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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE VIETNAM SCHOOL

Hanoi is proving a magnet for serious collectors and investors

By Alison Dakota Gee


IT IS A LATE spring weekend in Hanoi. Scott Begg and Emma McKelvie, visitors from Hong Kong, have joined the crush of tourists on bustling Trang Tien Street. On their mind is one thing only: to buy as many Vietnamese gouaches, lacquers and oil paintings as they can carry back home.

They are not the only ones. Most weekends Trang Tien Street -- lined with some 10 prominent art galleries -- overflows with well-heeled Asian and European visitors jostling to purchase high-quality art at what, by international standards, are bargain-basement prices. Business is specially brisk during Christmas, Easter and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. "During those holidays, we sell around 50% of our inventory at very good prices," says Nguyen Lai, owner of Nam Son, the oldest gallery on the street.

For the most part, popular Vietnamese art is refreshingly free of the touristy kitsch that blights some parts of Asia. There are no doe-eyed peasant girls in conical straw hats or smiling boys on water buffaloes. The most sought-after works combine a distinctly Eastern perspective with masterful Western technique -- the legacy of the French colonialists. "The French established L'Ecole des Beaux Arts de l'Indochine [the School of Fine Arts] in Hanoi at the start of this century," Lai explains. "That's why Vietnam has the oldest history of intellectual painting in Asia." Says Henry Yeung of the Plum Blossoms gallery in Hong Kong: "Vietnamese work is easier to understand than, say, Chinese, which has its own perceptions and ideas."

Little wonder, then, that Vietnamese art is beginning to attract investors with an eye to the long term. "You can get a painting with the appeal and beauty of a Modigliani or a Picasso or a Matisse -- but at very reasonable prices," says one Western buyer. A Hong Kong visitor to Hanoi relates how in 1993 she bought a 43-cm-by-48-cm Modigliani-esque lacquer painting called Girl Washing Her Hair by a little-known artist named Le Lai. "The asking price was $60," she says. "At that time, I was reluctant to pay even that much. Now I've been told it's probably worth around $500." The word among experts is that some high-quality work has appreciated by even larger margins. As a result, art dealers like Lai have made a considerable amount of dong -- as have many of the other dealers and the artists they represent.

Suzanne Lecht, a former New York art consultant and a five-year Hanoi resident, is a first-hand witness of the Vietnamese art scene. "In the early 1990s, people were finding real pieces of art for just $75," she says. "At that time, artists lived a slow life. We all sat around sipping tea and talking about life and love and philosophy." But once the legions of tourists came calling with greenbacks in hand, even the most Bohemian artists shifted into a higher gear. Now, Vietnam's top painters regularly command $3,000 for their work. One reported making more than $200,000 last year alone.

"It's a really competitive scene now," says Lecht. This is something McKelvie and Begg discovered fairly early on in their visits. "Our initial strategy," says McKelvie, "was to spend our first day in Hanoi browsing the galleries. We would take notes on which pieces we wanted and spend the evening at the hotel recapping. We would then return the next day to buy our paintings." That approach was abandoned the day they went past a gallery for a second time and saw that many of the works that had earlier caught their eye had already been sold.

"It had become a mad frenzy," says McKelvie. "Foreign buyers were practically tearing paintings off the walls." The couple realized they had no more than a few minutes to decide on what they wanted. "Any longer than that and another customer would buy it from under your nose," McKelvie recalls with a laugh.

On one occasion, she and Begg ran across town -- "we had to take off our shoes and just leg it" -- to one gallery for a gouache they were determined would be theirs. When they finally arrived, they found a German woman standing in front of the painting, apparently poised to purchase it. "Scott marched right up to the gallery owner and said 'I'll give you $250 in cash for that.' The owner agreed. The poor German lady -- she was absolutely stunned."

Such incidents sometimes turn ugly, even degenerating into brawls. Typically, these conflicts arise when the artists simply forget to tell gallery owners they have already sold a painting. It's not unusual for Hanoi painters -- even the most successful -- to hang out in the galleries to discuss their work with would-be patrons. "Sometimes," says Lai, "they will sell the painting themselves. Then, they'll go out drinking to celebrate -- without putting a "sold" sign on it. While they are out, I might accidentally sell it to someone else."

Recently, a Japanese executive at what Lai describes as a "very important company" based in Hanoi had a painting sold from under him. He threatened to take his case to the minister of culture. He was calmed down only after Lai -- unable to retrieve the painting because the buyer had already left Hanoi -- went to the executive's office several days in a row to ask forgiveness. "I offered to take him to the artist's house for dinner so that he could choose another painting. I must have looked very sad because he finally gave up and agreed to my offer."

For many buyers, Vietnamese art offers a connection to a fascinating, once war-torn country that has only recently begun to open up to the world. "For the buyer and the painter, it is a way of making peace with each other," says Lecht. Other customers find themselves completely charmed by the artists, many of whom readily engage in hour-long chats about their work. "If you're buying a major piece of art," says Lecht, "it's lovely to talk to the artist about his philosophies and feelings. It makes the experience so much deeper." Says McKelvie: "We bought so many paintings from one artist that he invited us back to his house. He made us tea and even gave me a wood block he had made."

Vietnam's art boom has also produced a rash of mediocre work dashed off for tourists. "It's the Vietnamese vision for foreigners," says Nguyen Quan, a distinguished artist and Ho Chi Minh City art critic. This is where the beaming buffalo boys make their appearance. Sometimes Hanoi's many unscrupulous dealers pressure younger artists to over-produce. "Some artists start turning out commercial work rather than something from within," says Lecht. "When you go from just a few dollars a year to hundreds of thousands, life becomes very confusing."

Lecht says she often tries to guide these artists, many of whom are naive about foreign market dynamics. "If I see them doing something that is detrimental to their career -- especially from an international art-market perspective -- I will point it out. I say 'Slow down, don't do so much.' One highly successful painter has decided to put down his brush for an entire year. I think that, ultimately, his art will be better for it."

Still, artists with less willpower may find the temptation of cold, hard cash -- and lots of it -- impossible to resist. And as long as Vietnamese artists continue to paint, buyers will continue to come. "We're still paying for the paintings we bought," says McKelvie, who finally took home seven. "Once that's done, we'll be back for more." And more.


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