Why Vietnamese Art Is Having a Moment: Sotheby's Experts Weigh In

Why Vietnamese Art Is Having a Moment: Sotheby's Experts Weigh In

The Vietnamese art market has undergone a dramatic growth especially in the past few years. The new artist record for Le Pho set by Sotheby's Hong Kong at the Spring 2022 Modern Evening Sale underscores the ascent of Vietnamese art on the global stage. With new heights achieved at auction for coveted works on silk, canvas and lacquer, the insatiable demand for art in the category has been fuelled by rising interest not only in Asia, but also around the world. We caught up with the experts at Sotheby’s who shared their views on why collectors and art aficionados are turning their attention to Vietnamese modern art. 

From left: Felix Kwok (INSTAGRAM:  @KWUCTIONEER ), Rishika Assomull (INSTAGRAM:  @RISHIKAASSOMULL ), Michelle Yaw (INSTAGRAM:  @WAYSOFCURATING ) and Simon Stock (INSTAGRAM:  @STOCKTAKES )

Felix Kwok, Head of Modern Art, Asia: Vietnamese modern art is a brilliant and innovative fusion of multiple cultures, supported by the rise of a significant cohort of masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Geographically, Vietnam borders China to the north, several countries on mainland Southeast Asia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east. Maritime routes connect Vietnam to the rest of the world. Vietnam’s two-thousand-year-old civilization reflects local Vietnamese culture, the absorption of Han culture from the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and the deep influence of modern French culture. Vietnamese modern art brings together the best of these three sources.

Since I joined Sotheby’s in 2012, I have worked hard to promote 20th-century Chinese masters. In 2020, the scope of my position expanded to include Southeast Asian modern art, and I was fortunate to work with our wonderful experts Michelle Yaw and Rishika Assomull. The first thing we explored was transforming Vietnamese modern art into an international phenomenon, based on the scholarly interest in and market development of Chinese modern art. We felt that Chinese collectors from the Greater China region would be deeply interested in the aesthetic of and prospects for Vietnamese art, but that there were not enough channels through which to obtain information and to experience the artworks. In the last two years, we have improved our Chinese-language research and communication capabilities and endeavoured to bring the best works of Vietnamese art to Chinese collectors in Greater China, a strategy that yielded immediate results.

Rishika Assomull, Specialist of Modern Art: While it has been thrilling for us to cultivate the blossoming collector base within Vietnam and witness their fervent longing to own the important vestiges of their history, it is important to note that collectors from Europe, North American and Southeast Asia were collecting these paintings decades before to this recent surge.

Michelle Yaw, Specialist of Modern Art: What’s also clear is that these artists are appealing to many different audiences, there is something classical, yet inventive, about the Vietnamese modern artists that collectors find instantly attractive and can easily fall in love with. The demographics for Vietnamese art collectors are geographically vast and the market is healthy and holistic.

Simon Stock, Senior Specialist, Impressionist & Modern Art: Works by masters like Mai Trung Thu, Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Pham Hau, Le Thi Luu, To Ngoc Van and Nguyen Gia Tri are amongst the most treasured and coveted by international collectors. Vietnamese art, previously offered in dedicated sales of Southeast Asian Art, and now presented on the international stage in the Modern Art sales, has found new audiences amongst East Asian and Western art lovers beyond the Southeast Asian region.

Hong Kong Spring Sales 2022 | Modern Evening Auction | Le Pho, 'Figures in a garden'

Rishika: We continue to find fresh-to-market treasures from collectors in France and the United States, such as the record-breaking, Le Pho, which hailed from a private American collection. Thinking about this work takes me back to that riveting moment in the auction room, how exhilarating it was be a part of the whirlwind of global bidding that led to Le Pho's auction record. The absentee bids were quickly surpassed by plenty of phone bidders in Hong Kong, who enthusiastically battled with a flurry of bids pouring in from our online platform. In London, Simon tried to come in at 5 million HKD. A long and voracious bidding war with between phone bidders in Hong Kong and London ensued, fighting for this gem of a work!

Michelle: Yes, it was just the type of “international ping pong” we love to see in our marquee livestream auctions! Figures in the Garden not only broke the artist’s auction record set 3 years ago but did so significantly by 6,995,000 HKD.

Mai Trung Thu, Vu Cao Dam and Le Pho in front of Galerie Van Rick, Paris.

It was the first time we placed a late-career painting by Le Pho in the Evening Sale, as it was typical convention to prioritize early-period silks or oils in Evening Sale placement. The sheer rarity of the piece, combined with our marketing strategy, encouraged collectors worldwide to recognise this once in a lifetime opportunity. Looking back at both Hong Kong Spring 2022 and 2021 auctions, Le Pho’s Figures in the Garden and Mai Trung Thu’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Phuong was received by our clients and the general market with a latent thrill and untapped excitement that I will never forget.

There are few countries in the world that can compare with Vietnam in terms of pace and depth of economic growth. The country's recent strengthened spending power allows more and more buyers to step into the market. A new generation of Vietnamese collectors are choosing to invest in their history, preserve their cultural identity.

Lin Fengmian, Lin Wenzheng and Wu Dayu in Paris, they later founded National Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou in 1928.

Felix: Every time I read more about the modern art history of Vietnam, tracing the journey that pioneers such as Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, and Vu Cao Dam made from Vietnam to France, I think of Chinese masters such as Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, Sanyu, and Xu Beihong. When I read about the École des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine, an academy founded in 1925 in Hanoi that could be considered the cradle of Vietnamese modern art, I thought of the National Academy of Art, an institution founded in 1927 in Hangzhou that nurtured countless stars of Chinese modern art. The similar trajectory made Vietnamese modern art seem pleasantly familiar.

Simon: While the Vietnamese modernist artists have long been admired since their days as students of the L'ecole des Beaux Arts De L'Indochine, the appreciation for their ability to blend Eastern and Western aesthetics has gained international recognition on an impressive scale only in recent years. Many of the "Indochine" artists, having been trained by French artists Victor Tardieu (1870 - 1937) and Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971), were also strongly influenced by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and School of Paris artists, admiring the likes of Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Pierre Renoir and Marc Chagall.

Michelle: It has been an honour to have been entrusted with some of the most important single-owner collections that have surfaced in the market. Not only has it been a great joy to present these treasures to Sotheby's clients who recognize their importance, but also to piece together the collecting stories on the world stage.

These collections and rare objects came to the market in great timing, as the Vietnamese art market continues to be swept up by the incredible domestic growth and demand in Vietnam itself. There are few countries in the world that can compare with Vietnam in terms of pace and depth of economic growth. The country's recent strengthened spending power allows more and more buyers to step into the market. A new generation of Vietnamese collectors are choosing to invest in their history, preserve their cultural identity.

Sotheby's will be staging its first ever major exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in July 2022, an inaugural event that will be the first of its kind in Vietnam. The exhibition will present a curated selection of works by major Vietnamese modern artists on loan from private collectors.

Felix: In just a year and a half, we have set the top three records for works of Vietnamese art, and the key to that success was the active participation of Chinese collectors. In this year’s Spring Auction, we connected with London and New York and encouraged the participation of European and American collectors, which brought the previously regional interest in Vietnamese modern art onto the global stage. The results speak for themselves, and fully reflect the category’s aesthetic value and market potential. I firmly believe that the recent auction records are just the beginning. In the future, there will be many more opportunities for us to explore with collectors.

Sotheby’s was entrusted with the most important Single Owner groupings of Vietnamese Art in 2021
  • Les Souvenirs D’Indochine
  • Memory & Modernity
  • The Collection of Pierre Le-Tan
  • Les Souvenirs D’Indochine: Property from the Madame Dothi Dumonteil Collection
    All items from the single owner grouping were 100% sold, achieving a total of HK$ 43M/US$8M in Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Sales 2021.

    See More
  • Memory & Modernity: Mai Trung Thu Paintings from an Important Private European Collection
    All items from the single owner grouping were 100% sold, achieving 260% against low estimate and a total of HK$ 19.4M/US$2.5M.

    see more
  • The Collection of Pierre Le-Tan
    The collection of Pierre Le-Tan, which Sotheby's has the honour of presenting in Paris in March, echoes this collector’s unforgettable personality, at once discreet and out of the ordinary. Le-Tan, who first made a name for himself with his covers for The New Yorker, before becoming a renowned draughtsman, came from a background that was at once artistic, literary, international and eminently Parisian. Son of renowned Vietnamese painter Le Phô (1907-2001), himself son of the last Viceroy of Tonkin, who settled first in Nice and then in Paris, Le-Tan grew up surrounded by a variety of European and Asian furniture and objects.

    see more
Modern Art | Asia

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