That ‘Spoliarium’ boceto — is it by Luna?

Historians are skeptical by nature, and doubly so in the case of the boceto or study of Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” that surfaced from a private collection in Spain, and is up for auction in Manila next weekend.

Due diligence is required, because the painting is worth such an obscene amount of money that the auction catalogue does not carry a published estimate or price, only a note that a valuation is “available on request.” Since historians use a different lens from art collectors and investors, they seek to validate the work in question as either “the most important discovery in Philippine art,” as pushed by auction house hype, or one of Philippine history’s greatest hoaxes.

On the surface, give or take a few details, the boceto does resemble the “Spoliarium” preserved in the National Museum of the Philippines. It is definitely old, but is it by Luna? Inspection of the painting is hampered by previous restoration work that obscured its original state. In the absence of forensic examination, including an evaluation of the paint pigments and canvas, we are left with the expert’s eye, plus historical documentation or provenance that can trace the trail of ownership back to Luna himself.

What led to serious questions of authenticity were two previous stories regarding its origins. First was that the painting came from the collection of a Franco-era politician who served as ambassador of Spain to post-war Philippines. This unnamed ambassador allegedly amassed a collection of paintings by Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo in Manila and brought them back to Spain.

The second story, built from the research of Salcedo Auctions director Richie Lerma, traced the painting all the way to a certain Jose Vazquez Castiñera, who had served as mayor and later alderman of the town of Sarria in northwestern Spain. From this dead end, Lerma found out that Castiñera lived across the street from Matias Lopez, considered the “Chocolate King” of 19th-century Spain, a man of prominence who allegedly declined a dukedom.

Lopez served as the commissioner of the Spanish Pavilion in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, where both Luna and Resurreccion Hidalgo exhibited paintings, leading Lerma to suggest that Castiñera acquired the boceto from Lopez, who obtained paintings from Luna and Resurreccion Hidalgo following their participation in the 1889 Paris Expo.

The problem with this story? The historical documentation suggests that the boceto was still in the collection of Luna circa 1892-93.

Recently, Lerma came up with a third, more convincing story. In this version, the boceto trail still ends with Castiñera, his son Francisco Vazquez Gayoso and his childless wife Maria Nuñez Rodriguez, whose estate—divided  among relatives upon her death—included some Philippine paintings and artifacts. It is claimed that Maria once owned not just the Luna boceto and a painting by Resurreccion Hidalgo, but also the second of seven versions by Luna of the painting “España y  Filipinas,” presently in the National Gallery of Singapore.

Unfortunately for the boceto whose authenticity hangs on a limb by association with “España y Filipinas,” the latter comes with incontestable visual history: an image of the painting was reproduced with commentary in the magazine La Ilustración Artistica of Dec. 13, 1886. An actual photograph of the unfinished painting on an easel was also published in “Catalogue des Photographies publiees par J. Laurent et Cie. Photographes Editeurs. Madrid Calle de Narciso Serra 5 (Pacifico) Serie A. IV. Oeuvres de Peinture et de Sculptures des artistes modernes. 1896.”

These pictures, together with historical documentation, trace the painting’s ownership way back to the eccentric Filipino expatriate in Madrid, Pedro Alejandro Paterno (1857-1911), who was a friend and patron of Luna.

Clouds of doubt seem to be clearing with regard to the boceto, and Lerma has a week before auction to find a 19th-century photograph of the painting, or a connection between the painting and Paterno, or Paterno’s Spanish wife. His other problem, aside from Chinese collectors shunning a painting of death on feng shui grounds, is that authenticity might incite heritage advocates to rally for the acquisition or appropriation of the boceto for the nation, its export from the Philippines denied.

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