The local art scene has been wanting for some full-blown drama for some time, but nothing could have prepared us for this one. This had all the elements of a five-popcorn suspense: a purported study of what is perhaps the greatest Filipino artwork is being put up for auction—but its authenticity is besieged by questions; there's a respected auctioneer unpopular with a segment of the art set; glamorous dinners; swanky vernissages; a couple of bumps along the way courtesy of an ex-business partner filing a trademark cancellation case against the auction house, and a kerfuffle with a high-profile art collector. Finally, a white knight in the form of Jeremy Barns, director of the National Museum, gives the painting in question a once over and practically gives the boceto of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium a thumbs-up by saying the museum will classify it "a cultural property that needs clearance to leave the country." But there’s more. A masterstroke of a pre-climax conflict: the day before the auction, another version of a Spoliarium boceto emerges.
Fantastic buildup, but did the auction results live up to it?
At 2pm this past Saturday, even if there were still 51 lots before the boceto was presented to bidders, the Pen’s Rigodon Ballroom was already an all-seats-taken affair. There were familiar faces: Pico Gonzales among them, the art broker who appeared in the papers Friday clutching his version of a Spoliarium study. He tidies up well, apparently, unlike his “woke up like this” look (which literally looked like he had just woken up) in the papers of the previous day. There was Ambeth Ocampo, very casually observing the proceedings at the very end of the room, standing beside the porcelain-skinned Audrey Tan Zubiri who was with husband Miguel, the senator.
There were Richie and Karen Lerma, of course, entertaining phone bids from a raised platform near the stage. They are the organizers of this auction called “The Well-Appointed Life,” a brand the ownership to which is being challenged by former Salcedo Auctions partner Paolo Martel who, perhaps understandably, is not in the room.
For non-buyers like us, apart from the cucumber sandwiches and coffee, there wasn’t much cause for excitement before Lot 152, the boceto’s turn for the hammer. Surprises, yes: an Orlina glass sculpture going for more than double its starting price, followed by a rather phallic number in pink glass which sold at P1.6 million. A few snubs, yes: among them for an Olazo, a Joya, an Arturo Luz sculpture, and for an HR Ocampo oil-on-canvas piece from 1975 called “Cantata for Lourdes,” a puzzle of mostly greens in different shades. Was the estimate price too high at P6.5M to P7.5M?
By the first hour, two works had gone beyond the million peso mark: Bencab’s “Draped Figure XVI” which sold for its estimate price of P1.8 million (all estimates in this story based on auction catalogue), and Joya’s “Nirvana” which did better, selling at P1.4M from an estimate P650,000.
Two Ronald Venturas did fabulously: one sold for P4.3M from a starting P1.4M, and the other, an image of a winged tiger, started at P3.3M and ended up selling for P9M. There was considerable buzz that accompanied the first appearance of a Lao Lianbien (small work, a brush of grey on white, very minimalist), but we all know what we’re here for—and that moment came at around 4PM.
“This has never been in the Philippines before,” said the auction master in his British accent, as soon as the image of the boceto flashed on the screen. It was greeted with applause, like the entire room had just landed from a very long flight. The room felt warmer, and looked a little more packed than earlier. “Anyone who buys this,” the auction master continued, “you will never make a trip to the National Museum ever again.” A hum of laughter. The bidding started at P25million—close enough from the initial price we heard in late August (P16M), and far from the much higher price we expected at the height of interest in the artwork (P80M).
From P25M, it was a fast climb to P40 million. By the time it hit P44M, the auction master asked the crowd, “Do you want to get some coffee first?”
When the bids finally hit the 50 million mark, there was a round of applause from the audience, followed by a hush. Things may have slowed down a little but you could feel the collective anticipation. People seated at the back were now standing, not only to hold their phones up to record this much anticipated moment, but also because it had become clear who the main rivals were in this war: on the left corner of the ballroom, an unidentified buyer speaking through Richie Lerma on the phone; on the right, closer to the side doors, a lady with short, jet-black hair, wearing some form of woven pattern in red, black, and white. The diamonds that sparkled from her left ear helped us spot her. She was with a man, in blue, who quietly nodded when the auction master confirmed her bid. She would look at him once in a while. They agreed and argued, seemingly without the use of words.
The last five minutes or so was like watching a tennis match in slo-mo—looking out for Richie’s hand gesture one moment, and then for the lady’s paddle the next (she never seemed to raise hers way up, only with her right arm folded, discreetly and gracefully). Finally, the bidding ended at P63 million, and we never saw the lady raise her paddle again. She turned out to be Sheila Romero, and the guy beside her the Party list representative, Mikee, her husband. They are known collectors. She said their limit was at P50M, but Mikee wanted to continue. She said there was no question in their minds the Salcedo Auctions boceto was the real deal. Based on the pahid, Mikee said, it was a Luna.
Along with about 20 percent of the room, the Romeros made their way out as soon as the study was sold. There would have been louder cheering, we imagine, had the piece landed on the couple’s hands—if only because they were on site, as opposed to an unseen buyer on the phone. But that’s how auctions go. At the Pen lobby where air kisses are exchanged as well as whispers, we bumped into a couple of friends who expected the last price to go beyond a hundred million; P63M was just a bit low, they said, considering it’s a Luna—or at least what appears now to be one. On Facebook, the Lermas happily posed with the artwork perhaps for the last time. At P63 million—P73.5 million after taxes and buyer’s premium—it is the highest price ever achieved for a Juan Luna painting in the artist's own country. But will we ever see the boceto again? Will the greater public?