Myanmar’s Art Market Flooded With Forgeries

By The Irrawaddy 8 February 2023

Myanmar’s art sector has struggled due to the combination of the 2021 coup and the COVID-19 pandemic. However the last months of 2022 saw frequent art exhibitions, which raised the issue again of the large number of counterfeit paintings circulating in the country.

Many forgeries of works by celebrated artists have flooded the art market. Some of the big names being forged include distinguished contemporary artists like Win Pe, Kyee Myint Saw, Rahula, Nyein Chan Su and Win Pe Myint, as well as U Marlar from Mandalay, the favorite watercolor artist of ousted civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2016, Suu Kyi curated an exhibition of U Marlar’s work.

(Left) Original painting by Win Pe. (Right) A forgery of the same Win Pe painting.

Genuine paintings by these artists go for prices between 15 to 20 million kyats, or around US$5,200 to $7,000 at the current market exchange rate. Forgeries of their work also fetch the same prices, The Irrawaddy has learned.

In the last week of January, relatives of U Marlar, who died of COVID-19 in 2021, invited private collectors of the artist’s work to Yangon, where they added a code and their signatures to paintings to establish their authenticity. Family members have also threatened legal action against those forging U Marlar’s work.

Similarly, relatives of the late modernist painter Rahula from Mandalay have also warned collectors about the number of counterfeit paintings circulating.

Even before the coup, 86-year-old modernist painter Win Pe warned forgers via social media against faking his work. “You may copy my paintings if you like them, but don’t forge my signature and sell them,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

But counterfeit paintings have been part of Myanmar’s art world for years. There is even a saying, “you must be a detective to avoid buying a counterfeit painting.”

(Left) Original painting by Win Pe Myint. (Right) A forgery of the same Win Pe Myint painting.

It is not just the distinguished artists of today who are counterfeited. The works of renowned artists from the late Konbaung dynasty and from the colonial era such as Sayar Chone and U Ba Nyan, who in 1921 became the first Myanmar artist to attend London’s Royal College of Art, have also been forged.

Forgeries of the work of painter Kin Maung Yin, one of the artists credited with leading the first generation of Myanmar’s modern art movement, flooded the market after his death in 2014.

“While paintings are collected by art lovers, some people are also collecting paintings [of renowned painters] in the hope of speculating in them due to the weak currency. They have speculated in cars, property and gold and now they have turned to paintings. The issue has come under the spotlight because so many people have bought fakes,” said one Yangon gallery owner.

A Yangon-based art contributor said: “The market is flooded with counterfeit paintings probably because some businessmen launder dirty money by forging large amounts of paintings.”

Art critic Kotaunay from Kachin State’s Myitkyina, who has previously bought counterfeit paintings by mistake, wrote on his Facebook: “Many collectors from Yangon and Mandalay have suffered from fakes for a long time. Some keep silent because they are embarrassed, whereas some try to sell the fake on to a third buyer.”

Some well-known artists are involved in the forgery business themselves, claimed a gallery owner who asked to remain anonymous. He said he fears that serious collectors will be cheated and disappointed with the art world.