Neither Wall Street nor PSE can beat the Manila art auction record. I watched on Facebook live the other week’s Leon Gallery auction and record after record toppled. At prices in the millions (P7.5 million per basket of Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s painting, Women with Baskets, Fish and Crab) you really have to make sure that what you buy is the real thing, not a newly made repro passed on as genuine.
Lawyer Tonico Manahan explains that there’s a law creating a National Museum Authentication Panel whose decision should settle any dispute, but the panel has not been created. Complaints would be for fraud or estafa, which is more difficult to prove. In effect therefore, it’s buyer beware whether you’re bidding for a painting, santo, ceramic, watercolor, whatever.
When buying an art work, the idea is for you to check style, execution, and condition. This means you have to read up on the artist and know how and what he typically painted throughout his working life, be familiar with his authentic works as basis of comparison, previous ownership of the work you’re considering. Asking for others’ opinions would be a good idea, but be sure he/she is not also interested in the same object. Be warned that authentication documents can also be fake and that some “experts” authenticate anything for pay.
To help prospective bidders, Leon Gallery organized a Webinar with experts talking about Amorsolo paintings, an antique Batangas altar table, a Lao Lanbien black and white abstract, a santo, and a Manansala “transparent cubism” painting.
The painter’s daughter Sylvia Amorsolo Lazo and her son Fernando Amorsolo Lazo explained that they determine authenticity by inspecting the Amorsolo painting itself, not a photograph, and start with a general impression of the work, its level of mastery.
Fernando Lazo emphasized that his grandfather was an outstanding realist painter and painted everything as he saw them—in proper scale and relative proportions. The mountains, trees and plants, houses, animals, objects, people are all proportionate relative to each other in their respective locations and time of day.
He pointed out, too, that fakers try to “age” their product and often go too far in darkening the painting. They also fail in details—the characters’ anatomy, positioning, expressions, and gestures; the way sunlight strikes objects and people; how clothes drape and fall. Signature, Lazo adds, is the last thing they look at.
Toto Gonzalez talked about a “Batangas Dos,” an elegant altar table from Batangas. He pointed out that the wood is normally gold tinged balayong; the proportions are to a type; the carving of feet and flanges is meticulous; and joinery is perfect. Repros reveal themselves in a mixture of styles (say neo-classic in some parts and rococo in others), patina that differs among parts of the object, awkward proportions, and heavy-handed carving and misunderstanding of details.
Happily, says Ateneo Professor Leo Garcia, it’s so difficult to follow Lao Lianben’s sensibility and technique that there are no Lao fakes. He says a genuine work “speaks to you” and that there’s an inconspicuous dot somewhere when the artist sits back and says “finis.”
Performing Arts director Floy Quintos is a connoisseur of religious images both Catholic and indigenous. He talked about a santo de bulto or image in the round of San Miguel from the collection of the late Benito Legarda, Jr. He observed that santo fakers—and there are many—unconsciously reveal themselves by injecting something of their own time, most commonly in the face and facial expression. You can tell a 19th century face from a 21st century face, he explained. The latter tends to look sweeter, more friendly not only in photographs but also in santos whether male or female. Today’s Sto. Niños, for example, look pinchable whereas you wouldn’t dare do that to a child that has the stern and aloof expression of a really old image.
Quintos also remarked on the singular features of the Legarda San Miguel that could have been done by sculptors who learned carving from elders of the pre-hispanic animist tradition and who had previously been doing likhâ and bulól that our ancestors revered. He also mentioned stylistic features like the ringlets of the hair and the expression and positioning of the defeated Lucifer on whom San Miguel stands.
Maritess Pineda of the Friends of Manansala emphasized the painter’s insistence that any visual artist needs to master drawing and how Vicente Manansala himself was constantly drawing to make sure that facial expression, perspective, and proportions were just so. He excelled in the difficult watercolor medium and once said that trees needed to be depicted as if birds could fly through. Recalling an incident when she noticed a fake painting on a Christie’s Hong Kong Auction catalogue, Pineda said she saw how the faker had picked out details from several Manansala paintings and combined them in one work of a different size.
The auction took place on June 5, a few days after the Webinar. I watched mesmerized as a small Amorsolo “Market Scene” sold for P8.8 million and a “Tinikling” with lots of figures for P13 million; Batangas Dos altar table for P3.7 million; Lao Lianben “Gestures” for P14 million; San Miguel (38” tall) for P1.1 million; and Vicente Manansala “Fish Vendors” for P21 million. The Anita “Women with Baskets, Fish and Crab” sold for P52.5 million.
I was also following the rare 1840s letras y figuras by Jose Honorato Lozano, EMILIO PEREZ DEL PULGAR. It sold for P17.5 million and the equally rare 19th century palillera, a silver toothpick holder shaped like a pineapple is now owned by a toothpick enthusiast with P3.5 million to spare.
Real taste, repro budget, that’s me.
Notes: (a) Buyers pay the hammer price plus fees and taxes of 16.8 percent; and (b) silver toothpick holders have been called palitera, which refers to a machine that makes ice drop sticks. Capitan Tiago of Noli Me Tangere had them—they were called palillera.
Comments are cordially invited, addressed to [email protected]