Ifugao: A well-spring of artifacts for the newbie collector
Updated: Aug 6
When I decided to begin to collect Indigenous art, there was so much uncertainty about what I was doing. I had no idea what I was getting into but I know I was satisfying a deep curiosity. Blame it on being cooped-up at home due to the pandemic or simply a burning obsession gone wild. I can only say I was lured by the obscurity of the harvest rituals and the Ifugao culture in general.
Guided by my instinct, I came to acquire my first pieces from rather shady sources on the FB marketplace. One was a phony museum curator cum antique dealer and the other was a second rate runner who I later discovered was somehow linked to the network of the former antique dealer. A few months later, I found out that majority of the pieces that were sold to me were not authentic. Here's a sample inventory of my purchases: I was the proud owner of a Bulul with shoe-polish patina, a Bulul pair whose patina would cake-off like cookie crumbs whenever handled; a rectangular ritual-box (with contents take note!) less the zoomorphic handles and a large lizard style ritual box painted black. I could not believe I was so easily duped! Any expert collector would have called "Fake!" a mile away.
It was not until I made a purchase at Gallery Deus, where I met Direk Floy Quintos that I realized my mistakes and that I could not fully blame my former sources. Direk Floy taught me to critique my own pieces, provided expert opinion and gave me confidence to develop my own "eye". Back then, I had no idea that he was actually an expert collector and had authored a book on the topic of collecting tribal art. It was my curiosity that led me to a guru of Indigenous art!
So from that experience right there were two (2) lessons or eye-openers for me as a newbie collector. Allow me to share:
Lesson #1: Make sure you do a thorough background check on your sources. One way is to push hard to know the provenance of the pieces. Ask them "Who is the original owner?" or "Where is the item originally from. If they can't answer these basic questions or they say "it's from the elders", "there's no more authentic pieces in Ifugao" or "I'll have to bring these back to Ifugao with me" then you know for sure they only want your money. I suggest to drop them like a hot potato.
Trusted & reliable Ifugao runners will show you actual pictures of the pieces collected in situ or immediately show you pictures of the actual owners handling the items. They know the ownership / origin details because they are directly dealing with the owners and not second or third middlemen in the supply chain . They will take the time to get to know you, perhaps offer to meet you in person so that you can see the pieces yourself. They take the time to understand your "style" so that they can give you the pieces that "excite" you and not just push any available item to make a quick sale and leave you with buyer's remorse.
Below:Actual images provided by Ifugao Runners (L-R) A rare Bulul Family and the owner, A Hapao pair in use, A hungduan pair with matching ritual box
Lesson #2 is before embarking on Lesson #1, do your research on the topic of Indigenous Art. It's just a pity there's hardly any manual or guide readily available for the novice collector. Meaning, there's no one book that teaches you how to get started and properly collect indigenous art. You would need to research the work of western anthropologists such as Barton, Otley-Beyer, Acabado to name a few or our very own E. Casino, G. Casal, et al. Fortunately, there are a couple of very concise non-academic books on the topic. Worthy to note are: Provenance: Ramon Tapales by Floy Quintos and In the Shape of Tradition by Eric Moltzau Anderson. These are two very good books to get the newbie collector up to speed and "fool-proof" on the topic of Ifugao Tribal Art.
Despite the setback, I was still determined to carry-on. I guess I am driven to make indigenous art, particularly Ifugao art, appreciated by more Filipinos. I aim to debunk the generalization that "all the beautiful and old pieces have been collected by Westerners or are in the hands of local collectors". I'd like to take my collection as an example. Not all my pieces are old but they do turn some heads. While I am a newbie at this, I still firmly believe there are old and beautiful pieces in Ifugao that are either just not for sale at the moment or have yet to be discovered. The Ifugao runners know it. I've seen the pictures to prove it. We just need to be patient and wait for the ideal time.
So, if you were to start an Ifugao Tribal Art collection today, well, of course you would be at a gross disadvantage versus those who started collecting in the late 70's and 80's. Those Bulul pieces are characterized mostly as "Archaic" and likely date back to late 19th to early 20th century. What is in-stock in Ifugao at the moment are beautiful mid-20th or if you're lucky early to mid-20th century pieces. You just need to have the right Ifugao runner network and relationships to get them. If you are insistent to own a late 19th or early 20th piece then one can always seek out the local collectors but be ready to pay a hefty price for them. Another option is to join the auction houses such as SALCEDO AUCTIONS who historically cater to mostly western collectors but lately have seen a rise in locals purchasing tribal art. They usually hold big auctions every September and I know a runner or two who have capitalized on this opportunity.
Below (L-R): Early to Mid 20th Century Bulul: Hungduan Pair ex. Maria Closa via Salcedo Auctions,
A heart-shaped face Hingyon ex. Floy Quintos, A seated Bulul from Hingyon sourced by Troy Tanggana
In summary, it's never too late to begin collecting tribal art. Whether you're the pure "antique only" or appreciate "form and beauty" before age, Ifugao still churns-out pieces that are authentic and somewhat old. While the Runners often talk about scarcity of antiques and that they need to travel farther out into the barrios, isn't that what collecting is all about? The idea of finding and owning that unique piece which originated from a far-flung Bale (Native house) or Alang (Granary). Ifugao is still and will continue to be a treasure trove for the novice collector and the Ifugao runners will continue to be the key to reaching these pieces.
The Ahi Ani Runner Team (L-R): Troy, Kelly, Abi