Hervé Courtaigne & Philippe Koutouzis: “The return of growth in China will boost T’ang Haywen’s market”

Image above: The Journal des Arts’ Editor Jean-Christophe Castelain (left) sits down with art expert Philippe Koutouzis (middle) and Parisian gallerist and collector Hervé Courtaigne (right) to talk about T’ang Haywen - the man, his art and its market. Photograph by Françoise Monnin.

The specialist of the second school of Paris is organizing an exhibition of the Franco-Chinese painter in collaboration with the expert Philippe Koutouzis.

Much lesser known than his Chinese compatriots Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, who came just like them to settle in France, T'ang Haywen (1927-1991) emerges from his semi-anonymity thanks to an exhibition presented at the Guimet Museum based on works from his studio recovered by the State. Gallerist Hervé Courtaigne is also exhibiting a selection of works.

What is the angle of the exhibition at the gallery?

Hervé Courtaigne: It is both a panorama and a selection. The gallery has been collecting T'ang for twelve or thirteen years and this has allowed us to have works which cover his entire period of creation, from his oils on canvas which are quite rare or his travel notes from the 1950s-1960s, to the latest inks from the 1980s. We cannot present everything, we have too many, we mainly show great works.

Can we “periodize” T’ang’s work? 

Philippe Koutouzis: It’s always difficult to do this exercise, especially since with T’ang the choice of supports introduces variations in the style. In the 1950s, he began with rather figurative works (still lifes, landscapes, etc.) and homages to Western painters. At the beginning of the 1960s, he painted landscapes in series in ink and oil on cardboard from which he had acquired a stock. He also painted oils on canvas and a series of very small oils on newsprint. It was at the end of the decade that he began to juxtapose two sheets, giving birth to the diptych format which fundamentally characterized him. This leads him to expand his representations which take on a more symbolic dimension and mark the maturity of his work. In the 1980s, he used Arches paper which absorbs ink differently and gives the work a more fluid dimension bathed in light.

Figurative or abstract?

H. C.: His works are always on the edge between figuration and non-figuration, in a post-war context where 90% of the pictorial production in France was abstract. I see landscapes in his works. We will find more colour in the exhibition than its production in general suggests. This is what touches me the most as, paradoxically, I began to be interested in T’ang’s inks before discovering his secret garden made up of small figurative formats.

Ph. K.: T'ang was very detached from artistic life and did not really follow the trends, unlike Zao Wou-ki who we know, for example, that he saw T'ang's work. He left for several months in Morocco and the United States, and did not make much effort to meet his collectors. He was elusive even for his Parisian gallery owner Nane Stern.

H. C.: T’ang was more or less at odds with his family back in Vietnam, particularly because of his homosexuality. He lived in a certain social isolation. I can't help but think that his latest works are marked by the AIDS he contracted.

Ph. K.: And then, unlike Zao Wou-Ki or Chu Teh-Chun, T’ang came from a modest background. They are Chinese from the South, from Fujian, less educated than those from the North who call them "the eaters of everything with four legs except tables", who left for Vietnam after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

Is its market position well established?

H. C.: It followed developments, in particular linked to Chinese nationals purchases which caused prices to rise until the 2010s, culminating with a record in Hong Kong at 300,000 euros for an exceptional work. Then there were “turbulences” around his work which destabilized the market. This period is over. Today prices obviously depend on formats, eras, etc., but let's say that a large ink is worth around 20,000 euros. But there are few, and even fewer large oils on canvas, part of his production (around fifty paintings) was burned in San Francisco in the 1960s. Small formats were sold for between 2,000 and 5,000 euros each last year at Artcurial.

Who are T’ang’s current buyers?

H. C.: There are still many buyers in China. Philippe knows a Hong Konger who owns 40 works and carries on buying. There is also the entire Chinese diaspora in the world who wants to reclaim their heritage. And then there are all the people interested in the second school of Paris. What is certain is that the return of Chinese growth will boost its market, which can only increase given the fairly low level it is at today.

Ph. K.: T'ang is not known and the exhibition at the Guimet Museum will help to shed light on his very romantic life which can only increase interest in the man and his work.

Hervé Courtaigne spoke of “turmoils”, alluding to questions about your property rights to the work of T’ang...

Ph. K.: The question was definitively settled by a judgment of the French Supreme Court (court de cassation) in 2018, which puts an end to all disputes over my rights to the work. Since 1995, I have promoted and protected T’ang’s work following an agreement with his brother. I am the only one authorized to issue certificates of authenticity. And in a way, I also defend moral right.

T'ang died in 1991 without heirs and his studio was sold by the State in 1992. But part of his studio was stolen by Drouot's “red collars” and partially found after the affair broke out... Do we have any idea what was stolen?

Ph. K.: Not really, but I am convinced that other works will emerge. The Domaines have recovered several hundred, but many of them are small formats and not all of them were by T’ang’s hand. I participated in the selection which was given to the Guimet Museum and the one which is on sale at Artcurial.

The market has also been disrupted by fakes. What about today’s market?

Ph. K.: I have the feeling that the workshop that made them has stopped producing them. But I continue to hunt down all the fakes that I see passing by. Given my expertise and my collaboration with the French State, a fake is removed from the market as soon as I report it.

H. C.: The market has improved considerably over the past four to five years. It has become binary: if a work is included in the catalogue raisonné, it’s good; if it is not, it is worthless.

Ph. K.: I have been working on the catalogue raisonné for years. It is not simple because T'ang documented his work very little and, as in the tradition of Chinese calligraphy, he produced a lot, especially small formats on paper. For the moment, as with Zao or Chu, I do not wish to put it online in order to avoid tempting counterfeiters. On the other hand, I can certify that the work presented to me is in the catalogue or will be after my expertise.

The Painting of T’ang Haywen, until 8 June, Galerie Hervé Courtaigne, 53 rue de Seine, 75006 Paris
T’ang Haywen, until June 17, Musée Guimet, place d’Iéna, 75116 Paris

This article was published in Le Journal des Arts n°633 of May 10, 2024, with the following title: Gallery owner in Paris Hervé Courtaigne & expert Philippe Koutouzis: “The return of growth in China will boost T'ang Haywen’s market (Le retour de la croissance en Chine va doper la cote de T’ang Haywen)”