Was auctioning Bonifacio’s letters wrong?
I was not physically present in last Saturday’s auction of the Andres Bonifacio Letters, although Jaime Ponce de Leon, the auctioning Leon Gallery’s director, had invited me to go. I thus lived the auction vicariously with bated breath, anxious at the letters’ potential in shaking the grand narrative of Filipino history.
By late afternoon of that day, cultural aficionados were abuzz with queries: Who won the bid? But it is the professional ethics of auctioneers never to disclose the winning bid’s identity, unless the bidder makes the disclosure.
What is interesting though is how the auction shook sectors of the cultural world like a startling firecracker. In the process, misplaced conceptions were traded in social media with much ignorance. Perhaps fake news has indeed damaged the way we make decisions or opine on issues affecting national life.
Attention was particularly focused on one commentary: “What is the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) doing with its mandate to preserve national treasure? [He] should be hanged in public for doing nothing to preserve this treasure!”
Before we recommend “tokhang” for the NHCP, let’s get the facts straight.
The letters do not come from a vacuum. Provenance is primary in determining not only the object’s transfer but also its valuation because it tells us how it was held with tender loving care. In this case, provenance is clear. The letters were part of the estate of Epifanio delos Santos, whose name is lost in the acronym Edsa. Delos Santos, the scholar, had bought the documents from a relative of Emilio Jacinto. Then it went to antique dealer Viring de Asis, who sold it to Mariano Cacho and Emmanuel Encarnacion. In fact, these private collectors had made the letters available to researchers for free and precisely had been previously published because of such munificence by its private owners. The law does not prohibit private ownership.
Leon permitted historians to examine the documents and vouch for its authenticity. That alone indicates the acumen of the auctioneer, which also had it examined by Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, a descendant of Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria de Jesus.
People disturbed by the auction should read what Inquirer colleague Ambeth Ocampo wrote in “Poignant documents on the block” (Opinion, 3/2/18): “Most people ask: Shouldn’t these be in a government institution like the National Museum, the National Library, or the National Historical Commission? These cultural agencies have much more than what is on sale and if they had a budget to purchase these at fair market value, it would be a good idea to make the acquisition. A collector desires the original unique item; a historian just needs the contents of the manuscripts. The auction houses have made these historical documents widely available online and in their printed catalogues. They have also given both collectors and scholars who ask the chance to handle and examine the documents more closely.”
Ambeth, by the way, is also a habitué of art shows, attends and participates in auctions. One must also recall that he once chaired the NHCP, and had in fact at one time served as chair of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, which some of our citizens sadly mistake for basketball’s NCAA.
Conservation is not a monopoly capacity of public cultural agencies. Several topnotch private cultural institutions are better equipped at conservation work. The documents written in the ancient syllabary baybayin, and declared a national cultural treasure, is not even in government hands but in the archives of the University of Santo Tomas, which keeps its vast collection under controlled temperature and acid-free storage for the sake of research.
The auction has sparked new discussions if Bonifacio is our first president. Let debates arouse pedagogy. One thing is certain: The letters will be scrutinized and evaluated by future scholars. By sensitizing public interest alone, the auction has shown the way at dealing with historical treasures.
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