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Private HCM City gallery collects finest Vietnamese artworks from past century
By Le Hung Vong

Treasure hunter: Bui Quoc Chi poses in front of some of the most valued works in his gallery. — VNS Photo Ngoc Hai
HCM CITY — One of the biggest collections of paintings from the first generation of graduates of the Indochina Arts College opened in HCM City on Friday, thanks to the famous Duc Minh family of art collectors.

The family has collected Vietnamese art works for over half a century, particularly those by the "masters" of Western art who graduated from the Ha Noi art college in early 1920s, such as Tran Van Can, Duong Bich Lien, Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Gia Tri and To Ngoc Van.

The Duc Minh Gallery is now putting some of the paintings from this collection on public display for the first time at 31C Le Quy Don Street in HCM City’s District 1.

"The gallery is open to visitors, but the paintings displayed here are not for sale. We want to keep them so that other visitors will be able to enjoy the Western art of Vietnamese painters," said gallery owner Bui Quoc Chi.

Chi is the youngest offspring of Bui Dinh Than (1920-1983), also known as Duc Minh, who was recognised as the country’s biggest art collector in 1954.

Art critics said Duc Minh acquired such collection of more than 1,000 paintings because he had a fine taste for the arts and a desire to preserve the country’s cultural values.

Duc Minh began his collection in 1945 when he invited artist Nguyen Sang to paint a portrait of his mother. The oldest painting in the collection is a work by Tran Van Can, while the most recent were painted by Bui Xuan Phai between 1983 and 1987.

Duc Minh followed the development of Vietnamese art from the beginnings of the Indochina Arts College to the work of local artists in the 1980s.

Many great paintings of his collection were bought during the resistance war with the French, such as the Playing Square Game (by Nguyen Phan Chanh in 1931), which he bought in Paris in 1950, and the Girl with Changing Hibiscus (by Nguyen Gia Tri in 1944).

After the liberation of North Viet Nam in 1954, Duc Minh bought works by To Ngoc Van, Ta Ty, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Le Pho, Tran Binh Loc, Phung Van Pham and Nguyen Tien Chung.

Duc Minh reportedly spent about VND1,000 per month on his collection at a time when a Government official earned about VND60 a month.

However, the art collector did not buy the precious paintings for his personal use, and lent many of them to State museums and Government agencies.

During the war, the Viet Nam Arts Museum borrowed 25 paintings from Duc Minh’s collection, including Playing Square Game, Girl with Changing Hibiscus, and A Girl with Lilies (1943) by To Ngoc Van.

Duc Minh also lent items from his collection to exhibitions of Vietnamese paintings in socialist countries such as China, North Korea, Hungary, Albania, Mongolia and Romania.

In 1958, the Government borrowed a big lacquer screen to display at the Government Hall during the welcoming ceremony for Indian Prime Minister Nehru during his visit to Viet Nam.

"The Duc Minh Gallery is one of treasures of Viet Nam’s art world," said painter Duong Bich Lien.

Arts critics believe that many of the over 1,000 paintings of the Duc Minh collection have been sold since Duc Minh died in 1983.

Other works may have been sold in 1992 when Chi decided to quit his job as a construction engineer at a Ha Noi research institute and pursue his father’s career.

He sold the gallery at 53 Quang Trung Street, Ha Noi, and opened the Gallery Phuong Thao at 45 Le Thanh Ton in HCM City’s District 1.

In 1997, he opened a gallery at 23 Ly Tu Trong Street in HCM City and named it Duc Minh.

"It reminded me that I am the child of the biggest collector of Vietnamese arts," he said.

In March 1988, Chi became the first Vietnamese collector to purchase foreign paintings at Christie’s auction centre in Singapore, when he bought three paintings: Ha Noi’s Flower Market (by Victor Tardieu, the founder of Indochina Fine Arts College), Dove by Lee Man Fong and Bali Girls by William Hofker. These paintings are also on display at the Duc Minh Gallery.

"I would like to build the gallery into a venue for all art lovers, and eventually, I would like to transform it into the first private arts museum in Viet Nam, if I am allowed," Chi told Viet Nam News.

Reprinted with permission from VietNam News Agency.


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