The Ifugao Art Trade: A guide for new collectors
I once heard a foreign celebrity collector say that "A collector never reveals his sources".
As a newbie back then, I found that statement to be rather selfish and quite conceited seeing as the number of Filipinos who collect Indigenous art today continues to remain low when compared with the number of Filipinos who invest in Western-influenced Art ie. paintings, drawings and sculpture.
As evidence, you will see that at the big Philippine auctions houses (Salcedo and Leon) , a very small portion of pieces on auction is allocated to Indigenous Art. Moreover, the appraised value of the artifacts do not even reach a small percentage of what contemporary paintings are valued at! Yet, at auction houses outside the Philippines, Bulul can go for as high as thirty-six million pesos! Anyway, provenance is another blog topic that I'll cover in the near future.
The Ifugao Art trade has been in existence since the late 60's and 70's at time when Ifugao people opened up to letting go of their heirloom artifacts in exchange for cash. The main reason being the spread of Christianity in the Cordilleras as well as the hardships of the market economy. Then in the early 80's and 90's demands of many foreigner collectors based in Europe and the United states gave birth to Antique shops in the Malate Area. Other locals, such as Ramon Tapales Jr., Roland Go, Eddie Marcelo and William Beyer Jr. were all brave enough to venture into the Cordilleras or even just Baguio. They were rewarded by being able to secure original heirloom Bulul that today can be found in Museums and private collections around the world. Then in late 90's came the next big shots Floy Quintos the genius behind Gallery Deus as well as Edd Fuentes rumored to have five warehouses full of Bulul. Bobby Gopiao another serious collector who also holds a treasure trove of original bulul. Maria Closa and Rudy Kratochwill are also prominent names in the industry, they are the pair behind 1335 A. Mabini. It was also during this time that there was a surge in the production of replicas and fakes and then rumors spread into Manila at circles that there are no more authentic pieces left in Ifugao, thus, further loss of interest for the local art collector to invest in the Indigenous Art segment. From what I'm told by runners and dealers, it was not until the last five years when slowly some local interest was re-kindled. I'm what one would call a "late in the game" collector. My curiosity for Bulul began in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic around Mid 2020. I wanted to learn more about these mysterious artifacts and I felt I had to get my hands on one...or two. This curiosity became an obsession but with proper guidance I've tamed this obsession down to a passion...which I believe is the right way to build a collection; Goal-Oriented and very specific...otherwise you end up collecting "stuff".
As of this writing, a limited quantity of late 19th to early 20th century Bulul still remain in the hands of Ifugao families. In my other blog, I mentioned one is lucky to be able to procure mid-20th century pieces in-situ. What's up there today are Late 20th to early 21st pieces. The replacements of the originals sold in the 80's and 90's but I would still consider them authentic as long as they have been used in harvest or healing rituals. I also need to raise the topic of fakes or unused replicas targeting the tourist trade and the uninformed newbie collector. Hence, this is the reason I'm blogging this topic. My purpose is to not only guide newbies looking to enter this rewarding hobby of collecting Indigenous Art, more importantly, shorten the learning curve by sharing my trusted network and minimizing the newbie collector's financial losses.
Now that you've decided you'd like to start collecting Ifugao Artifacts it is time to start sourcing and building your network of dealers. In a market where scarcity of supply triggers entry of replicas and fakes it's critical to build trust and rapport with dealers quickly.
Two Ifugao Runners peddling their wares circa early 20th century
(Photo by Erik Moltzau Anderson (copyright) In the Shape Of Tradition: Indigenous Art of the Northern Philippines)
1) Looking back, my first mistake was rushing into this hobby without doing my research and that set me up for my first expensive yet eye-opening learning."Everyone is out to make money" such a cliche yet a valuable one for a new collector as you don't yet have the experience and wisdom to discern what is desirable, unique or even rare. You will fall prey to the seller's truth. So, research first, read the books and literature surrounding the topic. Then you pepper them with questions and really push for provenance or by asking for pictures with the owners.
2) Source Matters and Trust is absolutely key:
During the first 6 months when I began to build my collection, I only relied on two sources. My authenticity hit-rate was 25% and because I lacked wisdom and experience, they continued to drain my resources until somehow I added another dealer source (Gammal de Galleria) and my hit-rate jumped to 75%. Then I met Direk Floy Quintos of Gallery Deus who helped me develop my own "eye". I realized more than half of my pieces were all fakes...so I immediately dropped the first two dealers. Now I had a dealer direct from Ifugao and Gallery Deus as a source of pieces. I then ventured to set-up the Ahi'ani website and social media pages. Immediately, I got so many direct Ifugao dealers contacting me. At one point I was talking to twenty different dealers all wanting to sell me something. The pictures on FB messenger would not stop coming! After more trial and error my hit rate was up 90% authentic and my collection was spiraling out of control. So I had to revisit my collection objectives and trim down the number of dealers to seven. The result is my current portfolio of Southern Ifugao pieces.
Channels: Typical Route to Market
Level 5: Auction Houses
Level 4: Collectors
Level 3: Dealers / Shops + Wholesaler (MJ)
Level 1 /2: Runner
Level 0 : Owner
3) Recommended Dealers: Here's a short-list of dealers who I trust and have built some rapport with. Notwithstanding the fact that dealers are also after a sale, I've been taught and learned to manage my desire, cash flow and their persistent efforts. Remember, you must be in control of the negotiation and stick to your collection objectives.
Gammal de Galleria-trustworthy, got me my first authentic pieces
Troilan Tanggana-trustworthy, good relationship with owners
Kelly Bumanghat-trustworthy, overall good fellow
Archie Malihod-trustworthy and his runners venture far-out.
Jemmax Kimmayong-trustworthy, 100% legit pieces
Mary Jane Castanieto-best prices, but you need to really do your homework
Aizam Basilio-despite the negative feedback lately I still trust him.
Vernon Limmag-my latest source, trustworthy
Today's Dealers & Runners: Troy and Abi show-off their stunning pieces
Despite the current realities on shortage of good pieces and the prevalence of fakes, I'm still confident and motivated to push Indigenous art appreciation amongst our countrymen. Why let the foreigners take hold of any more of our national "treasures" ? Itong mga bagay na ito ay dapat mapakinabangan mga Pilipino lamang. While there's already been such a huge exodus of pieces. I know a couple of serious collectors who invest heavily to repatriate Bulul from collections outside the Philippines. Atty. Emil Maranon III has brought back many beautiful archaic pieces.
Take note, even the most serious collectors made the same rookie mistakes when they started. They were passionate enough to move-on, learn and grow. Just because you source from a collector does not mean the piece is authentic, likewise same goes for sourcing from an Ifugao-based dealer. The burden of validating authenticity is your responsibility. Keep talking to other serious collectors for guidance and advice.
In the end, what matters most is that the piece brings you joy and a high level of satisfaction.
It is time for Indigenous Art to surface and enter mainstream Art circles. Let the iconic Bulul along with other objects (i.e Minahu, Punamhan, Duyu,Kinnahuetc...) join the Art collections of younger Filipinos. Why should Art collecting only be limited to western-influenced paintings, drawings and sculpture?
Good luck on your journey! Feel free to drop me a line for any queries.