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Rare books—what finally decides their worth

While we are often advised to save and place our money in a bank, we are not told that interest earned in the long run might be equal to or even less than keeping cash under your bed. Unlike money under the bed, money deposited in a bank is safe from theft, fire or flood—except that it may not be available when the bank or ATM goes “offline.” Then, of course, there are computer glitches that temporarily make some people millionaires, and many others bankrupt with a zero balance.

With interest rates at an all-time low and the stocks volatile, some people of high net worth have been looking for alternatives to banks, an investment where they could park their excess cash and make enough to beat inflation. Philippine art and antiquities seem to be popular these days, judging by the results of last Saturday’s auction at Leon Gallery—where a large painting by National Artist Ang Kiukok, which could be bought for less than a hundred thousand pesos in the early 1980s, sold for a whopping P56 million, or roughly a little over $1 million. This is the type of news that brings speculators into the art market and makes people see names and price tags rather than pictures, sculptures and works of art.

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As a student on allowance in the 1980s, paintings were beyond my budget. So I collected books, maps, photographs—all things Filipiniana that could fetch a pretty penny these days. Who would have thought that the exceptionally carved bed owned by Rizal’s friend Maximo Viola would sell last Saturday for P4.6 million. In the same auction a first-edition “Noli me tangere” sold for P3.2 million, down from the record-breaking P5 million last year.

Some collectors seek my advice on some lots, and I am often asked how much I am willing to pay for a first edition copy of Rizal’s Noli, “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” (1890), or “El Filibusterismo” (1891). While there is now a reference price for these books, one cannot be certain because the value of each book largely depends on its condition, its provenance and other factors. Is the book in good condition or worm-eaten? Is the book autographed by Rizal or not? Was the book previously owned by someone equally famous, or someone who at least appears as a footnote in our history? The P5-million Noli was not in the best condition, but its ownership could be traced all the way back to Rizal’s favorite sister Narcisa (or “Sisa”) and, by association, to the national hero himself. A pity that it was not signed.

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My appetite for collecting is no longer what it used to be. As a historian, I need the content not a first edition. I will not pay a million pesos for any first edition copies of Rizal’s works because I am quite happy with a photocopy or, better yet, a digital copy that I can zoom in to for easier reading. Been there, done that, really—because I once owned a first edition El Filibusterismo in mint condition, purchased for P500 when I was in college, and sold a year later for P7,000. I would be lying if I say I do not experience seller’s remorse just imagining what it would fetch at auction today.

A first edition Noli autographed by Rizal was sold some years ago at auction for P500,000—an exorbitant price at the time few were collecting rare Filipiniana books. It was a windfall for the seller who acquired the book from ebay for less than $100. It was even sent to him from Europe by mail. Those who examined it were not excited because Rizal did not use his trademark signature with the flourish; he signed “El Autor.” This copy was inscribed to Madame Boustead, his once and future mother-in-law; she was the mother of his girlfriend Nelly. Ah, those were the days. There are no bargains to be had anymore.

Collectors who have sought my opinion on their rare books often ask how I lost my appetite for collecting. It’s simple: I cannot compete in today’s overheated art market. I have no regrets because I have access to autographed first editions of Rizal’s works or original manuscripts in the Lopez Museum and, if need be, I can access the original handwritten Noli, Fili, “Ultimo Adios” and other works from the vault of the National Library. In the end, beauty and value really depend on the eye and budget of the beholder.
Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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