For the American-Vietnamese collector Dr Tuan Pham, collecting Vietnamese art has been an educational and emotional adventure. ‘Vietnamese art is really about history and culture,’ he explains. ‘It tells you a story that you didn’t know before.’
The collector’s interest in the art from his homeland was sparked by a chance encounter in the late 1990s. ‘I just happened to walk by a gallery [in South Florida], and as I approached the painting, I saw that it was signed in Chinese characters above the name Le Pho,’ Pham explains. He purchased the painting without realising that the artist Le Pho was in fact from Vietnam. ‘It was the first painting in my Vietnamese collection, and it started a personal journey that reconnects me with my birthplace,’ he says.
Pham was born in Vietnam, but fled to the United States in 1975 as a 13-year-old refugee, escaping with his brother. Later, he moved from Florida to California where he met his wife, and in 1992 he founded Phamatech, a biotechnology company and laboratory that’s based in San Diego.
‘So many [20th-century Vietnamese] artists grew up in Vietnam, but left Vietnam for France and made a career out of that,’ Pham explains. ‘I did the same thing. There’s always been a Vietnamese part of me and an American part of me, and this blending of the two cultures is similar to what I see in some of the artists’ work that I collect. It's why I have enjoyed the [collecting] journey so much.’
One such example of this ‘cultural blending’, as Pham refers to it, is seen in Nue (Nude), a painting of a nude by Le Pho (1907-2001), executed in Hanoi in 1931. ‘What’s interesting about this work is the depiction of a European rather than a Vietnamese lady,’ explains Dexter How, Head of Sale, Southeast Asian Art at Christie’s in Singapore. To paint a nude in Vietnam in the 1930s went against the traditions of the Confucian mindset, and put Le Pho far ahead of his time.
Nudes from this era in Vietnam are highly sought-after and rarely come to market. Nue (Nude) sold for HK$ 10,925,000 at Christie’s in Hong Kong in May 2019, more than double its low estimate.
We meet Pham in an elongated private gallery in San Diego, the city he now calls home. Over the past 30 years, he has assembled one of the world’s finest collections of Vietnamese paintings that span the 1930s to the 1980s. Some of the biggest names in 20th-century Vietnamese art are represented, including, in addition to Le Pho, Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984), To Ngoc Van (1906-1954) and Vu Cao Dam (1908-2000).
The painterly stories in Pham’s collection tell of familial love, companionship, and the everyday lives of Vietnamese people. Take Fisherman and Family (1940), an extremely rare, large silk painting by Luong Xuan Nhi (1914-2006), which depicts an ordinary family ‘helping each other out’ in the midst of their working day. ‘These are the things you learn about as you grow up,’ Pham says. ‘So, when you look at these paintings, you connect with them.’
‘For the past 20 years I have enjoyed the collection tremendously, but as I look over these paintings, I realise that they are not my paintings,’ the collector says of his decision to sell. ‘They really belong out there. My journey is complete, and it’s time for someone else to start his or her own personal journey.’
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Dr. Pham’s Vietnamese art collection is being presented at Christie’s Hong Kong across two seasons — 17 works from the collection were offered in Hong Kong on 26 May, and the remaining 16 will be offered in Hong Kong in the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Morning Session on 24 November.