Overheated auction scene: What are we to do when our heritage is for sale to the highest bidder? | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” can be applied to the people trying to cash in on the overheated auction scene in Manila.


A lethal cocktail of too much liquidity and low interest rates has made the art market a seemingly viable place to park one’s excess funds, and some have been sweet-talked into investing in art by “art consultants” who have crawled out of the woodwork to lure their prey with highly-publicized auction house hype that pitches art as a better option to stocks, bonds, mutual funds and time deposits.


While the return on investment on art looks good on auction house graphs, investors should be warned that the art market is not regulated; art is not guaranteed by any financial institution; art is not liquid; art must be held on to for a long investment horizon; art prices are as volatile as stocks; art prices are sometimes manipulated; and there are complications from forgery and misrepresentation.


Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is the rule of thumb in the art world, followed by: buy the best that you can afford; buy what you like, not what people tell you to buy; and buy pictures, not names.


Aside from paintings, there are other luxury items: watches, jewelry, wines and whiskey; Philippine colonial or Spanish period furniture, jewelry and religious imagery (santo); ethnic art and artifacts; prehistoric or precolonial Philippine gold and  earthenware, as well as Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics excavated from Philippine archeological sites.


Coaxed out of hiding


The list is endless and one could say that to each his own persuasion. One could be happy collecting bottle caps and baseball cards, but auctions bring certain categories to the fore—like colonial furniture that has fetched five to six figures  under the hammer. Of late, historical material has been coaxed out of hiding by the high auction returns.


José Rizal is not the prime national hero for nothing; items relating to him always sell.


In 2014, a first-edition “Noli Me Tangere,” published in Berlin in 1887, sold for P6 million, a big improvement over the first one sold at auction in 2004 for $10,000 or approximately P500,000 for an autographed first edition “Noli,” flipped by a lucky bidder who is said to have acquired it from eBay for less than US$100.



Sculpture by Rizal


In 2016, a small plaster sculpture of a wild boar by Rizal was the first work of the hero to appear on the market. So unlike paintings by Fernando Amorsolo or Fernando Zobel that have an established price range, this one sold for P16.3 million to a foreign buyer and was exported.


The next Rizal sculpture on the block, also sold by descendants of the hero, was a wood relief of a man lifting weights. It sold in 2016 for P17.5 million, the most expensive lechon tray on record.


Four letters of Rizal to his sister Maria sold for a total of P10 million.


Manuscripts from other heroes did not do as well. Papers relating to Rizal’s mother Teodora Alonso, a heart-rending letter of Marcelo H. del Pilar to his wife Tsanay, and documents by Andres Bonifacio’s widow Gregoria de Jesus had no bidders, and were bought outside the auction in a private sale.


Auction prices for letters by Andres Bonifacio were encouraging, as one sold for P 1.7 million and another for P1.8 million, and an envelope bearing the Katipunan seal sold for P2.8 million.


Bonifacio-related materials are quite rare; there are less than a dozen letters in his hand extant, compared to Rizal, who wrote enough to fill 25 volumes of his complete writings.


 Piece of history

As a historian, I welcome the fact that manuscripts long held in private hands are now being made public. While many of these documents have been published before, there is still a thrill in seeing the original because aside from the feeling of literally touching a piece of  history, there is the possibility that some of these things have never been seen until now, or perhaps contain details that were missed by previous historians.


The well-meaning reaction on social media is a call to have these in our cultural agencies: the National Library, the National Museum and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).


The problem is that these agencies cannot acquire things not indicated in the National Budget, approved by Congress, and released by the Department of Budget and Management.


Even if they had an acquisitions budget, the Commission on Audit will not allow such agencies to buy at auction. One cannot acquire these from private owners without paying market price, either.


Cultural treasure


An object in private hands can be declared a cultural treasure, impeding sale at auction, which can only drive all these things to go underground and remain, as they have always have, in the hands of private collections.


One solution would be to copy the model in some western countries, where an important piece is sold through auction, and the government is given time to raise money to match the winning bid. If this does not materialize, the object is turned over to the buyer, who can even export it.


In the case of historical documents, our cultural agencies sometimes have more than they can handle.



Conservation is costly and public access is not universal. Documents can be scanned and downloaded online for free, ensuring that historians and the public can use the contents without the need for the deteriorating original.


On the  bright side, government does not have a monopoly on cultural conservation, and sharing this responsibility with the private sector is a step in the right direction.


But what about historical artifacts? Something cloaked in emotion like the Katipunan flag that was sold recently for P9 million?


Bicol Rep. Edcel Lagman urged the the NHCP at the last minute to intervene to have the Katipunan and Bonifacio documents withdrawn from the auction, or to have the auction cancelled through a court order.


His legal basis was a broad reading of Section 7 of Republic Act No. 10086, which mandated that the commission “acquire important historical documents, collections, memorabilia and other objects that have significant historical value.”


It does not give the NHCP the authority to expropriate private cultural property as the National Museum can. Lagman said he would file a bill appropriating P1 billion to the NHCP for this purpose.


However, with current rising inflation and poverty, the Lagman bill will face rough sailing on the floor.


Auction rumors


Of late, there have been rumors that some of the record-breaking prices at auctions may not be real, or that this has become a convenient way to launder dirty money or pay a bribe. All these issues are worth investigating further.


What are we to do when our cultural heritage is for sale to the highest bidder?


Auctions should teach us to value an object for its aesthetic, historical or cultural merit, not its price tag. We should not forget that Philippine history, art and culture are lofty things, ideals cheapened by the crass commercialism of the art market.


Ambeth R. Ocampo is former chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.