Vietnamese painting sold for record price of $3.1mn at Hong Kong auction

The masterpiece 'Portrait de Mademoiselle Phuong' (Portrait of Madam Phuong) by a Vietnamese painter, Mai Trung Thu, was sold for US$3.1 million at a Hong Kong auction on Sunday, posting a record-high price for a Vietnamese painting.

The price broke the record of $1.4 million set two years ago by Le Pho, another Vietnamese painter, for his nude artwork.

Record price shakes Vietnamese art scene

The auction 'Beyond Legends: Modern Art Evening Sale' was conducted by Sotheby's Hong Kong, which initially estimated that the oil painting might be sold for only $900,000 - 1.2 million.

But the price for this oil painting, which was composed 90 years ago, eventually came to the tune of $3.1 million – an unexpected price tag that shook the art scene in Vietnam.

Thu’s artwork was initially offered at $500,000, a relatively low starting price, but only two minutes later, it was pushed up to $1.9 million, which was far higher than the price of Pho’s work of art in 2019.

The exhibition of paintings at the Indochina Fine Arts College in 1930. Photo: Sotheby's

Five minutes later, only two bidders were left in the playground and the two sides, who offered prices by phone as they did not appear at the auction, competed with each other little by little to become the auction winner.

Accordingly, the price was boosted to $2 million and then $2.1 million before soaring to $2.5 million.

Eventually, the auction operator knocked the hammer to announce the winning price of $2.573 million.

After tax and fee, the final price for the masterpiece amounted to $3.1 million.

The artwork could have been purchased by a Vietnamese collector, said researcher Pham Long.

“This is a beautiful and rare work of Mai Trung Thu," the researcher remarked.

"Hopefully one day, the painting will be displayed in Vietnam."

In addition to 'Portrait de Mademoiselle Phuong' at this auction, eight other paintings by Vietnamese artists Vu Cao Dam, Le Pho, and Le Thi Luu were also very attractive to international collectors.

90-year history

Painter Mai Trung Thu (1906-1980), or Mai Thu, is one of the artists who graduated from the first course (1925 - 1930) of the Indochina Fine Arts College. He lived and worked mostly in France.

Three artworks of painters Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Nam Son, Nguyen Phan Chanh are seen in the booklet of the 1932 International Colonial Exhibition. Photo: Sotheby's

He was once placed among the 'Four Masters of Artworks' of Vietnam, along with three other well-known artists Pho, Luu, and Dam.

Artist Mai Thu made a lot of important contributions to the formation of diverse color harmonies for Vietnamese silk paintings.

His topics usually focused on women, children, and everyday life.

The 'Portrait de Mademoiselle Phuong' was first displayed at the Indochina Fine Arts College in 1930.

After that, the masterpiece was selected for display at the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris.

This exhibition lasted for six months, attracting more than 33 million visitors from France and other countries all over the world.

This event was believed to open an important gateway for Vietnamese artists to enter the European art world.

Since then, the 'Portrait de Mademoiselle Phuong' painting has been owned by Do Thi Lan (also known as Madam Dothi Dumonteil).

Lan and her husband Pierre Dumonteil, a renowned art collector, have possessed many works by Vietnamese artists.

'Portrait de Mademoiselle Phuong' appears in many scenes of the movie 'The Scent of Green Papaya' (1993). Photo: Getty Images

This $3.1 million masterpiece is part of the Les Souvenirs d’ Indochine: The Madame Dothi Dumonteil Collection.

This work also appeared in many scenes of the movie 'The Scent of Green Papaya' (1993) directed by Tran Anh Hung.

After 90 years, the work is still in good condition now.

Sotheby’s describes the painting as an imposing but very gentle and intimate artwork.

The portrait also captures "Mai Thu’s deep admiration for his sister, a noble lady rumored to be the artist’s love interest,” Sotheby’s commented on its website.

Madam Phuong was a young woman of the Hanoi aristocracy, well known for her natural beauty and grace, Sotheby’s said.

Madam Phuong and the artist were said to have fallen in love with each other, but their romantic relationship was forbidden because of the restrictions of social class and moral norms, according to Sotheby’s.

A series of works by Vietnamese painters Le Pho, Bui Xuan Phai, and Ton That Dao have been scheduled to be auctioned at the Modern Art Day Sale of Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 19. This reflects the reality that famous auctions as well as international collectors increasingly pay attention to Vietnamese works of art.
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