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Auction Manila

By MATTHEW BENJAMIN P. LOPEZ

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THE PAINTING AND THE PAINTER Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s La Pintura sold for ₱78.256 million at ‘The Well Appointed Life’ by Salcedo Auctions, becoming the most expensive Hidalgo piece to have ever been put on the block

“Going once, going twice…sold!” the auctioneer shouts to the crowd as he hammers down another artwork for millions of pesos to the applause of those gathered in the salesroom. Auction-mania has truly run afire with the growth of the Philippine economy. And with an increasing appetite for priceless works of art and antiquities, it has been no coincidence that auction houses have become the usual haunt for the well-heeled collectors to socialize and acquire, to either expand or declutter their collections following the famous saying of Marie Kondo to get rid of objects that don’t “spark joy!”

In September 2019, two major artworks in Philippine art were sold for record prices on the auction block. First, a version of the 1734 map of the Philippines designed by Father Pedro Murillo Velarde, S.J. and engraved by Filipinos Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suarez sold for a record ₱46.72 million at the León Gallery’s “Magnificent September Auction.” This is now the most expensive Philippine map ever sold at an auction, beating another version that was sold at a Sotheby’s London auction in 2014. The week after, La Pintura, a rare 1890s painting by Philippine master Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, sold for a whopping ₱78.256 million at Salcedo Auctions’ “The Well Appointed Life.” It is the most expensive work done by Hidalgo to have ever been sold, surpassing his other work that was sold at Subastas Segre in Madrid in 2018.

With these headlines one could see that the auction scene has been quite lively in the past nine years. But the modern history of the Philippine auction scene is not as recent as some might conceive it to be.

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THE FACES OF TIME Watches included at Finale’s latest auctions

Our foray into the local auction scene in the Philippines began in the 1980s with the establishment of the Manila Auction House by Connie Gonzales and Maricris Olbes, and continued until the late 1990s. Previously, collectors would be more eager to purchase artworks or antiquities directly from dealers and galleries that dominated in Makati, Mabini Street, and Ermita. Other groups, mostly specializing in Philippine numismatics and antiques, also dabbled in auctions: the Philippine Numismatic and Antiquarian Society (PNAS), the Banknote Society of the Philippines (BNSP), and the Bayanihan Collectors Club (BCC). These would hold regular auctions during their monthly meetings, which still continue to the present. Here, collectors and dealers would outbid each other for unique Philippine coins and banknotes, and occasionally uncommon Filipiniana would surface, like that rare autographed photo of Emilio Aguinaldo that appeared a few years back. It is the place for one to snatch great deals, if one was patient enough. But the mid-range affair is far from the swanky auction salesrooms that people are now more accustomed to.

By the mid-1990s, Philippine art including high-caliber works from masters like Hidalgo, Juan Luna, Fabian de la Rosa, and Fernando Amorsolo, and also those by modern masters such as Fernando Zóbel, Ang Kiukok, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Vicente Manansala, and Carlos V. Francisco would turn up in international auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, whose Hong Kong and Singapore salesrooms would draw out Philippine collectors to fly overseas with their priceless artworks. It was helped by their representative offices, particularly Sotheby’s office in Manila managed by Kim Camacho. This became more evident in 2002, when The Parisian Life by Luna turned up at Christie’s Hong Kong salesroom and was purchased by the Government Insurance Services System (GSIS) for a staggering ₱46 million.

Philippine art has risen to become an important commodity in the international art scene, with affluent collectors and museums from neighboring Asian nations including Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong beginning to acquire Philippine pieces for their Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art collections.

The press and the general public were aghast by the Philippine government’s rationale for acquiring a painting using state pensioners’ funds, not to mention the sale of a national patrimony overseas. But it did raise a timely thought: If there was a local auction house in the Philippines, the painting would not have left the country in the first place. Thus the idea of a local auction scene started in 2005 with Finale Art File by gallerist Evita Sarenas and noted jeweler, antiquities expert, and art consultant Ramon Villegas held the first of a total of 13 auctions. These were seen as private events among collectors bidding in a friendly manner in their salesroom at La’O Center in Makati. But a full-blown local auction scene did not fully materialize until much later.

By that time, Philippine art had risen to become an important commodity in the international art scene, with affluent collectors and museums from neighboring Asian nations including Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong beginning to acquire Philippine pieces for their Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art collections. In 2013, a landmark event happened when the earlier 1884 version of Luna’s masterpiece España y Filipinas was purchased by the National Gallery Singapore at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction for a record ₱143 million, the most expensive Philippine artwork ever sold. With Philippine art reaching ever new heights, it did not come as a surprise that the Philippine auction scene would be revived once again and fierce competition would sprout.

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In 2010, Salcedo Auctions was established under the leadership of Ramon Lerma who left his job as the director of the Ateneo Art Gallery to set up an auction house with his wife, Karen, a gem expert certified in Australia. In their wake, several works of art reached record high prices internationally, including the Boceto for Spoliarium by Luna (₱73.58 million) during its “The Well Appointed Life” auction in 2018. Although the piece was mired in controversy, the auction proved to be a resounding success.

León Gallery under its founder Jaime Ponce de León, a former interior designer who previously dabbled in local politics, started holding regular auctions with the liquidation of the art collection of the failed insurer Prudential Life Plans, Inc.—where all the artworks were sold, a rare occurrence in the art world. The auction house made headlines when Space Transfiguration by Philippine abstractionist Jose Joya sold for an outstanding ₱112.13 million during its “The Asian Cultural Council” auction in 2018, its highest sale to date.

At present, apart from these well-established auction houses, there are now other similar auction houses that specialize in certain fields. Casa de Memoria, managed by the Lhuillier family, curates fine European and Oriental object d’art and furniture pieces in its palatial headquarters in Parañaque. It has created a cult following among society aficionados. The auction game continues to spread with the relaunch of Finale Auctions by Sarenas, art connoisseur Jayson Ong, and watch expert Paolo Martel, which specializes in Philippine art, fine wristwatches, and jewelry.

With auction prices ever reaching incredulous levels, there is a serious danger of the market being plagued by forgeries, noting the prevalence of European paintings being passed off as original Philippine works, the forging of certificate of authenticities from reputable foundations and estates by the National Artists, and the sale of art from dubious provenances. The Philippine auction scene is barely 40 years old if one is to date its origins. It is still in its nascent stages but is quite on the track to be at par with its counterparts in London, Geneva, and New York.

Matthew Benjamin P. Lopez is an independent art researcher who has written numerous articles on Philippine art, history, and culture. His articles have been included in the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (2nd Edition) published in 2017, centered on the history of Cebuano peoples and on the late art dealer and jeweler Ramon N. Villegas. He collects fine wristwatches, fountain pens, and dabbles into collecting fine Filipiniana art books and publications. Presently, he works as the museum registrar of Fundacion Sansó, a not-for-profit art foundation established to preserve the art and legacy of Catalan artist Juvenal Sansó.



Source: Manila Bulletin

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