Looking Back

Collecting Filipiniana

/ 12:24 AM February 24, 2016

Collecting Filipiniana on a tight student allowance was made possible by National Bookstore’s annual “Cut-Price” book sale, where compilations of Nick Joaquin’s essays could be had in bargain bins at P1 each. Then there was the bodega of the prewar Libreria Martinez, behind the Ihaw-Ihaw beer garden on the perimeter of the Welcome Rotonda on Quezon Boulevard, where old books could be had for less than P20. What I found for nothing when I was a student is worth way more today.

Browsing over the results of last weekend’s Leon Gallery auction to benefit the Asian Cultural Council, I saw a Nov. 16, 1898, issue of the revolutionary newspaper edited by Antonio Luna. La Independencia had a starting bid of P30,000 and sold for P81,760. A note in the catalog says it was acquired from me in 1989.


In 1984, I found 30 issues of La Independencia in the Heritage Bookstore. They were being sold as a lot for P3,000 or a hundred pesos each. Since I could not afford it, E. Aguilar Cruz bought the lot, read it all, and allowed me to buy the newspapers from him—on installment, with my monthly allowances. A few years later, I sold 25 of the 30 issues for a thousand each and used the proceeds to buy more books. Collecting Filipiniana then was affordable even for a student on allowance. Today one needs serious money to buy art and antiquities.

Books I had to save up for were the copies of Dr. E. Arsenio Manuel’s “Dictionary of Philippine Biography,” a standard and often reliable reference usually found in university libraries. I wanted my own. The first volume published in 1955 was out of print, but I was able to acquire mine direct from the author. It had burns on the edges because it was one of a few the doctor had salvaged from a fire that razed his home in the University of the Philippines. Doctor Manuel’s library had burned twice, first during the Japanese occupation when he entrusted his books with the UP Library, then in the 1970s when he lived at the UP Diliman campus.


I was told that after the fire in his home was contained, he spent the night sleeping on the ashes of his beloved books. Having gone through this and much more, his books were rather expensive and when I told the historian Teodoro Agoncillo about the prices, he laughed and declared: Kaya mahal ’yan kasi pati Coke na ininom n’ya noong 1933 habang nagre-research s’ya kasama sa calculation ng presyo ng libro n’ya! ( [Manuel’s] books are expensive because he charges us for everything, including the Coke he drank in 1933 during his research.)

Filipiniana books are often collectible because they are out-of-print within a year after publication. At most, a thousand copies of such books are printed, with 400 of them acquired by libraries; a smaller print run at 500 copies means there would only be 100-150 copies left for private libraries.

Philippine publications are often printed on cheap newsprint that does not survive the test of time because of acid built into the paper. The acid starts to eat up the pages as soon as the books land on bookstore shelves. Add these to the list of challenges: floods, heat, humidity, silverfish, cockroaches, rats, and the greatest enemy of them all —humans. Manuel took all of these into consideration when he priced his books and other artifacts.

Like his collection of Japanese wartime posters that nobody could afford because of their $1-million price tag. When I asked how he came up with that figure, he simply replied that he risked his life taking these posters from walls when Japanese soldiers were not looking, that’s why. These posters were worth a lot to him, and they stayed in his collection till he passed away. I wonder where the collection is today.

If Manuel were still alive and mobile today, I cannot imagine what else he would have collected to document our life and times. The collector’s instinct varied, and I have seen some very precious collections—ranging from old master paintings to Chinese ceramics discovered in the Philippines dating back to prehistoric times, to something as wonderful as an album of the different stickers one finds on fresh fruit in the grocery.

One can collect stamps, coins or even MRT tickets. This week on Facebook, many people are posting photos of themselves on Edsa in 1986, or in one of the many rallies against the Marcos rule from 1982. These faded photos show how people grew and cut their hair in the 1980s. Some show what people looked like when they still had hair! We see their fashion sense and the slogans on their shirts: “Laban!” “Hindi ka nag-iisa!” “Sobra na!” “Tama na, palitan na!”

Edward de los Santos has a collection of political items from the period. These items help us remember the dark days of the Marcos years and the excitement and hope we placed on the yellow future. Everything—from black plastic mourning pins from the Ninoy Aquino funeral to the cute yellow Cory dolls of 1986—can be found in his collection. He has campaign T-shirts, campaign posters, newspapers and magazines of the period—materials librarians describe as “ephemera” because they are fleeting, passing, transitory reminders of a time in history. These items may not be worth much today, but if a revolutionary newspaper I bought for P100 in 1984 can be resold in 2016 for P81,760, the lesson must be never to throw things away because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.



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TAGS: Antonio luna, books, filipiniana, La Independencia
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