Exciting time for art historians
During the evening sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, an early version of Juan Luna’s iconic “España y Filipinas” went under the hammer and was sold for $3.3 million, or roughly P130 million at the then prevailing exchange rate. It is the highest price paid on record for a work by the 19th-century Filipino 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 at auction abroad, these two paintings were considered by scholars “unlocated,” with other works believed lost or destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945.
The version of “España y Filipinas” sold in 2013 was known to Filipino art historians only from a black-and-white illustration in the Barcelona magazine “La Ilustración Artistica” of Dec. 13, 1886, and “Parisian Life” from an album of black-and-white photographs taken before the war by the gentleman-scholar Alfonso T. Ongpin, misattributed in the most consulted Luna book by Santiago Pilar as the “Luis Araneta Photo File.” A good visual memory is necessary for the art historian who tries to track down the histories of, and in, works of art.
In the past few years, art history and museum studies have become attractive academic disciplines due to the frenzied state of the Philippine art market today, which is buoyed by much liquidity (or money laundering), social climbing, scarcity of works by the masters, and people buying names instead of pictures. While most of the record prices at auction go for contemporary or modern Philippine art today, there has been a constant demand for works by old masters like Fabian de la Rosa and Fernando Amorsolo, as well as 19th-century masters like Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo that are often compared to blue-chip stocks in the stock market.
Demand has encouraged long-lost paintings to emerge from private collections in Manila, while others have been sourced from abroad. But in the case of Luna, the few undoubtedly authentic ones have appeared together with a constant 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collections in Manila as well as public collections (National Museum, Lopez Museum and Ayala Museum), photographs, and historical references. Laboratory analysis of pigment and canvas has made it harder for 20th-century forgeries to pass, but the greater challenge is posed by authentic 19th-century Spanish and French paintings that are sometimes passed off as, or attributed to be, works by Luna.
A few years ago 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 sourced 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 on the wall together with other paintings that will hopefully turn up in the future. This example underscores the need for continuing updating and revision of what we know of Luna’s life and work.
The exciting detective work that went into the background of Luna’s “España y Filipinas” sold at auction in 2013 resulted in a detailed documentary history suggesting that there are five (or even six) paintings on the same subject by him. Three of these are identical, requiring the determination of the studies and final work as compared with later copies. Fortunately, the earliest known version of “España y Filipinas” can be viewed at the National Gallery of Singapore and compared with versions in Manila and Cadiz.
Contrary to popular belief, Luna sometimes made copies or multiples of his paintings. For example, aside from his huge 1884 canvas “Spoliarium” now preserved in the National Museum of the Philippines, he made two smaller copies—one in a private collection in Manila, and the other believed to have been acquired by a Russian nobleman and unlocated to this day.
It’s an exciting time to be an art historian these days.
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