Looking Back

One person’s trash, another one’s treasure

/ 05:16 AM September 07, 2018

With auction prices going through the roof in recent years, many people have been giving their junk at home a second look and discovering treasures in plain sight.

It was not always this way. I started making the rounds of the Ermita antique shops in the early 1980s when things could be had on a college student’s  allowance. At the Museum of Philippine Art (Mopa) gift shop, there was a metal cabinet that had prints and etchings by BenCab, the small ones selling for P150 and the bigger sizes for P800. The same prints today, if you can find them, will sell for P15,000-P45,000.


I would go to the Mopa every month when my allowance came in, and did not stop until I had almost completed all of BenCab’s early graphic works. All these prints disappeared from my storage many years later, a fortune gone, but that is another story.

At the ABC Galleries, a door-sized painting of doors by Ang Kiukok could be had for P15,000 on installment. That same Ang Kiukok painting today would probably fetch P15 million.


Things are cheap in retrospect, and many people who hear my stories today always ask why my father did not trust his wayward son’s instincts, because a small budget then would have reaped much more than the stock market and equities would yield today.

Because I was a student on allowance, I could not buy what was then at the top tier of collecting: oriental ceramics from the Song dynasty excavated in the Philippines, monochromes in white or qingbai, celadon not in green but of a bluish  hue, early blue and white from the Yuan dynasty, and every interior decorator’s favorite—Ming period blue and white with designs of auspicious symbols such as dragons chasing pears, Mandarin ducks courting each other, prunus, pine and frolicking Fu dogs.

Then there were santos and retables and relleves, sold by ignorant parish priests who replaced them with modern mass-produced images. There were religious images in ivory; colonial jewelry of  finely crafted gold—tamburin, earrings, rings—and scapulars; and peinetas or combs of tortoiseshell and gold.

All these things I saw and could not afford at the time are to be found in museum collections today, so what did I go home with?

Then as now, I liked books. In one shop were 19th-century vocabularios in Tagalog and Kapampangan that came in pig-skin covers, compiled by Spanish religious. There was a set of Harvard Classics, ignored by most customers because they were not Filipiniana, except that the bookplates revealed that these volumes once graced the shelves or Manuel Luis Quezon or his wife Aurora Aragon Quezon. At P15 each, these were reasonably priced for a link to history.

Sometimes I would get lucky. In every store, I would go over piles of prewar photographs and pick out Carnival Queens like Maria Kalaw, consorts like Carlos P. Romulo, beauties like Trinidad Roxas, and photos of Quezon, Osmeña and Aguinaldo that shopkeepers didn’t recognize. To keep prices down, I kept quiet.

In a pile of old papers, I came across a cedula or residence certificate issued in Cavite in 1914 to a 51-year-old music teacher named Julian Felipe—the composer of the National Anthem. The shopkeeper priced it at P100; I haggled it down to P40.


In a pile of scrap silver consigned to the melting pot, I once found an old silver trophy that I now use as a wine chiller. It was soot black when I acquired it for its silver weight alone. When cleaned, the text engraved on it revealed it was a permanent Track and Field Trophy by the Far Eastern Olympic Association in 1913 donated by William Cameron Forbes, governor general of the Philippines.

In another junk heap, I spotted a silver quill similar to that presented to Rizal in 1879 for his poem “A la juventud Filipina” (To the Philippine Youth). The shopkeeper weighed it on a scale and sold it for the spot price of silver per gram in Quiapo. When I cleaned the ribbon attached to the body of the quill, it was a prize for poetry presented to Emilio Jacinto y Dizon!

Alas, there are no more bargains in the world today, and the internet makes background research easier, so I cannot pretend not to know what I am buying. Collecting is not always a millionaire’s hobby; if you are curious and lucky, one person’s trash can be another one’s treasure.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: antique shops, filipiniana, History, Museum of Philippine Art (Mopa), opinion, Philippines
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