While the artist Mauro Malang Santos may have passed away three years ago, his works continue to be auction draws. Before 2019 ended, an untitled oil on canvas work of his from 2000 was sold by Salcedo for P1.5 million—which was three times its estimate. In the upcoming Leon Exchange online auction alone, there are 10 Malang lots—a mix of his work as cartoonist and, of course, as painter. Meanwhile, at the Salcedo Auction’s gavel & block online auction on the 25th, four characteristically exuberant Malang serigraphs are up for bidding.
No wonder Malang is one of the old masters whose works art forgers like to copy—and those copies have been going around again of late. Reason why early this week on Instagram, West Gallery, the artist run space owned by his son Soler Santos, posted a warning addressed to potential buyers of Malang works in the market. “Beware when purchasing works by Malang,” it begins. “There has been an alarming number of fakes circulating recently, some accompanied by fake authentication papers.”
West Gallery, the art space in West Avenue, Quezon City, is and has always been the only official authenticator of Malang works.
When we speak to Soler about the matter, it sounds like the issue of Malang fakes is nothing new to him. He says they have been around even while his father was alive, as early as the 1980s. Mr. Malang was even able to bring the subject of art forgery to the Philippine senate, with the help of his friends, Senators Ed Angara and Ernesto Herrera—but it soon got overtaken by more sensational issues.
What we have so far is Republic Act 9105, an act defining the crime of art forgery and stating the penalties for erring individuals, which include imprisonment of not less than six years and one day (but not more than 12 years) along with a fine not lower than P50,000 (but not more than P500,000). It adds that if the crime is committed by art dealers or gallery owners, their licenses to operate will be immediately revoked—on top of the jail time and fine. The law has been criticized as having no teeth, and one hardly ever hears of people filing cases. Just this week, a fake Elmer Borlongan, an oil on canvas painting of a signature Emong-style head, almost made it to the July 25 Salcedo auction. It was quickly pulled out from the lineup.
It would be a good thing, says Soler, if the real artist or his family (if the artist is no longer alive) is given the right to destroy or deface a fake piece of art so that it doesn’t return back to the market and victimize another careless buyer. The reality is that the art work, when proven fraudulent by, say, an auction house, only goes back to the dealer—only to be set aside and brought out again at the next opportune time.
“We normally require them to get a certificate from West Gallery,” says Leon Gallery’s Jaime Ponce de Leon when asked what his auction house does when faced with a dealer or consigner bearing a suspicious Malang. Of course, when the art is proven to be fraudulent, De Leon never hears from the dealer or consigner again.
One way for prospective buyers to protect themselves against fakes, says Soler, is to do their own research, so they don’t get talked into buying something of very little to no value. The more ideal way is, of course, always to consult the official authenticator of the artist, if the artist is already dead. Among the masters who have families that can authenticate works are Fernando Amorsolo, Alfredo Alcuaz, Ang Kiukok, and Jose Joya. Best if the authenticator possesses real interest in the works, one with unquestioned credibility — like Soler who, by the sheer fortune of being able to watch his father closely at work, study his brushstrokes, familiarize himself with the very tools used, is as good an authenticator as a scholar who devoted years poring over a particular artist’s life and work.
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Soler even agrees to auction houses sending him pictures of artworks through Viber—just to make everything fast and easy for everyone. But when the tell-tale signs of a Malang are not so easily recognizable, that’s when he asks for the artwork to be physically brought to him. What are the tell-tale signs of a Malang? He laughs at my question and says, “Eh di tutulungan ko pa sila.”
Soler says research and going to the official authenticator will save everyone a lot of trouble—and money. But don’t do it when the deed has been done. For the auction house, don’t ask when you’ve already printed the catalogue — because a photo of a fake in a catalogue somehow legitimizes the artwork in the eyes of the clueless. For the buyer, don’t ask when huli na ang lahat. “‘Yung iba ipapa-authenticate sa amin, nabili na nila,” says Soler, incredulous.
For inquiries on Malang’s works, slide a DM to @malangsantos on Instagram