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Collecting is a Bug that Definitely Leaves a Bite

By FRANCIS ONG

I grew up surrounded with antiques and family history. My mom came from a well-documented family of Mauban, Quezon and could trace our lineage back to the late 1700s. I was born and raised in Manila but every Holy Week, we would find ourselves in Mauban for the procession of the Nazareno and San Juan Evangelista that are both descended from different branches of the family. We would stay in the ancestral house conveniently situated a stone’s throw away from the church. I would watch my grandmother strip the Nazareno’s everyday garments and silently put on what he would wear for the week starting with the Estacion Heneral Salida during Palm Sunday. It was like watching a ritual take place with my Lola masterfully putting the vestments on piece by piece while her helpers would stand by her side, like ladies in waiting, alert in case she would need a pin or another piece attached. It was these sweet summer forays that instilled in me the love for things ancient and old, weathered and worn.

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A collection of Hubad na Niño, with niños from Mario Yang of Iloilo flanking a bookpiece from Anthony Agustin

It was also the Nazareno that started me with collecting antiques. The year 2014 was a very fruitful one for me and I wanted to give back by spending on the Nazareno’s much-needed restoration. That led me to consult Alex Castro who writes a go-to blog about santos called “And all the angels and saints,” and one name really figured in all of his successful restoration projects: the revered Dr. Rafael Lopez.

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a Good Friday procession in Mauban, Quezon

At first I was a bit scared to meet him but through Alex’s prodding, I came with my Lola, the Nazareno’s head and hands in tow. Apart from the amiable and sharp Doc Raffy, what greeted me was Alibaba’s cave filled with beautiful santos, some of which were being restored for clients while others were being set up for his personal collection. That meeting with Doc Raffy in his Cubao workshop tickled my imagination and the collecting bug made its presence felt.

Visiting Doc Raffy gave me my first set of friends in the santo collecting community, most notably Jayson Maceo who is also a fellow Quezonian from Lucban and now the resident encarnador (apprentice) of the Atelier Rafael Lopez. On one Saturday excursion to Doc Raffy’s opulent house in Cavite, I met Justin Aliño who I would join with John Felix Santos in organizing “Pasion y Gloria,” a Holy Week exhibit of santos at the Manila Cathedral on March 2017. It was there that I met new people and started slowly developing the aesthetics of the santos that I would eventually collect.

Where to put them

The trouble with collecting antique santos and antiques per se is that you’re never really done. When I was able to acquire and keep a good number of santos, the next problem was where to put them. A simple mesa wouldn’t do, of course, “Sayang ang pagka-antigo.” Alas, the search for antique furniture worthy of keeping them came next.

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The author with his grandmother and their Nazareno, meeting renowned santo owner Rafael Lopez

Certainly, we all have our own ways of giving value to things and as cliché as it might sound, one man’s trash might be another one’s treasure. The internet provided a venue for transactions to happen even without being physically present. Antique store owners, agents, and collectors scour the different buy-and-sell “picker” groups online to be able to be the first one to comment “sold” on a posted item. It was there where I started my first haul of antique furniture. At the onset, I bought whatever I fancied: a large Ilocos de poste comoda, a weathered mesa-altar from Cagayan with legs carved like the “ibossuman, a tall comoda of thick red narra found in Binondo that had a secret drawer concealed in the middle of the two top drawers, which was operated with a lever and pushed out by a spring mechanism. All of these were tidied up and restored if needed by lady-restorer Eppie Saquilabon of Pasay City.

It was in these internet groups dedicated to Philippine antiques that I met Jun Fulgencio, who would be a constant chat-buddy about recent finds. Jun has a very keen eye dissecting the merits of a piece and his quietly amassed collection of beautiful furniture and santos is enviable. Jun and I also consult Cris Montoya who, in my opinion, is one of this generation’s leading experts on Philippine antique furniture.

There’s nothing I can do about it. I have been bitten by the collecting bug and it keeps me busy day and night. Collecting for me is all about the journey, the experience, the adventure.

A major turning point in my collecting happened when middle of 2017 I was able to buy one of the limited number of Eagle Comodas in the highlands of Laguna. I call them eagle because on each door is a carving of an eagle and the stars and stripes copied from one of the sides of the Conant coin system introduced in the early 1900. This type of comoda, made in the early American period, was limited in number because it was only found in about three towns and was not widely circulated like the more famous Baliuag and Ilocos types. The agent brought me directly to the house of the owner and I met the old lady in her 80s and her daughter whom I still communicate with to this day. The experience was very much different from just buying things online and getting them delivered. Somehow, the prospect of finding things in situ and being the first to collect them was more meaningful. It made you appreciate them more because you learn firsthand the stories surrounding them and your collecting notes would be more complete because it would be definite as to provenance and place found. The childhood dream of being a “treasure hunter” was ignited and suddenly I found myself traveling to different places in search of hidden treasures.

Classical and popular

I slowly unloaded my first purchases to friends and decided to focus on furniture from the Southern Tagalog region. My main reason for collecting is to fill the Mauban house and its aesthetic would be more authentic if I were to bring in pieces from around the area. It was in the course of these furniture escapades that I came across a santo that I call “Alkansya.” I was alerted to a small Virgen that was being sold by a lady. It was described as damaged and had a hole in the base. I thought, “Sayang, Inunos siguro.”

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‘Alkansya’ Virgen

When I came to personally see it, what greeted me was a beautifully carved Virgen of about 12 inches made from one piece of balayong. What was thought of as damaged was a hollowed portion inside the base that could be accessed through a missing sliding cover. Underneath the cherub that the Virgen was standing on was a slot that led to the hollowed area. The slot and the hole were deliberately made. It was probably used as a means to collect money for alms or saving. Finding the Alkansya Virgen shifted my appreciation of santos from the classical and ornate to the classical and popular.

In this field I came to know the greats of Faura/Mabini, Ate Nora Ignacio and her son Olan of RGI Antiques, Direk Floy Quintos, Mang Fred and Junjun of Gallery Deus, and Anthony Agustin of Je-An antiques. I’ve learned a lot and met fellow collectors while visiting these shops, one of which would be Emil Marañon, who is probably the most persevering among the collectors of my generation. His house being a street away really works to his advantage as he is the one most likely to corner the most recent of shop items.

I have also met some of the greats in the field of collecting: Tony Martino through “Tahanan’s” Mike Santos and Terry Baylosis through Lloydee Potenciando, both of the original “Four Winds of Mabini”—those who controlled the trends during the boom of Philippine antiques in the ’70s. Francis Uy of Manila, Niña Teodoro of Parañaque, and Mario Yang of Iloilo are three of the major collectors who have been kind enough to accept me under their wing.

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An assemblage of Philippine art and antiques atop a 19th century mesa-altar from Baliug, Bulacan

As my collecting progressed and, as I learned more and more from reading books and studying each item that found its way to me, I realized that tastes change, inclinations shift, and directions swerve. One advice though that I got from a senior collector is not to confine yourself to a specific place or type and get beautiful pieces, the most beautiful ones that you can afford if and when available and you’ll never go wrong.

Somehow, I’m still afraid to label myself as a collector and what I have as an outright collection. I believe there are more things to discover, more pieces to unearth, and more stories to be told. But there’s nothing I can do about it, I have been bitten by the collecting bug and it keeps me busy day and night. Collecting for me is all about the journey, the experience, the adventure. And it looks like it’s far from over and there is definitely a long and winding road up ahead.



Source: Manila Bulletin

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