How to Distinguish an Authentic Phái from a Fake

In Viet Nam, there are as yet no art experts trained in a regular academic programme or qualified in this domain. Prospective buyers of paintings of famous Vietnamese artists, especially of Bùi Xuân Phái, can’t help getting anxious about deceits – if they fall across a fake? This is in fact a not infrequent occurene in the current art market. Then, how to tell original paintings from copies? This has actually become a real know-how which is based upon some essential elements: experience and intuition; in an instant, a real connoisseur can tell which is authentic and which is fake in a scientific and equitable manner. To reach such an insight, you must understand Bùi Xuân Phái thoroughly, know well his different stages of creation, each of which corresponds to a specific frame of mind in a particular circumstance of his life, this requires of you a very refined perception, a personal experience of the ups-and-downs of the last century, that is to say, you must be the artist’s contemporary to get in communion with his experiences and his themes of creation. Only so can you unmask Phái fakes, basing yourself on slightest, most unexpected details.

Almost all Phái’s works spring from sincerity and realities of lfe, it is why they always move the viewer, which fakes can never do. A true connoisseur of Phái, in looking at a portrait done by him, could tell whose likeness it is, when it is painted; looking at a Phái’s streetscape, he could tell which street corner it is, when it is done, on what spot of the painting the artist would like to put his signature (Phái’s signature also forms part of the composition of the painting and the way he’d sign it depends on how he paints it and on its size and the medium used as well…). A pecularity easy to notice: Phái is possessed of an artistic style of his own, a very personal, unimitable and impossible-to-hand-over one that contributes to his success. It is also appropriate to remind that the artist died more than 20 years ago (1988), so every painting of his people can see dates back to decades earlier and thus bears marks of time. Another thing no less important any prospective buyer of a valuable painting had better know about: its pedigree – who it has belonged to? how and where its present owner has acquired it? the reputation of its owner?…

Vietnamese professional art collectors only need to know the identity of the owner of some painting of some celebrated artist to decide whether it is worth interest or not. This means that the repute of the owner answers for the quality of the painting.

The Traffic in Forged Paintings as I Know

Everybody knows well that a forged painting does not come from nowhere. There must be some faker painstakingly copying from some original or simulating the style of some famous artist to bring it about with a false signature with a view to making money in a crooked manner. I don’t believe there are any artists who’d deign to do such a contemptible job, since every artist is conscious that “ince being borne into the world, one must leave some good name with the mountains and rivers “. If an artist cannot attain this objective, he’d be nothing more than a walking skeleton, his life’d be a mere moving from the cradle to the tomb, whether it lasts 75 or 95 years makes no difference! What I means is this: the forgeries of Vietnamese celebrated artists, in general, and of Bùi Xuân Phái, in particular, are mainly the products of incompetent draftsmen or of some jobless art students, just worthless stuff easily identified as fakes by professional artists.

Counterfeits appear with the emergence of the market economy. If you chance to buy a bottle of false wine and drink it, you may have belly ache, but eventually, it will be egested through digestive process, and then, there’s no evidence left of it. It is not the same with fake paintings. Just take a sucker who unluckily gets beguiled into buying a fake. Back home, he’d hang it at a place of honor in his house, exulting at having acquired a work of a master at such a cheap price. But his jubilation is short-lived: a few days later, an art connoisseur happens to drop by and unveils the hoax; and then the poor host blows his top, arms himself with a stick to go get the gallery owner to “have a serious talk with him.” In most of the cases, if the sold fake is unmasked, the gallery owner would swallow the pill and pay back the deluded buyer to smooth things, otherwise this local customer would threaten to “set fire to the racket right away.” To avoid such incidents, in case a gallery-owner wants to palm off fakes on some customers, he’d pick some foreigners or overseas Vietnamese, it’s safer because these people know next to nothing about Phái’s style.

On the other hand, when the buyer brings the piece back home, there is no chance that some connoisseur friend of his would drop by and reveal the truth. Another tell-tale point: forged paintings are generally sold at very cheap price (For instance, the average price of an oil painting by Bùi Xuân Phái, size 60cmX80cm, usually ranges from US$15,000 to US$25,000, wheras a fake Phái of the same medium and same size would only goes at US$2,000 or US$3,000, sometimes even a mere few hundred).

To my knowledge, pratically most of the well-known art collectors of the second generation such as Trần Hậu Tuấn, Bùi Quốc Chí, Đỗ Huy Bắc, Dũng Vĩnh Lợi, Danh Anh… have got to pay “study fees” for their inexperience in their early days as collectors: at least 2 or 3 times, they got forgeries on their hands and had to incur the ensuing consequences (professional collectors know well that sooner or later, fakes would be exposed and troubles would follow). These “lessons” served them well and at present, they have become specialists versed in Phái’s paintings.

The heyday of the traffic of forgeries in Việt Nam started in the early 1990’s … Let’s mention some names Vietnamese professional collectors only know too well: Mme Hui, the owner of Lã Vọng gallery in Hongkong, Mr Hà Thúc Cần, an overseas Vietnamese in Hongkong, the South Korean collector Sambon Koo (each of these people have a “group of Vietnamese guide“). Each of them had bought and sold at least 50 Phái fakes, both in oil and in gouache. On what evidence do I base myself to affirm that? Simply because they profusely printed those forgeries in reviews and books in their home country.

And during my stay in the U. S. in 1995, the collector Phó Bá Quang, a banker in the U.S., showed me about 20 paintings he had bought, all of them fakes, lamentable, ugly botcheries! For these counterfeits, Mr Phó Bá Quang had paid Mr Hà Thúc Cần a tidy little sum! Some time later, I received a thank-you letter from the collector in the U.S. who said he had flown to Hongkong with all those forgeries to give them back to Mr Hà Thúc Cần and had recuperated the whole sum. Some more about the collector Hà Thúc Cần: After this incident, he once again came to Việt Nam to see me.What is unexpected and interesting as well is that instead of picking a quarrel with me as I had suspected, he unbosomed himself to me: “I’m also a victim.” And that was the last words I heard from the mouth of that…scandalous collector! It is said that he died a few yeas ago after a very costly yet hopeless attempt to change kidneys.

Since Bùi Xuân Phái’s death, I lost count of the numberless cases when I had been confronted with forged paintings and consulted by victims of the fakers. Many customers came to me for advice before buying some expensive paintings. I always follow an unshakeable principle: to say the truth. If the painting is fake, I’m intransigent, no matter who is the seller. Once I affirm that such-and-such piece is authentic or false, I willingly hold myself responsible for my statement. I do that as my duty without receiving a cent from whoever comes to ask me to authenticate a Phái. The number of such consulting callers amounts so far to more than 50, including Vietnamese. French, Koreans, Japanese, Americans…

And in nearly 20 years after Bùi Xuân Phái’s death, I identified no less than 100 paintings of all sizes and media as counterfeits. By so doing, I helped those Vietnamese and foreign customers who consulted me avoid the blunder of squandering at least US$.200,000 on fakes. The Hanoian art collector, for one, I spared him an aggregate waste of at least US$20,000 which otherwise would be expended for nothing. from time to time he would bring some painting to ask for my advice and after being told that it’s a fake, would hurry up to give it back to the seller and recuperate the advance. In the end, he brought over an authentic Phái with the same question: is this a genuine Phái? And this time, my answer is “yes.” However, the collector showed no sign of elation, he owned that it was not for sale, “they just want you to assess it.”

Well, do you know what enables me to tell the truth from falsity? In addition to the knacks I revealed in my previous article, there are another tip which seems insignificant but which would permit you to distinguish truth from falsity without scrutinizing the painting; it consists in watching the reverse side. You may be unaware of it, but the reverse side of a Phái has its own language that speaks volumes

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