Tran Duc Anh Son, former director of the Hue Imperial Court Antique Museum, says for now, it’s impossible for Vietnamese museums to buy back valuable local antiques that are being traded abroad.
Son brought this issue to public attention earlier this month when he wrote an article to Tuoi Tre alerting the local antique circle that a painting collection about Nguyen Dynasty worshipping rituals was being auctioned by a publisher, Eric Kline Books, in the US.
After the article was published, the Hue Imperial Court Heritage Preservation Center contacted Eric Kline Books only to learn that the collection had been sold and changed hands twice.
As Son, who is now vice director of the Da Nang Institute of Economic and Social Development, is trying hard through personal contacts to find the person who now owns the collection so that the Hue center can buy it back for Vietnam or borrow it for research, the issue of Vietnamese museums always being too late in international auctions suggests more fundamental causes.
Son points out three of them: an absence of a legal framework both for Vietnamese to take part in international auctions as well as for auctioning activities in Vietnam; limited budgets; and a lack of information about what Vietnamese antiques are being traded abroad.
Son says the first reason makes it very hard for local museums, especially state-owned ones whenever they want to bid for Vietnamese antiques abroad. “They don’t know on what legal basis they can ask relevant authorities to let them take part in international auctions,” Son writes in another article to Tuoi Tre.
Nor does Vietnam have a legal framework to establish a domestic auctioning market for the likes of Sotheby’s and Christie’s to invest in local antiques and fine arts.
Money and cumbersome procedures are another kind of problems, Son continues.
Every time Vietnamese museums want to make a bid, they have to ask the government to give them the money. But the problem is that museums don’t know what the final, or hammer price, of the objects will be to put down in their proposals to the government.
Son says this is the reason the Hue Imperial Court Heritage Preservation Center recently lost in an international auction of Nguyen King Ham Nghi’s Chieu ta (Dusk) painting.
But even if they already have a budget, it is often too meager to be meaningful.
Son thus suggests Vietnam should learn from the efforts of the Republic of Korea and Japan to prevent “antique drain” in their countries.
These efforts include a zero tariff on the export and import of antiques of over 100 years old as well as simplified import procedures. As a result, not only Korea and Japan have gotten back their antiques but foreign antiques have also been coming to them.
Korea also sends its experts all over the world to make an account of all important national antiques abroad and invite foreign owners of these antiques to exhibit them in Korea when the country is yet to get them back.