Art caveat
LOOKING ASKANCE - Joseph Gonzales (The Freeman) - July 19, 2020 - 12:00am

Shock waves in the art world.

An auction house has put up for auction a fake Elmer Borlongan, publishing a hoity-toity catalogue pronouncing its provenance and thereby establishing its authenticity. However, the real owner, still very much in possession of the original, called up the artist (born 1967, and hence still alive), and sought redress.

The artist himself then put matters right with the auction house, and the item was pulled from the auction.

The fake one shows a typical Borlongan bald dude, his head turning away while his eye is locked slyly with the viewer, a yellow pencil stuck up his ear. The piece is aptly titled “Lapis”, it’s an oil on canvas allegedly created in 2008. Estimated auction price is anywhere from P250,000-P280,000.

The real one, however, is an acrylic painting, and shows more panache in the various shadings of the cheeks and jaw. It was created in 2006. The fake is a great rendition of the original, though, one that can (and did) fool an unsuspecting art patron.

Yanking the piece out from the auction would ordinarily have been the end to that contretemps, since fakes pop up frequently in even the most rarefied art circles. But not this time. From the rumblings I hear, it seems blood is being demanded.

There have been messages calling for the sanctioning of the gallery and for criminal charges to be filed. (Trying to pass a fake artwork as original and selling it? Well, this one wasn’t consummated, as the piece was booted out from the auction proper. But there is a special law embodied in Republic Act 9105, which penalizes “art forgery”.)

Why did the auction house not perform due diligence? The artist is still alive and kicking. Was it so difficult to pay him a visit and inquire as to the legitimacy of the artwork? (Although some artists might be so befuddled with paint fumes, they may only vaguely remember ancient artworks).

And who was the owner of the fake that placed it with the gallery? What was his culpability for the attempted scam? Was he also an innocent victim or a willing conspirator? Why is the gallery (it seems like) just letting things slide? Should not the gallery turn the seller in, and if he is innocent, let him prove his innocence before the proper venue?

Even the partner of a famous national artist (still alive), has had enough, it seems. The equally-famous virago has accused this same auction house of being “irresponsible” (I’m repeating only the less hurtful ones), and get this --of selling her partner’s notecards and calendars as prints.

Yep. The modus operandi consists of adorning the calendar page with a beautiful, classy frame, and selling it as a “digital print”. (And I have with me as Exhibit A what seems to be a picture of lot 313 of an auction house catalog, demonstrating this practice on another Borlongan famous canvas that I last saw at Pinto Art Gallery. Estimated price for the reprint: P6,000-8,000.)

Is this practice to be denounced? Or is it to be countenanced? What to do? Oh, the ramifications of this accusation.

Even while scandals like this regularly erupt, though, it doesn’t stop the world from turning. There is always great temptation in making a quick buck by passing off gorgeous canvasses as created by masters or acknowledged geniuses. And there will always be innocent lambs, who will be mercilessly fleeced. That is why galleries and auction houses play a big role in authenticating the legitimacy of the artworks, so the public can rest easy and take comfort in the pieces they’re eyeing.

But there are galleries, and there are galleries, just like there are experts and there are experts. Meanwhile, perhaps it should be wise to remember that throughout the ages, the rule has always been “caveat emptor”. Buyer, beware.

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