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Looking Back

Beyer and Hidalgo, 2 Filipino collectors

/ 05:05 AM November 21, 2018

As someone known to follow the auction scene in Manila, I am often asked if the unbelievable prices paid for certain works of art are true or hype. When asked about the painting by National Artist Jose Joya that sold for over P100 million, my standard reply is that if I had $2 million to burn, I would buy a small Picasso, a Miro or a Yayoi Kusama.

Filipinos have been collecting long before it became fashionable to do so. Jose Rizal collected everything from books, paintings and women to seashells, reptiles and butterflies.

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Leafing through bound volumes of the premartial law Sunday Times Magazine acquired from a yard sale, I came across the byline of Rodrigo Perez III, who wrote many erudite articles on Philippine culture, music and architecture before he entered a monastery and took on a new name, Bernardo Ma. Perez, OSB, and became the longest-serving Rector of San Beda College.

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From February to March 1961, Perez published a series of profiles on collectors, the most engaging being those on H. Otley Beyer and Felipe Hidalgo.

Beyer, who is sometimes known as the “Father of Philippine Anthropology,” was going on 78 years old and in his pajamas when he welcomed Perez into the Museum and Library of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the University of the Philippines, on the second floor of the Watson Building on J. P. Laurel Street in San Miguel, the same street as Malacañang.

Beyer lived in his library and museum together with a “vast assemblage: fossils, porcelain fragments and ceramics representing several hundred thousand years of history, all housed in glass cabinets and bathed in the dim, grayish light that filters through frosted glass and oyster shell windows… dim corridors… sitting room overflowing with his collection: books of all sizes lining the walls, cardboard and wooden boxes containing tektites stacked on desks and tables, piles of large boxes on the floor, Igorot wood-carvings here and there.”

The Beyer collection has since been dispersed. Most of his papers and library are now in the National Library of Australia, some of his collected artifacts are in the University of the Philippines and the National Museum of the Philippines, and the remainder still with his descendants. What we know of his collection we glean from his writings.

Felipe Hidalgo is a name that always crops up in any discussion on Filipino collectors. He was a nephew of the 19th-century painter Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, who, with Juan Luna, placed the Philippines on the artistic map in 1884. Don Felipe was a compulsive collector from age 6, filling his Quiapo home with a wide assortment of things that made a director of the Smithsonian write tongue-in-cheek on the guest book: “There are many things in Felipe Hidalgo’s collection that are not in the Smithsonian.”

Perez narrated: “One evening I stood before the front door [of a fine old stately house from Plaza del Carmen or from the yard of San Sebastian Church], a door high enough for a carriage of state to pass through and massive enough to shut intrusion… On my right as I entered was Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s replica of ‘Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace’… On my left was ‘The Barge of Charon’… both paintings are not only the largest Hidalgos in Don Felipe’s collection, but the most famous as well… The paintings are under glass. The evening reflections on them seemed to give them a curious animation. Directly in front of me was a grandiose arrangement: a large colored sketch of Juan Luna’s ‘Roman wedding,’ an elegant and ferocious Chinese bronze lion, a pair of wooden saints, and surrounding all these a carved gilded Chinese arch, dripping with fruit, flowers, leaves and birds. Beyond this was a large staircase, its dark polished, glimmering wood adding to the heavy air of antiquity. Light came from one solitary lamp over the arch, and the paintings and sculptures seem to float on shadows. I felt like one who had discovered a long-abandoned treasure chamber….”

Acquisitiveness is common but generations differ: Old collectors were maximalists who amassed many different things, while new collectors are more focused — minimalists who live in curated spaces.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, collectors, Felipe Hidalgo, H. Otley Beyer, Looking Back
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