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Looking Back

Objects on the block from the PH-American War

/ 04:07 AM December 11, 2019

By the time this column sees print, 89 historical objects from “Conflicts of the 19th and 20th Centuries” will be sold online at Bonhams New York. It is a remarkable collection of items from the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, and even the Vietnam War. There are books, photographs and ephemera that will excite historians, librarians, archivists and museum curators, including a typed letter from Winston Churchill, photographs of the Japanese surrender, and the iconic portrait of Che Guevarra that has launched thousands of revolutionary posters and t-shirts outside of Cuba.

Some items are macabre, like a piece of crumpled metal from a Japanese Kamikaze plane that crashed into a US warship in the Pacific, and the safety and arming plug of the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

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Seven of the 89 objects on the block are of interest to Filipinos, all of them flags. The cheapest as of this writing is a 1945 banner commemorating the end of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines; its current bid is at $500. The most expensive, at $11,000, is an impressive Philippine-American War Guerrilla Forces flag collected at the turn of the last century by a certain William Trotter, whose widow gave it to a collector; the flag is now being sold to benefit the acquisition fund of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It resembles the form of the present Philippine flag, except that its sun has 16 rather than eight rays, and instead of the blue field we are familiar with, this one carries a black field. What makes this Philippine flag exceptional is the addition of a pirate skull and crossbones as well as two crossed bolos.

From the current bids, it is obvious that the competing buyers are Filipinos rather than Americans, because the second most expensive lot at $9,000 consists of two faded Philippine flags in the familiar design, one of them signed by a certain “Andres Aga Araya,” who has yet to be identified or retrieved from the proverbial dustbin of history. These flags reminded me of one we debunked years ago, claimed by an enthusiastic Filipino in the Bay Area as the “original” Philippine flag sewn in Hong Kong in 1898. Many Philippine flags were captured by the enemy during the Philippine-American War, and these have been donated to museums or sold on eBay where they fetch good prices compared to the Stars and Stripes in this online auction, with its current bid at $3,800. The US flag’s significance lies in its claim to have been the first American flag raised in the Philippines, at Camp Dewey in Manila Bay in July 1898.

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These cotton flags from the Philippine-American War are no match to two fabulous silk flags that were donated to the Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine in Kawit, where they are displayed at present. One has the sun and three stars in gilded silver, the other one has the sun and stars neatly embroidered on the flag using what appears to be silver thread. Both suns in these flags have faces — eyes, nose and mouth. These were copied from South American flags and used to be seen on many Philippine flags, until they were omitted when the flags were standardized during the Commonwealth into the form we know and use today.

A captured Spanish Merchant Marine flag is the least coveted piece from the period, with a current bid at $550, which is far less than two unique flags from Mindanao — one going for $1,300, the other for $5,500. The cheaper one is described as a “Tribal Banner,” with an unusual design — an okir motif in black on a red background in the center, flanked by two white sheathed Kris, the crescent moon in white above this, and circles in red, white and blue plus crocodiles and horses all around. The more intriguing flag is described as the “Sultan of Sulu Insurrection Flag — a red field with Kris, spear and five five-pointed stars on a blue square.

Its a pity that our cultural agencies do not have dedicated or available funds to acquire these objects. And even if they did, our Commission on Audit will not allow purchase at auction. All that is left to historians now, before these disappear into private collections, are the photographs and descriptions in the auction catalog.

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TAGS: Amberth R. Ocampo, historical objects auction, Looking Back, Philippine-american war
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