Art collectors, past and present

The global economic crisis has depressed the Vietnamese painting market. Fewer collectors, especially knowledgable collectors, are buying these days.

A painting by Vu Cao Dam, a big name in Vietnam’s painting circle, in a foreign collection.

A painting by Vu Cao Dam, a big name in Vietnam’s painting circle, in a foreign collection.

The late connoisseur Duc Minh (also called Bui Dinh Than) is still well-remembered. As a rich businessman, Duc Minh enriched Vietnam’s art world by nurturing talented artists at a time that painters lacked basic facilities to work.

Other remarkable senior art collectors in Hanoi were Mr. Nguyen Van Lam or “Coffee Lam”, Mr. Bong in Hang Buom Street, Mr. Dam, Mr. To Ninh, photographer Tran Van Luu and Mr. Hao Hai.

They were not really professional collectors, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that thanks to these men, Vietnam still has possession of many invaluable artworks.

What these men shared was respect for art. They loved artists and had a great passion for paintings. Each in his own way tried to help artists with respect and love. In return, their friends the artists presented them with finished works or sketches.

Such exchanges took place when the notion of an ‘art market’ hardly existed in Vietnam. At that time, the foursome “Nghiem, Lien, Sang, Phai” (Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Sang and Bui Xuan Phai) hadn’t emerged as the leaders of Vietnam’s modern art boom and their works were not priced yet.

In the beginning, artworks were kept just because someone liked them, but gradually, they have become collections that have high money value as well as artistic value.

Another common factor that united the collectors of the past was that they all wonderful wives who were ordinary women. Lam’s wife was a housewife while Mrs. Dam had a grocery at Ngoc Ha market. Mrs. Bong sold noodles. Mrs. To Ninh sold votive papers. These women supported their husbands’ desire to patronize the arts.

The interactions between Duc Minh and artists created the biggest and the most valuable painting collection in Vietnam. Since he died, this collection has been reduced though he wished to establish a private art museum in his name.

Bong’s collection was also big. It included not only paintings but also illustrations for newspapers and books by famous artists, and manuscripts and handwritten documents by many famous writers.

All of these collectors preserved the art works — gifts from their artist friends — as heirlooms and they didn’t consider them to be commercial assets.

And these days

According to the owner of a well-known gallery in Hanoi, there are lots of people who buy paintings to make their own collections today. However, some just buy artworks to show a luxurious lifestyle. Some others buy paintings as a form of investment or to trade. Notably, their investment in paintings doesn’t follow a long-term plan. Their “investment” style is purchasing paintings of newly emergent artists.

Quite a few of the present day collectors are different from their predecessors, he added, because they don’t have a passion for art or respect the talent of the artists.

Tran Hau Tuan is not one of these. He has amassed a collection of 177 paintings by well-known artists including Nguyen Gia Tri and the famous foursome: Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Sang, and Bui Xuan Phai.

Last year Tuan published a book entitled “Contemporary Paintings of Vietnam,” that introduced his collection to the public. Tuan has invested in 17 books on Vietnamese arts and painters.

The most professional collector in recent times was the late Ha Thuc Can, a Vietnamese who lived in Singapore. Can was one of the first collectors to bring contemporary Vietnamese art to the world. He owned a valuable collection of paintings, filled with works by famous painters like To Ngoc Van, Luong Xuan Nhi and Duong Bich Lien. Can died recently and it is not clear to where his collection has disappeared.

While Vietnam lacks professional collectors, there are foreign collectors who are really interested in Vietnamese arts, for instance Koos Groot, a Dutch art dealer and collector. Groot has collected hundreds of paintings by Vietnamese artists from the past to the present.

A Korean collector, Koo Sam Boon, has a passion for Bui Xuan Phai’s work. He is considered expert on Phai’s paintings. Koo also collects many paintings by Tran Luu Hau.

Dirk Johns, a German journalist, was also charmed by Vietnamese paintings. He now owns a huge collection of paintings by Vietnamese painters, especially Bui Xuan Phai.

Johns was a leading collector of Vietnamese painting in Europe in the 1990s. Besides 25 works by Bui Xuan Phai, Johns also collected paintings by other young Vietnamese artists such as Do Hoang Tuong, Bui Huu Hung, Ha Tri Hieu and Le Thiet Cuong. He also established a website to introduce his collections.

The role of professional collectors is very important for the development of arts of a country because they are “investors” for arts and the preservers of artworks.

Lacking many professional collectors and with counterfeiting and copying rampant, Vietnamese art finds it difficult to develop to reach the regional level.

Source: VNN

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