings and statues, confusing art researchers and cheating art lovers for over 40 years.
Painter Nguyen Do Bao, Chairman of the Hanoi Fine Arts Association, wrote in his presentation entitled “When did copies of paintings appear in Hanoi?”:
“In the late 1960s, when the US army bombarded North Vietnam, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum performed a policy of evacuating its valuable artworks while still opening its door to the public.
“Under this policy, the museum asked artists whose works were displayed at the museum to make copies of their works. Painters who were the museum’s staff also copied paintings. Owing to poor management, the museum lost many original artworks during this time, including paintings that the museum didn’t plan to make copies of. There is still an issue of original and fake paintings at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum at present.
“At that time, the museum had 27 silk paintings by Nguyen Phan Chanh, 22 of which were copies. Artist Nguyen Trong Niet complained to the museum for copying his lacquer painting named “Muong Khuong Market”. (The original is in the Oriental Museum in Moscow, Russia).
“Since the country’s unification in 1975, most of the copied paintings have been displayed at the same positions at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. Researchers haven’t been allowed to work on these copied works while the public doesn’t know that they are reproductions.”
To clarify Nguyen Do Bao’s opinion, VietNamNet talked with some painters and art critics about this issue.
Painter Nguyen Van Chung (former Director of the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum): When Mr. Nguyen Van Y was the museum’s director, he opened an enterprise to copy many paintings, statues and ancient pottery works. The museum didn’t have so many original artworks.
The museum currently has both originals and reproductions but the reproductions were copied by the authors. In the case of Tran Van Can, he didn’t copy them but asked the museum’s painters to do that job.
Nguyen Tu Nghiem copied his own paintings and the copied works have some small details that are different from the original versions, but he said it was okay. Particularly, Nguyen Phan Chanh’s paintings could not be copied. Even when he was alive, he couldn’t copy his artworks so all paintings by Nguyen Phan Chanh are original.
It is very difficult to determine how many original and how many reproductions are at the museum. The museum lacked many things so it is not strange if it has reproductions. Nguyen Van Y allowed the copying of paintings and all artists knew about and permitted the copying. Those who didn’t directly copy their paintings earned 9% royalties from the sales of copied works.
It would be easy to find out which are originals and which are reproductions by setting up a scientific council to assess them. In the past, the museum copied paintings for sale and for serving mobile exhibitions during the war. In the war time, it was unable to bring original paintings to exhibitions and this was also the policy of former Director Nguyen Van Y.
Painter Nguyen Xuan Tiep (a staff at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum): Before 1990, the museum didn’t have good artworks. Good works belonged to collectors like Duc Minh, Lam CafÃ©, and Dam. Duc Minh has the largest collection of paintings. Some of his collections are bigger than or equivalent to those of the museum.
Sometimes the museum borrows Duc Minh’s collections for exhibitions. During the war, original artworks were evacuated. The museum told Duc Minh that the public was familiar with the museum’s collections as they were at the museum and asked Duc Minh’s permission to copy his collections.
Duc Minh agreed and original paintings were returned to their authors for copying. However, copied versions don’t look exactly like the original ones so they should be called variants.
For example, a painting by Nguyen Tu Nghiem, “New Year’s Eve on Ho Guom Lakeshore” belongs to Duc Minh’s collection. The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum also has a copy of this painting. However, the original and copied versions have different numbers of people and trees and some other details. Nghiem also has a copy of that painting at his home and this third version is different from the two others. These things must be called variants.
So variants are also true artworks. In art, variants are original works, not fake ones. In early 1980s, the museum signed a contract with a book distribution company, Xunhasaba, to copy paintings for sale. This contract expired late last decade.
Prior to 1990, the museum displayed some copied paintings (some works by Nguyen Sang, Bui Xuan Phai, and Nguyen Tu Nghiem are variants, which must be considered as original works), including “Girl and Lilies” by To Ngoc Van. Since 1990, the museum has no longer shown copied artworks.
The museum has tried to display original works. The museum planned to show Vietnamese artworks of the past 2,500 years and it doesn’t have many original ancient artworks. For instance, the reproduction of the Goddess of Mercy of thousands of arms and eyes is made of wood (the original is at But Thap pagoda) and the Adida Buddha statue is made of composite (the original statue is at Phat Tich Pagoda). The museum also has reproductions which have different materials from the original versions, such as “At the Age of 20” statue by Vuong Hoc Bao, “Taking Fruits, Let’s Remember the Gardener” by Dao Van Can, “Mr. Troi”, “Dien Bien Phu Victory” by Nguyen Hai (the original material is gypsum). Only a silk painting by Phan Thong, “Operation in Rain”, has only one variant because the original version lost its colours.
Painter Luong Xuan Doan (Vice Chief of the Culture and Art Department of the Central Committee for Propaganda and Training): The original versions, reproductions and variants of paintings at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum are not clear because the museum doesn’t note which are original, which are reproductions and which are variants at all. The audience, therefore, still believes that they are original versions. If the museum doesn’t display original versions, it should note this.