"Dusty boxes hold as much promise for fulfillment as well as disappointment." Photograph from Pexels
Culture Art

The pleasure of things: an antiquarian on the great Filipino collectibles

In a highly digitized world, has the art of collecting lost all of its romance? The late antiquarian Ramon N. Villegas, in this heady cocktail of history, trivia, gossip and keen observations, recalls a time when accumulating accoutrements was a gentleman's persuasion
Ramon N. Villegas | Apr 19 2019

As an antiquarian, I have had to sneeze through many boxes of treasures and trash dragged out of other people's garages and bodegas. My eyes have teared up, not from sentiment, as I sniffle and sneeze in reaction to all the airborne motes. I have been covered in dust and mold. But these are all small discomforts that count for naught against the thrill. It is the same, perhaps, for the hunter who pauses before a forest or a jungle. There is the studied nonchalance, while the brain scans the memory for beasts and perils encountered before in similar places and seasons. The heart starts beating faster but, just as one holds back the dogs by their leashes, it cannot be permitted to run ahead, cautioning that after all, there may be nothing there at all. Dusty boxes hold as much promise for fulfillment as well as disappointment.

The sharp and pointed cuff was one of the distinguishing features of the Pierre Cardin-style barong popular in the 70s. Photograph from the Barong Tagalog Then and Now: The Millennium Edition 2000 by Vistacion dela Torre

Even when the flaps have been opened, the expectation never ends, as layer upon layer of stuff are disgorged and laid out in the light. Once the bottom has been reached, there is the thrill of once again going over the things more carefully, refining the selection according to attractiveness and desirability. Once your pile has been built up, there is the challenge of negotiating a price, which requires a different scale of values. In the end, however, things are worth as much as a buyer is willing to shell out. It is not a matter of needing any of the stuff: do you want it enough?

All of these are racing through the mind as the bargaining back and forth, and you're trying to convince the seller that the price you are offering to pay is right. Once the seller accepts your money and the deed is done, as the things are stuffed back into boxes and loaded onto your vehicle, there is once again a thrill of anticipation. The excitement again builds up. But the heart as it were, is walking at a brisk pace, not running wildly. Once home, the box flaps are undone and the items are carefully arrayed on a table, or on the floor. The items are carefully inspected, this time to ascertain what needs mending and cleaning. The latter results in my hands sprouting strange blisters.

To my relief, my dermatologist has diagnosed these as nothing more than a reaction to all the solvents, detergents and cleaning agents that I need—in the course of such hunting and gathering—come in contact with, remedied easily with over-the-counter salves. Sometimes, this final inspection causes the heart to plummet as unnoticed defects are revealed.

 

Stories of other collectors:

 

More often than not, one's initial judgment is thankfully validated. Sometimes, one or two items are discovered to be worth much much more than originally thought, and then the heart soars. I have, time and again, tried to analyze this fascination for objects of the past. I do not think I am simply a pack rat, eager to accumulate mounds of whatever.

Rather my hands and feet bear material from the past on which feed my future creative acts. I am therefore, not simply an accumulation of what others were, but also what they, too, might have been had they not done what they did, or had they chosen to do what they had decided not to. Looking at other people's possessions is looking at their lives, much like reading biographies. Of course, the wealthier the person was, the more possessions he or she would have had, and consequently, there's more to read.

Don Felipe Hidalgo's myriad possessions constituted a War and Peace of a life. He was the nephew of Felix Resurrection Hidalgo whose mother Barbara Padilla takes the prize for Pack Rat of the 19th century. Their house (now gone) had stood near the corner of what is now "Erre" Hidalgo Street (near San Sebastian church) in Manila. It was spared by World War II, but not from the wreckers' hammers in the 1990s, when heirs sold the property.

Precious boutonnieres in platinum and onyx from an advertisement in the 50s.

It seems the family never threw out a single piece of paper from of the 19th century to the 1980s—everything from newspapers to a newspaper boys' slips; tailor's totes and bank statements, receipts to recipes, prayer books to pornography and on and on. There were letters of the master painter Felix from Paris to his mother in Manila. At the same time there were letters to the house help from their relatives. There were testaments of papal indulgences to members of the family in the 1880s and letters from religious charities asking for donations.

A haunting, grungy scrap of paper dated in 1840s attested to the baptism, in Amoy, China, of the family’s amah to the Catholic faith. The Hidalgo cache was unique in age and scope.

 

MAGBUBULOK HEAVEN

The majority of caches I have come across are mostly of the 20th century. The poor possessions of some come only in cigar boxes or biscuit tins: a few buttons, plumbers' calling cards, cedulas, watches, photos, prescriptions, diabetes syringes and needles, ticket stubs, etc. Once in a while, there are huge housefuls of stuff, simply magbubulok heaven. One interesting house was in San Francisco del Monte. The house was built as a retirement house in the 1910s by an American judge who happened to be black. It was a handsome structure with an imposing exterior stairway to the living area on the second floor. The living and dining rooms were up there, as well as bathrooms and the three bed chambers.

Don Felipe Hidalgo's possessions constituted a War and Peace of a life. He was the nephew of Felix Resurreccion whose mother takes the prize for Pack Rat of the 19th century.

Two siblings inherited the house: the female lived partly in a portion of the house built in the 60s, off to the side. Her brother lived in the old house, but at the time I first went there had just suffered a stroke and lay dying in the hospital. By the second visit, he had passed away, and the sister, who lived months at a time in the States, decided to have the old house rented out. She therefore wanted to clear it. 

The furniture was mostly commercial 1920s to 1950s junk and I eventually acquired only a high-backed swivel chair, originally owned by the judge, made of kamagong. But that was not the only reason why I remember that house.

At the back of the old house was a large bodega cum garage, and under a tarpaulin sheet was a 1940s Cadillac. The sister confided that upon graduation, their parents had them choose: a world tour, or a new car? She took the world tour, and her brother went on to travel Manila's roads in the flashy automobile which he would never part with, but his sister had no compunction at all selling.

At least that Cadillac was treated with respect. In a warehouse yard north of Manila, a sorry sight were scores of old vehicles shoved side by side and even stacked helter-skelter. The owner, a noted car collector, had died years ago. He had rescued these cars from the melting pot, but never gotten around to restoring them. The peeling paint, pools of dirty water on dents and the gaping hoods could only mean that the cars were slowly and surely rusting away, as the collector's heirs remained indecisive about the cars' fate. Another old car we saw was in Bulacan, on the way to Nueva Ecija. The house, built in the 1910s, was of a respectable size. It was already nearly empty: the heirs had taken away what were useful, and left really ugly furniture behind, to be sold. There was a family allowed to live in the premises, as the bantay.

Rare originals of vinyl records like this live recording of Juan dela Cruz concert were so popular collectible in the late 20th century. Album courtesy of Arwin Nava

They looked none too clean, particularly the sniveling infant straddling the sorry mess of a woman. When asked if there was anything else to see, the man. who had a drinking man's bloodshot eyes, listlessly directed us to the silong, or storage area under the floors, not bothering to even accompany us. We entered the dimness, crouching and looking out for nails or wood jutting out from the flooring structure overhead. We could make out the faint outline of an early car, with wooden wheels with thin multiple spokes. It was then that I felt my foot encounter something squishy. I looked down, and that was when I realized what the child on his haunches not five steps away to the side was doing, and the odor wafted by the breeze confirmed my worst fears. He was taking a dump, and as my eyes adjusted, we realized the whole silong was one big unflushed toilet.

I said huffily (because I was holding my breath) that I was not interested in old cars and hurried out of vintage car hell. But I have also met aficionados who treat their cars better than their wives. They lovingly caress the paint, making sure nothing mars its sheen. The tires are plump; the motor well-oiled. Somehow vintage cars provide a deeper satisfaction for their collectors than new vehicles. The latter are whimpers for recognition; the former, declarations of brain and brawn over adversity and the rusting tides of time.

 

THE WATCHES TO WATCH

Timepieces are also to be found among gentlemen's possessions. Collecting watches—the real thing, bought for the movement and not for the diamonds—can be crippling. A handmade Genie Genta—a fancy one with moon phase, perpetual calendars and other bells and whistles—is known to have fetched millions of dollars in the 1980s. New, fairly decent but not yet top-of-thee Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin can cost you some $15,000 to $30,000. But for you to be called a collector of anything, you must have at least six of a kind, which can set you back as much as a Jaguar would. The watches I have seen in the Philippines over the years reflect the economic history of the country.

There were not too many good watches before the 1930s. There were many, many Elgins and Walthams, which are equivalent to today's Seikos and Citizens. There were more good watches by the 1930s. Some years ago, an heir of a Commonwealth political figure sold at auction abroad an impressive stash of pocket watches, wristwatches, and even night table alarm clocks of silver and gold, some studded with diamonds, by Cartier, Tiffany and other famed makers. The statesman might not have solicited monetary bribes, but he did receive handsome gifts.

Through the 1930s and 1960s apparently many wealthy Filipinos purchased watches from Patek Philippe, Jaeger Le Coultre, Movado, Piaget, IWC and others. The upper class went on cruises in the 1960s, and on those sojourns purchased watches from Rolex, Omega, Bucherer. The younger ones and the lower middle class, meanwhile, brought home watches from Hongkong, particularly Girard Peregaux, which was a decent enough Swiss brand. Hongkong jewelers got that Swiss company's low-end production and set them in low-karat (but marked 18k) straps, to be sold to gullible Filipinos. In the early 1970s, Filipinos started traveling abroad on job contracts, and they bought duty-free fashion watches. These were quite attractive and heavily advertised in all the glossy magazines, but are disrespected by collectors, because their time-telling capabilities are merely rudimentary.

An heir of a Commonwealth figure sold at auction pocket watches, wristwatches, and night table alarm clocks of silver and gold. The statesman might not have solicited monetary bribes, but he did receive handsome gifts.

Other watch dealers brought in other fashion brands as well as new, high-end, collector-standard pieces from the late 1970s through the 1980s. At that time, the collection of old timepieces became the rage in Europe, the United States and Japan. Many foreign dealers came to the Philippines to buy up vintage pieces, cleaning out collectors, pawnshops and local dealers. Today, a Filipino collector can rely on the merest trickle of timepieces from original owners. The majority of the pieces come only from collectors who became active from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The country's young and new collectors today have to buy from auction houses and dealers abroad. Those who favored watches also had jewelry. In the 19th century, pocket watches came with heavy chains hooked onto the buttonholes of vests or onto the trousers' belt loops.

At the end of the chains were fobs or small pendants: most often seals, antique cameos or coins. At the beginning of the 20th century, when pocket watches went out of fashion, the chains came to be used for keys. Meanwhile, timepieces were worn more and more on the wrist. Seals, for those who still used wax to close envelopes, were worn on rings. But they eventually became unfashionable, unless the seal ring was inherited and only worn as an affectation. Seals were often worn on the pinkie finger. Other rings, usually diamonds, were worn on the ring fingers, usually by newly prosperous comerciantes and hacenderos.

 

THE STATUS SYMBOLS

The new status symbol in the early 20th century became the college ring. The practice was brought back from the United States by the first pensionados or scholars of the American colonial government. In the United States, attaining a college degree was an achievement. The small fraternity pin on the collar or on the tie may proclaim the wearer's personal scholastic and extra-curricular talents, but the college graduate sporting a gold ring with a synthetic gem in the color of the school was showing off his family's financial capabilities. Soon enough, Philippine educational institutions also issued graduation rings which their alumni proudly wore. In their homes were displayed formal graduation portrait photographs showing them in their togas holding rolled vellum. Next to these were the actual certificates framed.

It was also a sign of success for the college graduates to wear cuernas or cufflinks and buttons of gold. The majority wore gold-plated ones, usually made by Krementz, an American company. A few wore buttons made from gold coins or precious stones. When ties became de rigeur for the civil servants and office workers, they pinned down the wide silk kurbatas with gold, pearl or even diamond studs, or bar clips. The wealthier gentlemen wore leather belts with 14 karat gold buckles, while lesser mortals used ones in silver. These, as well as gold-plated ones, were manufactured or imported and sold by Heacock's or La Estrella del None.

Early in the 20th century, older gentlemen still sported canes. For utility, Malacca canes were ideal.. strong, supple, light. But for show, there were canes made of kamagong, the best ones done in Vigan by the last surviving master carvers then. They worked with fine chisels to bring out floral and vegetal patterns in minute detail. There were also canes made of horn, bone, even in ivory and in rare cases, tortoise shell. They were often topped with knobs or handles of brass, silver and even of solid gold. Even the ornamental canes sometimes concealed stilettos, for they were often not only for showing off, but in some cases necessary for defense.

The cane came with hats, also a necessity in a tropical country. Hats as fine as the ones made in Central America were made in Bulacan, particularly in Baliwag. One of the prewar businesses of the Zuellig conglomerate was the manufacture of hats for the world market. As a young man, the Campos patriarch (of Unilab) worked as a hat weaver. The cane and hat were worn with the Americana, or the barong Tagalog. The Americana was the Western suit in tropical white linen or cotton. A variation was the Americana cerrada, where the upper garment was cut to fit the torso like a coat, with long sleeves and a Chinese collar with buttons running from the neck down to the hem. It was worn with pants of the same material, usually a shade of white.

Later, there was an imported fabric known as sharkskin, a white, silky material that was soft but with body enough to fall nicely. The barong Tagalog was really the most comfortable. These were shirts of nipis or handwoven sheer material, worn over a white cotton camisa chino and with white pants. By the 1920s however, the barong Tagalog was regarded as somewhat informal, worn only by younger boys and lesser employees, or when out in the country, let us say on a picnic to Antipolo or Montalban.

The barong Tagalog re-attained its formal status only when hand-weaving had become prohibitively expensive, around the late 40s and the 50s. Presidents Roxas and Quirino, while they often wore barong Tagalog, had formal gatherings in the presidential palace, complete with the rigodon danced by men in tuxedos and women in long gowns. The revival of the formal baro might have been an offshoot of the barrio festivity style promoted by Magsaysay in Malacañang. Magsaysay essayed an easier style, and invited more people into the palace grounds. Garcia and Macapagal followed suit (no pun intended). By the late 1950s, enterprising traders had brought over jusi, a fabric made in southern China that resembled native piña but cost less.

With the cheaper fabric, purveyors of baro material sought to make their items more expensive by coming up with the 'all-over': jusi that was not only embroidered around the pechera or chest, but everywhere. The embroidery patterns were 1950s baroque revival, decadent and over the top. This became the rage from the mid 1950s through the early 60s. It was Marcos who brought a new sartorial elegance in Malacañang. In the beginning, he went along with the 'all-over. By the late 1960s, he had developed two alternative looks: the shirt jack but in jusi, and the fitted baro a la Pierre Cardin.

The first used jusi innovatively, in a modern cut, that is, as cut at the bottom like a bomber's jacket, waist-length and adjustable straps on both sides, at the back. It was an outrage: successful innovation, which simultaneously made the baro younger looking, but a younger look made more serious with use of a formal material. The Cardin cutters tucked in the back of the shirt (two verte slashes along the kidneys), lengthened the hem to that of a Western suit (up to the first joint of the thumb), made longer slits on the side, longer and sharper collar points, with matching points on the doubled-over French cuffs. The front opened from top to bottom, unlike the older pechera style, into which one had to struggle to get into.

Marcos's tailored look went well with his wife's regal style. If ever there was for us a Camelot, it was then, and the Marcoses were our fabulous king and queen. Television made of them creatures of mass media, just as much as Tirso Cruz and Nora Aunor and the others were. The Marcoses played it up before the cameras—whether for still photos, cinema, television, video.

"Pictures at night without flashlight," is the copy that accompanies this image of a camera in a '50s print advertisement.

PHONOGRAPHS AND MEMORIES

Photography was popularized in the early 20th century with the mass production of cameras, and innovations in developing pictures, particularly by the Kodak company. The soldiers during the early years of the US colonial regime already brought with them cameras, which made possible spontaneously taken photographs. Photographs that record the American colonial period are interesting collectibles, still very reasonably priced. Gen. Arthur MacArthur knew to play up before newspaper cameras, and his son Douglas was even savvier. William Howard Taft used his hulk to good advantage, parlaying through the print media his colonial post in the Philippines into a jumping board for the American presidency. Manuel Quezon had a gift for acting the leader before cameras, early on engaging the lens to an extent that put Aguinaldo to shame.

By the time he was installed President of the Commonwealth, Quezon was addressing the nation over radio, as well as being filmed for posterity. Radios, while playing waltzes and polkas for entertainments also brought newsmakers into the same room as ordinary families' their voices as close and familiar as your father's or mother's. After World War II, the Americans developed sets of radios-cum-phonograph players. The wealthier acquired great hulking sets with large multiple speakers encased in hardwoods. By the 1950s, the sets became more streamlined, and high fidelity (hi-fi) became the norm. Over the 1960s, the small 38 rpm records were replaced with long-playing vinyl records. With such sets, the well-off could have an evening with classical music; the whole family could gather around the set listening to radio dramas; or the younger ones could hold impromptu rock-n-roll dance parties at home. Magnetic tape technology later brought tape decks to the home, which permitted recordings of several hours to be stored within a single reel.

In the 1960s the Japanese found ways of mass-manufacturing transistor radios, which made it possible for individuals to have their own receivers. Family members did not have to gather around the one humonguous set, fighting over which program to listen to. New technology brought to the market cassette tapes which made smaller portable radio-cassette tape players available' to great numbers of people. Today, mp3 players can fit in a pocket. But the reels and cassette tapes and CDs will never be as collectible as vinyl phonograph records with their colorfully printed cardboard sleeves, particularly those manufactured in the Philippines in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Beatle records made in Manila and early Pinoy rock records (Pepe Smith, Sampagita, etc.) have fetched as much as several hundred dollars. By the late 1950s and through the early 1960s it was around the television sets, still novelties then, that the whole family—indeed the whole neighborhood—gathered 'round. The sets became bigger and bigger, and then smaller and smaller, and now they've become very big, or very small. The problem with collecting machines like television sets is that once the technology is passé, they lose much of their meaning except as token props.

 

THE EDUCATION REVOLUTION 

In 19th century Philippines, when Googling was still beyond anyone's imagination, the great revolution was in education. Not that Filipinos were ignoramuses; like most Europeans, only a very small sector of our society knew more than just basic reading, writing and arithmetic, which were taught by the clergy along with the caton, or catechism. If the children were upper class, their parents could afford to have them tutored in latinidad—equivalent to high school level today. The Spanish crown instituted educational reforms in the colony only in the late 1860s. By the time the generation of Bonifacio and Rizal reached adolescence, Filipinos were already allowed to enroll in vocational and professional schools and the University (at that time solely Sto. Tomas).

That generation placed great value on books. Bonifacio, who was not able to go beyond Latin tutorials—taught himself, largely through books that he collected, as well as those he might have borrowed from friends like Emilio Jacinto who then studied in Sto. Tomas. Bonifacio painstakingly copied in longhand—since there were no photocopiers or scanners then—articles that he liked from La Solidaridad. Rizal's property consisted largely of books, and when he died, his lover Josephine Bracken laid claim to his library, which had been left in the care of Mariano Ponce in Hongkong.

To be a gentleman in the late 19th and through most of the 20th century meant gathering a library.

Pedro Paterno established the precursor to the National Library by making available his personal library, which he housed in a facility in Trozo (now the Tutuban area), the 19th century' CBD or 'central business district'. To be a gentleman in the late 19th and through most of the 20th century meant gathering a library. Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, J Luna's brother-in-law and a distinguished scholar, was a great bibliophile, and so were Epifanio de los Santos, Sofronio Calderon, Teodoro M Kalaw, and others. Not only did they collect books, but they wrote and published them.

A gentleman's home had to have a book-room, and his past-time was, ideally, to read the classics. That meant, in the early 20th century, literature in English: The Song of Hiawatha, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe. He bought his children Encyclopedia Britanica and the Harvard Classics, because whatever their professions were, he expected them to be well-read. The postwar period saw a new generation not only of readers, but of writers, both in English, and later in Filipino. From the late 1950s, those who reached their prime and had attained success in life were expected to publish if not autobiographies, at least commission biographies authored by well-known writers. Thus, books from gentlemen's libraries constitute an important 20th century collectible. But today's homes are beginning to have less and less books.

The young have many other forms of entertainment, and the Internet has become their endless fount of knowledge. Many of the literate commit their thoughts not on paper, but affix them on the ether, in cyber space. I am happy enough collecting bits and pieces of 20th century gentlemen's lives. But what shall the next generation collect? Will they feel as much excitement finding my hard disk in the year 2050, as I do today, seeing bound and printed paper emerging from forgotten boxes?

 

This story appeared in its original form in Metro Him Magazine Style Guide Issue 2008. The author, a repected antiques expert, passed away in 2017.