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Looking Back

The thrill of the chase

/ 05:20 AM January 12, 2018

One man’s trash, any antiques dealer will tell you with a wink, is another man’s treasure. Rummage through the shops in Bangkal, Makati, for furniture and housewares; in Recto, Manila, for used books and bogus diplomas for any degree and university worldwide; in Ermita for an array of ceramics dating from the Yuan to the “New One” dynasties; in Greenhills, Kamuning, and Tiendesitas for everything described as antique, including “modern antique” (whatever that means). Bargain bins at Booksale branches, according to persistent friends, sometimes yield out-of-print Filipiniana short of first editions of Rizal’s novels. A friend who has amassed an enviable collection of Japanese ceramics from Japan Surplus stores in Cebu highly recommends visiting these surplus shops outside Manila for many a bargain.

When people ask why I spend time in flea markets abroad, I explain that it’s like buying a lotto ticket. Who knows? I might stumble on a painting by Fernando Amorsolo in a jumble sale. To date, I have only picked up copies of the Amorsolo book by Alfredo Roces in Tokyo that sold quickly in Manila and paid for my trip.

The Ayala Museum is partly to blame for infecting me with the disease of collecting. I recall that first visit well: I was absolutely bored by the historical dioramas we were required to see, but left haunted by Juan Luna’s dark, rather brooding, portrait of the Marquesa de Monte Olivar. It was the first Luna I ever saw and it made an impression on me because before then Luna was only a name in our history textbook. This portrait made the 19th-century painter real to me. We know nothing about the Marquesa, neither the how or why Luna came to capture her likeness with paint on canvas. What I remember was that the previous owner, Paz Zamora de Mascuñana, picked it up in El Rastro, the famous Madrid flea market, for a song.

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In the autumn of 1951, according to the Philippines Free Press, Paz Zamora first hit the jackpot—a little-known portrait of Jose Rizal by Telesforo Sucgang, acquired cheaply from the descendants of Francisco Pi y Margall, a 19th-century Spanish politician sympathetic to the cause of the Philippines. His name is commemorated wrongly in Sampaloc, Manila, where some street signs read “P. Margall,” causing some to think he was a priest (Padre Margall), or “Pi Margall,” leading some to mistake his first surname, Pi, as his first name, and his second surname, Margall, as his surname.

The Sucgang portrait presently hangs in Fort Santiago, rarely noticed or commented upon because Rizal was re-presented faithfully by a contemporary, with a prominent jaw we never see in official portraits and the numerous monuments of marble and bronze. Sucgang painted him as a friend, not as the National Hero. Paz Zamora must have done something good in a previous lifetime to stumble upon the Luna portrait in the Rastro after acquiring the Sucgang. Her eyes popped and her heart raced when she found the Luna portrait in the Rastro, but pretended she was interested in something else. To confuse the shopkeeper, she said she was decorating her home and needed a portrait of a woman for her living room wall. Shown a few she might like, Zamora pointed to the Luna and asked for the price. The dealer replied: “Since this is by an unknown painter we have priced it very low at 800 pesetas.” The exchange rate at the time was 50 pesetas to one US dollar, so that came out to around $16. Even if she knew it was worth more, Zamora did not pay immediately but haggled and brought the price down to 700 pesetas, or $14!

Compared to Zamora’s, my pickings are slim. Browsing through a box of old papers and photographs in Ermita, I fished out a prewar residence certificate issued to a “Profesor de Musica” from Cavite named Julian Felipe. The cedula of the man who composed the Philippine National Anthem was priced at P100, so I haggled. Some say I took advantage of the seller’s ignorance and should have paid full price, but he gladly accepted my P30. Perhaps I should have paid more, to gain good karma and find the Luna or Amorsolo that will be my nest egg in retirement.

Social media and inflated auction prices ensure that there are little or no bargains in the world anymore, but then to dream of the lucky find is priceless. The thrill is in the chase, not in acquiring what is desired.
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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, man’s treasure, The thrill of the chase
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