Vietnamese artist Nguyen Trong Niet, an 85-year-old painter who has lived most of his life in a rundown flat in Hanoi's Old Quarter, proudly says he painted Muong Kuong Market years ago in his living room, which is also his bedroom and kitchen. The vibrant lacquer brushwork of the piece exquisitely captures the bustle of market day in a Vietnamese village. The Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts, the country's national art museum, thought so too. Officials there snapped up the painting for their collection, and for the past 40 years, Niet's work has been hanging on the museum's walls.
Or has it? Niet was stunned when he came across a photograph of Muong Kuong Market in a Russian art book several years ago the painting was allegedly hanging in the Oriental Museum in Moscow. Niet says he sent a letter to Oriental Museum officials, who confirmed that they owned the original. When Niet went back to the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts to complain, "they told me that I painted two paintings and that I had sold one to Russia," he says. Sitting by her husband's side on a plastic stool, Niet's wife says she wishes that were true. "If he did paint copies," she asks bitterly, "would we be this poor?" (See pictures of the China-Vietnam border war, 30 years later.)
How many paintings and sculptures in Vietnam's national art museum are actually copies, nobody knows. But rumors have swirled for years that many treasured originals by Vietnamese artists like Niet have been either lost or sold off, and reproductions have taken their place. The copies aren't exactly forgeries. During the Vietnam War, the museum's own restoration department was a virtual copy factory a fact that museum officials past and present freely admit.
A current exhibition of ancient Buddha statues and sculptures includes imitations made by the staff, says Nguyen Xuan Tiep, who has worked at the museum for the past 28 years and is a former deputy director there. The museum, a private collector, and the artist himself all own an "original" of New Year's Eve on Ho Guom Lakeshore, a colorful lacquer painting of crowds out in their finest dress, according to Tiep. Purported originals of Playing the O An Quan, which once hung on the museum's walls, are now in galleries in both Singapore and Japan, according to Nora Taylor, an art historian and expert on Vietnamese painters who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.
After years of silence, artists, collectors and museum staff are demanding that Vietnam's art officials come clean. Tiep says the museum's entire collection has been tainted because copies are not labeled. This acceptance of copying has helped devalue Vietnamese art, since collectors are never sure if they are buying the real thing. Tiep accuses the museum of failing to properly display and preserve its collection, resulting in irrevocable damage and loss. "I have had to swallow my tears," says Tiep, who resigned as deputy director two years ago to protest what he claims is mismanagement. "We have a duty to raise our voices."
Ironically, Vietnam's practice of reproducing noteworthy works was originally carried out to rescue the country's artistic heritage during wartime. "The Americans said they were going to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age, to wipe out Vietnamese culture," says Nguyen Do Bao, chairman of the Hanoi Fine Arts Association, who was a young museum staffer in 1966 when the first B-52s appeared overhead. "It was a national imperative to keep the museum open." So the staff and in some cases, the artists themselves started to make copies. The reproductions stayed in Hanoi while the originals were spirited away and hidden in caves.
The artworks were supposed to return home after the war. Not all did. Records, if they ever existed, were lost. In cases where an artist had copied his own work, it was not always clear which was the original. And to complicate matters, in the difficult postwar years, the culture of copying continued. The museum loaned paintings to starving artists wanting to copy their own works to sell, contributing to the problem. Did the artist return a copy to the museum or the original? And if the artist makes a copy of his or her own work, can it be called a fake?
Making matters worse, in the 1980s, the government-funded museum set up a department to make high-quality reproductions to sell, says Nguyen Truong, an art collector whose home in Hanoi has served as a salon for struggling artists for the past 30 years. The practice ended in the 1990s, but Truong says he was approached just last year by a museum employee who "offered a copy for $2,000."
Asked whether reproductions were indeed on display today, Truong Quoc Binh, director of the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts, acknowledges that "it is possible," adding that the issue of copying "is a very difficult problem." But he declined to answer other questions. Ministry of Culture officials declined to respond to written questions about reproductions, although they said the issue was under discussion.
The proliferation of copies is hurting Vietnam's once hot art market. Taylor, the art historian at the Art Institute of Chicago, says younger artists who made a living by copying are starting to worry that the practice that once benefited them is now hurting their prospects. Even if making copies was not originally intended to deceive, the situation is so bad now that no reputable museum will borrow from Vietnam's national art museum, Taylor says. "The biggest damage is that now Vietnam has a bad reputation," she says.
Having lived most of their life under a system in which the Communist Party dictated what they could paint and where they could exhibit, the older generation of artists has stayed quiet. But artists who are no longer under the government's thumb are increasingly urging that the museum sort originals from copies by calling in experts to help examine paintings. They also want the museum to produce the records of paintings and remove pieces that are reproductions or at least label them as such.
Luong Xuan Doan, deputy director of the Culture and Art Department at the Communist Party's Commission for Education and Communications, says it is time to set up a panel of experts and once and for all identify which works are copies and which are originals. "Displaying reproductions was acceptable during wartime," says Doan. "But the war has been over for 30 years."