T'ang Haywen slowly emerges from purgatory

The successful dispersal of part of the studio of the Franco-Chinese artist who died thirty years ago marks a first step in his rediscovery.

Written by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE CASTELAIN on 13 April 2023

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Paris. On 5 April, Artcurial offered for sale 50 works on paper by T’ang Haywen (1927-1991). They were all sold, well above their estimates (very low, however, averaging 2,000 euros each), for a total of 215,000 euros including fees. This is not yet the irrational exuberance of the market, but it is an encouraging start for a work whose market has long been disrupted by a succession of misadventures.

Legal imbroglio

The succession of T’ang Haywen is at the origin of these problems. T’ang arrived in Paris in 1948 from Vietnam, where his Chinese family had fled, to study medicine. He preferred to be an artist and led a bohemian life. When he died in 1991, he left a large stock of unlisted works, with no one to look after them; he had no gallery and had long since cut ties with his family. Noting the vacancy of the estate, the courts ordered an inventory and entrusted part of the sale in 1992 to the auctioneer Yves-Marie Leroux. Why only a part? Because the other part was stolen by the Drouot handlers, the “red collars” who had taken the awful habit of helping themselves during the inventories. The affair broke out in 2009 and it took many years of proceedings before the Domaines were able to put the stock held by the “Savoyards” on the market, including the 50 Artcurial lots (Note 1).

In the meantime, several other legal cases have complicated the situation. They concern the ownership of the patrimonial rights. Philippe Koutouzis, the expert for the Artcurial sale, claimed to have obtained these rights in 1995 from the artist’s brother, whom he found in China. Several people disputed the existence of the brother, starting with the gallery owner Enrico Navarra (who has since died), who waged a merciless legal battle with the expert. At the end of these years of procedures, the justice dismissed the various plaintiffs and recognized definitively in 2018 the ownership of the rights to Philippe Koutouzis (Note 2).

Philippe Koutouzis did not wait until 2018 to consolidate his expertise on the artist, collect archives, prepare a catalogue raisonné, establish certificates of authenticity... and fighting against forgeries. For it seems that many fake T’ang Haywen circulated on the market, claiming the provenance “Leroux” (the auctioneer’s 1992 sale whose slip was conveniently very incomplete). Very often, Philippe Koutouzis came across the name of Jean-Robert Pellotier, president of a T’ang Haywen Committee, which was responsible for putting works by the artist up for sale. Philippe Koutouzis was able to take a sample of paper from one of the disputed works and have it analyzed by a specialized laboratory – which concluded that the paper dated from 2018, well after T'ang’s death... (Note 3)

Upcoming auctions, and the Guimet Museum soon

The Domaines have entrusted Philippe Koutouzis with the task of selecting the works to be sold at Artcurial (other auctions will take place) as well as the works proposed for donation to the Guimet Museum. The National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet has since accepted the donation of 30 study notebooks, 650 drawings and 200 works by the Domaines, and has promised to organize an exhibition in 2024.

This exhibition, the success of the Artcurial sale, and the strengthening of the legitimacy of the expert, should allow the artist’s value to continue to rise. And there is room for improvement if we consider the market value of Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, two French artists of Chinese origin, from the same generation as T’ang but with more peaceful histories.

Note 1: The so-called “red collars”, because they wore a jacket with a red collar were also known as “savoyards” as they originated from a few villages in the French region of Savoie. They were exclusively in charge of moving the objects and works of art put up for sale at Drouot. For a very long time they had been stealing goods, especially those of vacant estates, such as that of T’ang at his death. The Domaines, an administration attached to the French Ministry of Budget, was only entrusted in 2020 with the sale of this group of works.

Note 2: tanghaywenarchives.com/news/paris-court-decision-ends-legal-saga

Note 3: Jean-Robert Pellotier is the subject of several criminal complaints, the investigation of which continues. The samples of paper and their dating with Carbon-14 (C14) concern not one but 40 paintings whose marketing goes back to Jean-Robert Pellotier, established in Belgium and using the screen of Luxembourg companies to sell the counterfeits. The C14 dating were carried out by the Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics of ETH Zurich and were the subject of a scientific publication in the Cambridge University Press. tanghaywenarchives.com/news/tang-haywen-archives-co-authors-an-article-published-by-cambridge-university-press