Friday, July 31, 2009

Legacy of War - Fake Work at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum -

HANOI, Vietnam — Even the director of the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum here doesn’t know how many of the artworks and artifacts under his care are genuine and how many are extremely skillful copies. But he says he is going to try to find out.
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Justin Mott for The New York Times

Many works at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum could be copies that were made to replace the endangered originals during the Vietnam War. Now it is unclear which are real and which are fake.
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Justin Mott for The New York Times

Bui Thanh Phuong in his home, with works by his father, Bui Xuan Phai. He called the unmonitored art switch “a disaster.”

There are nearly 20,000 of these mystery objects, on the walls and in storage, including paintings, sculpture, lacquerware, pottery, ancient statues and traditional crafts.

“We are making efforts to have a comprehensive review of items on display and in our warehouse,” said the director, Truong Quoc Binh. “After we evaluate the whole exhibit, we will try to label them all to show if they are original or not.”

Mr. Binh has been addressing questions about authenticity a lot lately. Curators and artists have been aware of the issue for years, but it became a matter of public discussion only in April, when it was raised at a conference on copyright in Danang.

In large part, the confusion is a legacy of the war with the United States, which ended in 1975, and to a lesser extent of a brief border war fought with China in 1979.

In the late 1960s, fearing that the United States would bomb Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam, museum officials removed hundreds of important artworks for safekeeping in the countryside.

To replace them on the museum walls, it commissioned copies: some by the original artists, some by the artists’ apprentices, some by skilled copyists in the museum’s restoration department. They were brilliant reproductions — or variants, as the Vietnamese called those paintings copied by the original artists.

But now “it’s a disaster,” said Bui Thanh Phuong, the son of Bui Xuan Phai, a prominent painter. “Viewers can’t be sure if what they are looking at is genuine or fake.” Mr. Phuong said he does not know which of the museum’s seven paintings attributed to his father, who died in 1988, are real.

In some cases it was apparently not even clear whether the originals or their copies were sent into hiding, said Nguyen Do Bao, the former chairman of the Hanoi Fine Arts Association, who delivered the paper that gave rise to the controversy at the copyright conference in April.

“There was no oversight,” Mr. Bao said in an interview. “When the artists took them home, they could make more than one copy. They could keep the original. We had no way of knowing.”

At the conference he told the audience, “Owing to poor management, the museum lost many original artworks during this time,” and added that researchers had not been allowed to examine works “while the public doesn’t know that they are reproductions.”

Asked in the interview why he was bringing up the issue now, after so many years of public silence, he said, “Now we have more freedom and democracy and we want to raise our voices to make sure the museum is not displaying copies.”

Nguyen Qui Duc, who owns a small gallery and promotes young artists, said this new openness about the nation’s artistic treasures could be taken in the spirit of a policy called hoi nhap, which means integration or assimilation.

“This is the buzz word now,” he said, as Vietnam seeks to integrate itself further into the world economy and conform to international standards and practices.

“It’s basically an economic slogan, but I see it being applied everywhere,” Mr. Duc said. “If we are going to join the world, we’ve got to start doing these things right.”

The mysteries of the museum are part of a broader problem of authenticity that has threatened the value of Vietnamese art on the international market. Copies have proliferated since the early 1990s, when the closed communist economy opened, and Vietnamese art became popular abroad.

Capitalism was new, and artists discovered that they could make twice or even three or four times the money by reproducing and reselling their own paintings. Collectors soon caught on, and all Vietnamese art came under suspicion, Mr. Bao said.

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