In the past few years, when the Vietnamese art market witnessed bright signs, the price of local paintings at international auctions held by Christie's, Sotheby's Hong Kong, and Drouot hit milestones that were far beyond initial forecasts.

Most of the artworks auctioned at record high prices were by the late great painters of the Indochinese fine arts period.

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"Family Life" by artist Le Pho.

One of the events that shocked the local art circle was the auction at Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 2, 2017 when the painting “Family Life” by Le Pho sold for US$1,172,080. The sale was considered a breakthrough experience for the domestic art scene, as it marked the first time a Vietnamese artist had hit it big on the international marketplace.

This painting was done by Le Pho in 1937-1939, with materials including ink and pigment mixed with glue on burlap, size 82 x 66 cm. The painting is considered a delicate and rare silk painting, the culmination of Le Pho’s illustrious career. The work depicts an intimate moment in a leisurely day, focusing on the image of a mother and child. While the child obediently rests her head on the mother’s lap, hugging her knees, the mother tilts her head down, holds her hand, and pats her head as a way of praise. This is Le Pho’s typical style in most of the paintings about women.

Another painting that was auctioned with a record high price also was by Le Pho. His painting Khoa Than (Nudity) was sold in the auction “20th Century & Contemporary Art” by Christie’s in Hong Kong on May 26, 2019 for $1.4 million.

According to the auction house, in this fascinating picture, the artist’s skills are clearly shown. His great wish is to break away from the Confucian past.

Completely different from the portrait of a pure Asian woman, this artwork looks like a European painting of Venus in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The difference is that the girl lies on a piece of cloth as if she has just finished her bath, next to a vase of flowers, creating a romantic space. This oil painting - size 90.5 x 180.5 cm - was created in 1931, the period when Le Pho experimented with different forms and was more or less influenced by French art.

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“Nudity” by Le Pho.

The third painting that was also auctioned for more than $1 million is a rare silk painting by To Ngoc Van, named “Tan Mong” (Disillusioned). The artwork was auctioned at the same time as Le Pho’s “Nudity”. The painting was displayed at the exhibition “Art du Vietnam: La fleur du pecher et l'oiseau d'azur” at the Royal Museum of Mariemont (Belgium) in 2002.

This painting was created in 1932 when To Ngoc Van was studying at the Indochina Fine Arts College. The image shows the disappointment of two elegant women through postures and facial expressions.

The fourth painting that also fetched more than $1 million is the lacquer painting Phong Canh Chua Thay (Landscape of Thay Pagoda) by Pham Hau. This painting was created in the 1930s, the period when Vietnamese artists were researching to perfect the new materials for lacquer painting genre. This painting seems to be the first works using new materials with a brown color and the method of gilding.

On April 18, 2021, an oil painting on canvas entitled “Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong” by Mai Trung Thu was offered in the auction Beyond Legends: Modern Art Evening Sale of Sotheby's Hong Kong. It sold for a record price of US$3.1 million.

With a guiding price of $500,000, the price eventually reached $2.573 million. After taxes and fees were added, the price totaled $3.1 million. This is more than double the previous highest valued auction sale for “Nudity” by Le Pho, which sold for $1.4 million.

Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong was created in 1930 when Mai Trung Thu was an art teacher at Lycée Français de Hue (a French high school in Hue).

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“Disillusioned” by To Ngoc Van.

As one of the first artists who graduated from the first course of the Indochina Fine Arts College, or Ecole des Beaux-Art de l'Indochine, in Hanoi Mai Trung Thu was classified as one of the four most renowned Vietnamese artists based in France, together with Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam and Le Luu.

According to Sotheby’s description, “monumental, yet remarkably tender and intimate, Mai Trung Thu’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong stands as the most significant and largest painting by the artist to be offered at auction… Poignantly, the beguiling portrait also captures Mai Thu’s deep admiration of its sitter, a noble lady rumored to be the artist’s love interest”.

The painting was first exhibited at the Fine Arts College of Indochina in 1930, before travelling to Paris to attend the prestigious 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, announcing the painter’s entrance into the European art world.

“Mai Thu’s Portrait de Mademoiselle Phuong is one of the most significant and recognizable masterpieces in Vietnamese art history, often likened to Le Pho’s L’age heaureux (The Happy Age). Capturing the lyrical and romantic qualities typical of the early oil paintings of the École’s students, both works were well-received at the 1931 Exposition,” Sotheby's said on its website.

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“Landscape of Thay Pagoda” by Pham Hau.

According to Sotheby's, the painting is from the Madame Dothi Dumonteil Collection.

Besides these paintings, a series of artworks by Vietnamese painters from the Indochina Fine Arts College have also been auctioned at high prices: for example, Le Thi Luu’s “Woman and her children” that sold for $870,000, Nguyen Phan Chanh’s “The child feeds birds” for $853,921 and “The snail seller” for $600,000, Nguyen Gia Tri's “Villages” for $782,381, and Le Pho’s “The Family” for $750,000, “From the top of the hill” for $840,000, and “Two women looking at the goldfish tank” for $760,000.

At auctions by Sotheby's and Christie's from 2014 to 2019, the price of Vietnamese paintings gradually increased. Vietnamese paintings sold for prices much higher than expected. Mai Trung Thu's “Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong” for $3.1 million is an inevitable consequence.

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Mai Trung Thu’s “Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong” is priced $3.1 million.

These auctions reveal that Vietnamese paintings, especially the artworks created by those who studied from the Indochina Fine Arts College, have attracted the attention of the world’s art collectors.

Most of the painters whose works have been auctioned for record-high prices are well-known names like Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Le Thi Luu, and Vu Cao Dam. These painters graduated from the Indochina Fine Arts College and lived and worked overseas, mainly in France. This was not only a condition for them to continue to promote their talents but also an opportunity for international painting collectors who like Asian artistic styles to know more about Vietnamese painters.

Most of the paintings worth millions of USD blend Eastern aesthetics and Western forms besides using the typical materials of Vietnam such as lacquer or silk. In Le Pho's paintings, there is always the charm of conventional painting that is more suggestive than descriptive. This is also a characteristic of Vietnamese fine art in the Indochina period, which is recognized by the world.

Trang Thanh Hien

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The painting "Madame Phuong" by painter Mai Trung Thu recently sold for US$3.1 million, a high point in Vietnam’s cultural life.