Do Thi Tham
Loan De Fontbrune is one of the world’s leading researchers and collectors of Vetnamese art.
France-based Loan de Fontbrune was born in Vietnam and has carried a love of Vietnamese art and culture into her lifelong work as a leading academic researcher and art collector.
As a child, de Fontbrune took an interest in art, reading books, painting and learning the piano. In 1979, her family moved to France as they held French citizenship from their grandfather’s generation. She continued her education at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris and pursued her dreams by studying art history at the Ecole du Louvre, Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie Michelet and the Sorbonne.
At that time, there were only a few experts on Vietnamese culture in France. Loan de Fontbrune worked as a special staff member for the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet. During this period, she wrote a number of articles on Hue imperial ceramics and royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty and gave presentations on Vietnamese culture.
Thanks to opportunities at the National Museum of Natural History (Paris), the Musée National de la céramique à Sèvres and the Limoges National Porcelain Museum to appraise their artifacts, she encountered many Vietnamese antiques, such as the Bat Trang tea set that the delegation led by Phan Thanh Gian presented to the Sèvres museum, and Hue blue-glazed pottery items that Vuong Hong Sen gave the Guimet Museum.
De Fontbrune also played an important role in helping bring about a legal framework for international lending of Vietnam’s cultural artifacts, which came as she was supporting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to hold the first exhibition overseas on Vietnamese art. This project took 10 years to be realized and in order to bring hundreds of precious artifacts to the exhibition, Vietnam’s National Assembly had to issue the Law on Cultural Heritage, thanks to which other exhibitions worldwide can follow with officially recognized artifacts from Vietnam. De Fontbrune also co-organized the first exhibition on the Indochina College of Fine Arts and other notable exhibitions such as “Vietnam-France Relations Over Four Centuries” and “The First French Photographers in Vietnam.”
In addition to her research and curatorial work, de Fontbrune became a prominent private collector of Vietnamese art and artifacts. During her earliest days in France, when she was just in her twenties, de Fontbrune said that her most cherished possessions were three silk paintings by Tu Duyen and four tiny ivory paintings by Doi Ngoan Quan. Later, while she was preparing for the exhibition on the Indochina College of Fine Arts, she came across a wonderful painting by Nguyen Phan Chanh in the storage of the museum. It had been donated but at the time the museum did not know who the painter was.
De Fontbrune has said that each artifact or artwork seems to have its own soul, history and story, which she always wants to learn more about. After getting married, Loan de Fontbrune received support from her husband, who had professional expertise, and she began collecting Vietnamese paintings, which were not of high interest 25 years ago.
Since then, her collection has increased, from paintings and statues to rare books and antiques of different periods, acquired mainly from auctions, antique markets and art galleries. Her criteria for selection are rareness, historical value, beauty and wholeness. Loan de Fontbrune’s collection of paintings by artists of the Indochina period now has reached hundreds of pieces, including almost every famous painter from Vietnam and France of that time. Her valuable works include “Girls Drinking Tea” by Vu Cao Dam; “Two Girls” by Mai Trung Thu; and “Canna Flowers” by Nguyen Tuong Lan, a very rare piece on silk by this famous painter. There are also fine pieces by lesser-known artists, which she bought for research.
Rare discoveries include the work “La Sorcière” by famed artist Nguyen Phan Chanh. The piece was originally a wedding gift for the wife of the buyer and was printed in the Christmas issue of the French weekly newspaper L’Illustration in 1932.
The owner of the painting, named Mrs. Pierre Massé, wrote a certificate to transfer the ownership of the painting to Loan de Fontbrune. The collector told Massé that she had long known this name through the footnote in the newspaper: “La Sorcière, collected by P. Massé” and had never expected to find and own this work of art, which had been thought to be lost. “To be more exact, I think the painting found me,” de Fontbrune said.
De Fontbrune can even claim a beauty contest title in her collection, as she won the Miss Asia title in a competition organized by the Chinese community in Paris.
Currently, she remains busy with projects related to Vietnam’s cultural and artistic heritage while helping to raise funds for the Cernuschi Museum in France to restore Vietnamese cultural artifacts for display. She also continues to research and present Vietnamese lacquer.