Slated to be a grand exhibition to bolster the Vietnamese contemporary art scene, the Paintings Returned from Europe exhibition at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum has crashed and burned in a fire of forgery. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but this poor collector just got his treasure turned to trash. This episode is most definitely embarrassing for the Vietnamese art community, which is highly talented and working hard to establish itself. And while frauds are always fascinating, this slapstick, ragtag, haphazard job is so bad it’s fabulous.
The July exhibition was a private collection from Vũ Xuân Chung and supposedly held works from contemporary artists Ta Ty, Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Dương Bích Liên, Nguyễn Sáng, Bùi Xuân Phái. All 17 pieces have recently been confirmed as fake. 15 were copies and two were signed by other artists. One has to wonder how much whiskey, collector Vũ Xuân Chung drank when he got that news.
But, really, one of the greatest affronts here is the total lack of effort in the forgery. Random names were thrown on other artists’ paintings like a 4th grade math test. Maybe standards are too high these days after the Thomas Crown Affair… but that’s not quite true. Take a look at German (fraud) artist Wolfgang Beltracchi. Recently released from prison (2015) for his works of forgery, Beltracchi is considered a great artist, a genius, in some circles … the ones not all persnickety about signing Metzinger or Ernst to the bottom of a canvas. Beltracchi emulated the works of master artists like Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, and Andre Derain. Leonardo Da Vinci? “Not hard at all,” he says. He did so well that Ernst’s wife couldn’t tell that it wasn’t her husband’s work. Now that is something to marvel at. That is a craft.
Broken down…Beltracchi was able to fool people who sat at the highest echelons of the artistic elite on some of the most famous names of fine art. An Ocean’s 11 style perfection of trickery and execution that has since been applauded. Multiple years and millions of euros later, the jig was up when titanium white paint was found in a Campendonk painting, a paint that hadn’t been made in Campendonk’s time. The Vietnamese paintings had barely made it out of the gate when bullshit was called. Loudly. The whole charade came tumbling down when artist Nguyễn Thành Chương saw the name Ta Ty on his own cubist, abstract painting, and thought to himself, “Ah, hell no.”
Not only are the majority of the exhibition’s works complete fakes, and those that aren’t were stolen and forged, but the plot thickens when we find out that the art dealer of the works, Jean-Francois Hubert of Christie’s, offered up a photoshopped image of Ta Ty and the painting as proof of authenticity. Unfortunately, this dumbest criminals-style saga is nothing new to Vietnam as copying works has been in practice since the war, but with forty years of experience, the standards should be set a little higher.
Really, the closing thought here is… step up your art fraud game, Vietnam.
By Alice Bauer