Collectibles as history
The Bayanihan Collectors Club brings accumulators of all sorts to the Ortigas Library every quarter for an auction of anything collectible: from Spanish-Philippine gold coins to prewar Royal True Orange bottles, from 1960s Pinoy porn, or “bomba” magazines to an autographed first edition copy of “Noli me tangere.” You name it, chances are someone has it.
While I have no interest in the auction, I show up to scan the bourse tables where collectors congregate to talk shop, swap or sell things they don’t want anymore. Pickings are scarce these days since all important or valuable artifacts now make their way to the high-end auction houses, yet one never really knows what can result from patient digging through a pile of old newspapers or photographs, using hunting skills honed from years of reading and observation.
In an Ermita antique shop with a notoriously surly owner, I came across small phonograph records that played on what looked like nails at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). Millennials who buy music online from Spotify and iTunes will find old formats quaint: laser discs, compact discs, magnetic tapes on large reels or the smaller cassette format; then there is vinyl for “millenniors,” in large 33 rpm or smaller 45 rpm formats now making a comeback with turntables. Some of the 78 rpm records I saw that day came in paper sleeves with an image of the Rizal Monument. That made me check each label, and then cart away prewar recordings of Filipino performances of Western classical music or the grandparents of OPM, or Original Pilipino Music. At P20 each, the records were bait, trapping you into buying the “grapopono.”
On another visit, I fished out of a pile of scrap paper, a 1914 cedula, or residence certificate issued to a 51-year-old “Profesor de Musica” from “XIII Martires, Cavite” named Julian Felipe. The price was P50;
I offered P10, we agreed on P35. Some people scolded me for taking advantage of the seller by not informing him of its significance and monetary value. Well, the seller won’t sell at a loss; at P35, he at least broke even.
Experience is the euphemism we use for our mistakes, and all collectors pay their dues, or “matricula” when they buy a worthless reproduction or an outright fake. Fortunately, my hits far outweigh my misses, and one of my recent jackpots was fishing out a silver quill from an assortment of scrap consigned to the melting pots of Meycauayan. Although black from tarnish and neglect, I recognized the quill and its ribbon as a literary prize awarded university students in 19th-century Manila. I have one allegedly awarded Rizal in 1879 for his poem “A la juventud Filipina.” But I withheld this information from the seller, who fixed the price of the quill by its weight and the spot price for silver that day—P700. When I cleaned the quill at home, the text on the ribbon revealed that it was a prize for poetry awarded to Emilio
Jacinto y Dizon.
Last week, I discovered two typewriter collectors who flew under the radar until Tom Hanks admitted to a similar obsession, resulting in increased prices and demand. I asked Dennis Pinpin if he knew the stories that came with each typewriter aside from its brand, model and year of production. What was the provenance or sequence of ownership? Were any preowned by someone famous? His collection is a book waiting to be written.
Could we tell from keyboards whether a typewriter was sourced from abroad or locally? Typewriters of my youth had an “ñ” key, but these were not Spanish keyboards that should also have “¿”; these were specifically made for the Philippines, because they had the currency sign “P”. George Dewey’s correspondence with Emilio Aguinaldo in 1898 was typed on letterhead of the flagship Olympia, so when did Pinoys start using typewriters? Did old Philippine keyboards come with the “g” or the tilde “˜” over the “g”, which abounded in prewar Tagalog literature?
Every item can be interrogated for a story, just as a group of objects reveals the personality of the person who pursued and gathered them. Instead of adding to the millennial unboxing videos of smartphones and sneakers, I will make millennior videos that will allow items in museums and libraries to speak, to make connections with our past, provide relevance for the present and hope for the uncertain future.
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