5 Tips to avoid buying fake Bulul from a Runner
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Below: an example of a phoney pair I purchased during my very early days collecting.
The tribal art market, particularly in the Philippines, has seen a resurgence in growth as more and more art collectors diversify their portfolios. Last year, a renowned auction house sold a Poitan King Bulul for over half a million pesos. My recent conversations with established Antique dealers in Manila and North Luzon also mention strong demand from the market.
With this recent boom, one can expect some enterprising individuals to capitalize on the lack of knowledge of newbie collectors with indigenous art, especially Bulul.
I am speaking from my own experience. Not very long ago, I was new to this trade and had no idea what I was getting into. I made expensive mistakes because I put my desire to obtain artifacts ahead of doing research and due diligence. So, I'd like to share some of my learnings with those of you brave and passionate enough to build a Bulul collection. Here are a few tips that will give you confidence:
Tip #1 - Check for signs of Ritual use
The Ifugao use Bulul in numerous rituals, most common are related to rice harvest cycles and healing. Most pieces will have a dark, greyish crust patina. The crust is formed by layers upon layers of dried sacrificial blood and soot. Much older Bulul will have a combination of dark & glossy patina from years for handling. The are also Bulul that have a natural patina i.e. no blood smeared on the piece, but rather rice wine has been poured over and in some cases rice cakes have been placed on the shoulders of the Bulul. Aside from understanding the patina another sign of ritual use are the signs of scrapings on the base or other body parts including the face. The practice of scraping wood from a Bulul is to concoct a healing tonic. If the cure works then the Bulul is considered very powerful.
Above (Top L-R): Dark Crust-patina and Porcelain Eye inserts, A natural patina bulul. (bottom L-R): wood has been scraped-off the base, scrapes can also be present on facial features.
Tip #2 - Check for greyish dust or rice grains
A recently used bulul will have a layer of greyish dust which comes from the rice husk chaff. This is a sign that the item was stored in the granary, hence; used to guard the rice. Sometimes, pieces will also have traces of rice grain on the body or on the base as well as in the ear lobes. This is another tell-tale sign of use. You can be assured this piece is authentic.
Above (L-R): A dusty dancing Pair. A Hungduan Pair with rice stalks in ear-lobes.
Tip #3 - Check the base for "wear" and residue
| "The figures are often placed on top of bundled rice after harvest when the granary is full. On very old nabulul, the moisture from the dying rice has sometimes eroded the bottom part of the pedestal in concentric circles"
- Eric Moltzau Anderson, In the Shape of Tradition
Look for erosion of the underside of the base. You should see circles from the center. Natural patina Bulul will also have an eroded base from the rice wine absorbed into the base, but not necessarily in concentric circles. One should also look for residue of dried blood or rice wine in between the feet area.
Above (L-R): A base carved from the center of a red narra tree. The concentric circles are very visible. Residue build-up at the feet from years of harvest rituals.
Tip #4 - Question your source and reference with experts
Ask the runner where the piece is from and the Family name of the clan selling the Bulul. Understand the reasons behind the sale. Typically, an Ifugao family sells because they have converted to Christianity and the next generation are no longer interested. Other reasons could be due to a critical illness or sudden need for cash. As a buyer parting with your hard-earned money, it's perfectly fine to demand this information. The reliable runners will be able to answer you right away. If you you're still not convinced then you can also ask them for more evidence such as; send a photograph with the owner holding the Bulul or a snapshot of the piece in the "alang" or granary. Show these photos to experts or other collectors and seek their advice ie. social media forums, etc.
Above: An owner poses with this very rare Bulul family
Tip #5 - Never go for pieces that look similar to pieces you've seen in publications or museums
The Indigenous art trade from Ifugao has been in existence since the late seventies and early eighties. That means many "archaic" pieces could have already been collected from field and are in the hands of collectors here and around the world. Some families who have sold-off their heirloom Bulul but still practice Baki could easily commission replacements (refer to my other Blog on this topic) or worse scrupulous individuals who know there is a demand for a certain "style" or "look" will fake them and sell as authentic bulul. It's not easy to develop an eye immediately especially if you're very new to Bulul appreciation. This takes time for research, and lots of patience to make mistakes. Personally, I prefer to stay away from the more popular Northern and Central traditional carving styles and focus on Southern Ifugao.
Above: On the left is the snapshot from the book "In the Shape of Tradition" by Eric M. Anderson. On the right is a piece offered to me by a runner.
Combine observations and your sixth sense
Buying fake Bulul is fully avoidable and in your control. If all else fails use your gut instinct. Someone pushing very hard just obviously wants to make a sale. Ensure at least two to three out of five tips are met and ideally you should be fine. Visit my Gallery and check-out my collection of Southern Ifugao Bulul. If you have other tips or thoughts to help fellow newbie collectors on this topic, please write them in the comments section below.