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Sour grapes

/ 12:40 AM October 01, 2014

Salcedo Auctions lived up to its “praise releases” recently by setting new auction records in the Rare Books department. Last month a first edition of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” published in Berlin in 1887, was put on the block with an estimate of P300-350,000; it sold at a whopping hammer price of P6 million. If you add the buyer’s premium and the value-added tax, the actual price paid was P7 million—the highest ever paid for a Philippine book.

Contrary to a rumor circulating in collecting circles, I am, unfortunately, not the consignor of the “Noli.” As a matter of fact, I now regret having sold my copy of the rarer “El Filibusterismo,” published in Ghent in 1891, three decades ago for P7,000. Had I held on to my mint-condition, first-edition “Fili” and created the proper media hype, maybe I could have sold it for about the same price as the “Noli” today. As they say in Filipino, nasa huli ang pagsisisi (regret comes in the end).

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Consulted about the “Noli” by parties interested in bidding for it at the Salcedo auction, I said the book shouldn’t fetch more than P500,000, or about $12,000. I based this conservative estimate on the last copy of a first-edition “Noli” that was put up for auction in 2004 as part of the 75th anniversary of the Philippine Numismatic and Antiquarian Society (PNAS). This copy personally inscribed by Rizal and presented to the mother of his girlfriend Nellie Boustead was then offered with the reserve price of $10,000. Not a bad mark-up for something acquired dirt-cheap on eBay. The PNAS catalogue entry reads:

“1st edition Book ‘Noli me tangere.’ Published by Berlin Buchdruckerei-Action-Gesellschaft Setzerinen-Schule des Lette-Vereins, Berlin 1886, one of the greatest and valuable book written by Dr. Jose Rizal leading to the ‘Cry of Independence.’ At one time, Dr. Jose Rizal even considered burning the manuscript of this book—which might have altered the course of history. The Spanish authorities banned the book for reason that it was heretic and subversive: anyone caught in possession of this book, is subject to imprisonment. The first edition book published in Berlin on 1886 became very rare. This particular first edition book to be auctioned by the PNAS has an intriguing question: Inside is a handwritten dedication addressed to Ms. Nelly Boustead, stating ‘adieu’ and signed ‘el autor.’ Mystery surrounds why he would write ‘adieu’ which actually meant goodbye instead of the usual salutations? And why would he sign ‘el autor’ instead of his usual signature? Some Rizalista historian has written of a love story between the two lovers. Extremely rare. $10,000.”

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I expected a sober, better-researched, and better-written description from the PNAS, but I realized that auction catalogues in the Philippines have a lot to learn from similar catalogues from the West that provide erudite bibliographic information rather than create intrigue and mystery over the item to increase its desirability and raise its sale price. First, the “Noli” was published in 1887, not 1886. Second, the accompanying photograph of the inscription is definitely by Rizal but the cataloguer misread “Dedica” for “Adieu” and mistook “M. Boustead” for Rizal’s girlfriend Nellie. Actually, it was the mother, Madame Boustead, which explains why the dedication required the more formal “el autor” instead of Rizal’s iconic signature. Translated from the original Spanish, the inscription reads: “To Mrs. Boustead [this book] is dedicated [by] the author.”

Whoever owns this inscribed copy of the “Noli” today should be happy that an unsigned, not-so-mint-condition “Noli” sold for P7 million because it is worth much more. But then auctions are not a true measure of value or a barometer of the market because these operate, not on true market value, but on the desire of one buyer to own something at any price. The value of an object remains with the buyer, who may or may not be able to resell for the same price paid.

Nevertheless, other encouraging results were: P408,000 for an 1890 first-edition copy of Rizal’s annotated edition of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas,” and P250,000, or a quarter of P1 million, for a copy of the small pamphlet “Constitution Politica De la Republica Filipina,” better known as the Malolos Constitution, and published in Barasoain in 1899. The latter can still be found and bought for much less, the same for Rizal’s edition of the Morga. However, there is an autographed copy of the Morga in a private collection in Makati for which I had long wanted to make an offer, but with the record prices now set I will not get it cheap.

I was a college student on an allowance when I started collecting Filipiniana in the 1980s. There were no crazy auctions then, and with perseverance one could build a decent library, as I did. My regret, in the glow of these auction prices, is that I gave up on rare books 10 years ago because as a historian, I needed the content rather than the actual books. I did not need a first edition if a reprint or photocopy was available.

Today, I have a growing digital library that is more portable than a roomful of books. My problem is that I am more of a historian than a collector. I may not make millions for the books I own, and console myself with the thought that I am a sour but happy grape.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: auction, bidding, books, El Filibusterismo, filipiniana, Noli Me Tangere, Philippine Numismatic and Antiquarian Society, Salcedo Auctions
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