Auction darlings and superstars
Since I cannot afford the stratospheric prices that art commands at auctions in Manila and Hong Kong these days, I drown my envy in reviewing the prices realized for works sold. There are auction superstars whose vintage works never fail to bring in seven- or eight-figure prices, and most of them are National Artists: Fernando Amorsolo, Ang Kiukok, Ben Cabrera, Jose Joya, Arturo Luz, Vicente Manansala and Hernando R. Ocampo (no relation). Some are not National Artists due to their citizenship but are considered Filipino artists and sell extremely well: Anita Magsaysay-Ho and Fernando Zobel. There are auction darlings that clog the catalogs because they sell within price estimates, like Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Romeo Tabuena. If you want to buy young, living artists there are some whose prices have overshadowed those of older, more established artists: Elmer Borlongan, John Santos, Annie Cabigting, Marina Cruz, Rodel Tapaya. The best-selling in terms of price is Ronald Ventura, who outsells even names revered in Philippine art history such as Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and Fabian de la Rosa.
Auctions are tricky, and prospective investors should realize that auction prices are not a true gauge of the market, and are not to be seen as a measure of value. Why, for example, are 19th-century Filipino masters selling below price? Is it because the buyers are young and their tastes more attuned to the contemporary? Do works by living artists like BenCab or John Santos look better in a minimalist home with museum-white walls rather than the Lunas and Amorsolos that are made for homes designed for the so-called “titas of Manila”? Why were some artists priced so high a generation ago and are now almost worthless?
One of the most successful Filipino artists of his time and even after his death was Fernando C. Amorsolo, who produced hundreds, if not thousands, of sunlit-canvases filled with cheerful maidens in bountiful rice fields where the world is so happy that even the carabaos seem to smile like the cow on the iconic French cheese brand.
In an interview that appeared in the Graphic in 1929, Amorsolo and his friend, the sculptor Guillermo E. Tolentino, discussed prices:
“The way I fix my prices is this: to the cost of the materials I add what an ordinary painter—those people who paint houses, make signs, and so on—would earn during the time it took me to make the picture, plus what I consider the difference between a common painter and an artist is reasonably worth. Nevertheless, some people do not seem to think that this is fair… I try to avoid such occurrences by taking no chances… I fix the price beforehand. It would be embarrassing if one had to haggle after the picture has been completed… Children are very hard to paint. They move too much and that’s why I usually photograph them and ask to sit only so that I may get the natural colors, not the postures. Then again, there are those who wish to appear better on canvas than in real life. Such people are really very trying. When they tell me to paint their lips, eyes, etc. prettier than they really are, I get irritated.”
To this Tolentino remarked: “Oh, yes, many people want to be ‘done’ better than they actually are. This is true of men and women. Probably it is human—but it is certainly far from artistic!”
Amorsolo complained about a rich person who inquired about the price of a portrait and, when given the estimate, said: “Why? I could buy a house for that sum! Which is perfectly true, but it just shows you what local artists may expect from even our moneyed class.” Amorsolo said he earned more from his American clients than from Filipinos, and it seems he had “Pinoy prices.” His uncle, Fabian de la Rosa, confined himself to Western clients who paid more than five times what a Pinoy client would.
People always view art in such an exalted way. There must be a way to look at the data and the patterns to predict a good investment, the way one looks at the stock market. Now that art is a highly speculative business, some art historians would do well to study how prices are reached in order to explain auction prices today. This would make for very interesting reading.
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