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Auction fever

These are exciting times for the Philippine art market, with the growing interest in paintings by Filipino artists fueled by money and speculation better left to the trading floors of the stock exchanges than to the once quiet art galleries and private collections. I have been following the auctions in Hong Kong for some years now, but have never attended a live auction because one can view all the works and final prices online. Friends report that the bidding can be quite fierce, and also scandalous to Pinoys unaccustomed to seeing multimillion dollars easily spent on contemporary Chinese paintings.

I have attended live auctions in Makati, in the more successful and cheerful rival of one that formerly claimed to be “the first and only auction house in the Philippines.” Unfortunately, this upscale outfit is wrong on both counts: It now has competition, and in the 1980s there was such a thing called Auction House in the old Manila Garden Hotel, which could rightfully claim to be the first auction house in the Philippines.

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It seems auctions are the new spectator sport in Manila; some select pieces have only two bidders raising their paddles against each other as the crowd looks left and right, left and right, as it would in matches in Wimbledon and Roland Garros. At the last auction a clueless matron bid against a low-key billionaire she did not know by sight. It was only later that she realized she should have kept her paddle to herself and let the competition get away with the price much less than he eventually paid.

My interest in auctions involves the pieces that are coming out of the woodwork, encouraged by the high prices. Works by Fernando Amorsolo are emerging from attics in the United States, to where they were brought as souvenirs by prewar American tourists or residents of Manila. Their heirs have no attachment to the paintings and sell these effortlessly—at a profit. The recent economic downturn in Spain is partly responsible for the surfacing of abstract paintings by Fernando Zobel at auctions from once-private collections, and being repatriated to the Philippines.

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My interest is in previously unseen or missing works by 19th-century Filipino masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo that have made their way to auctions.

During the Evening Sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, an early version of Luna’s iconic “Espana y Filipinas” went under the hammer and sold for $3.3 million (roughly P130 million), the highest price paid on record for a work by the artist since the Philippines’ Government Service and Insurance System acquired “Parisian Life” at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2002 for P45 million. Before their public appearance and sale, these two Luna paintings were “unlocated,” along with many others believed lost or destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945.

“España y Filipinas” is the best-known painting in the Lopez Memorial Museum. It is sometimes displayed with an illustration in the Barcelona magazine La Ilustración Artistica of Dec. 13, 1886, which shows an earlier version of it, the same one sold at Sotheby’s in 2013. This painting is known to scholars from an album of black-and-white photographs taken before the war by the gentleman-scholar Alfonso T. Ongpin (unfortunately misattributed in the most consulted Luna book by Santiago Pilar as the “Luis Araneta Photo File”).

Late last year a Swiss auction house sought my opinion on what appeared to be a copy of Velasquez’s “Esopo” by Luna. It even had a dedication slightly obscured by the frame. Months after the painting was sold in Geneva, a hitherto unknown photograph of Luna appeared on Facebook that was taken from an album of photographs of 19th-century artists in their Paris studios in the Frick Collection in New York. This photograph of Luna in his studio shows the “Esopo” hanging behind him on a wide wall, together with other paintings that will hopefully turn up in the future.

It is unfortunate that while demand has encouraged long-lost paintings to emerge from private collections in Manila and abroad, the few undoubted works by Luna and Resurreccion Hidalgo have appeared with a stream of fakes.  Authentication of Luna paintings is primarily based on a knowledge of the artist’s extant work from: actual paintings in private collections in Manila as well as public collections (National Museum, Lopez Museum, and Ayala Museum), photographs, and historical references. Fortunately, laboratory analysis of pigment and canvas is now making it difficult for 20th-century forgeries to pass scrutiny. But a new challenge has emerged: authentic 19th-century Spanish and French paintings that are sometimes passed off as works by Luna or Resurreccion Hidalgo.

This is why a collaboration of art history and science and constant research in auctions makes this an exciting time, not just for collectors but for historians as well. One can only hope that others are also doing the filing and documentation that will help us understand the methods and techniques of Filipino painters.

(Comments are welcome at [email protected])

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TAGS: art, Chinese paintings, Christie’s Hong Kong, contemporary Chinese paintings, Fernando Amorsolo, Fernando Zobel, Filipino artist, Hong Kong, Paintings, Philippine art market, Philippine visual arts, Roland Garros, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, visual arts
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