Laya in front of "A Year of Faith" by HR Ocampo, 1973. Photograph by Berwin Coroza
Culture Art

What draws collector Jaime Laya to an object? "If it evokes a nice memory."

For the banker and known collector of portraits and antiques, it seems every acquisition he's made is made more special by the narrative attached to it 
Jerome Gomez | Sep 28 2018

One supposes a little competitive streak is necessary to become a formidable collector—the better to get one's hands first on that coveted rare master work. Except there seems to be none of that when Dr. Jaime C. Laya talks about the wealth of things he's gathered over the decades. One imagines him leisurely antiquing in old Ermita on a Sunday, or walking home from school and happily chancing upon a find in a sidewalk kariton—which is how, in Florence circa July 1966, he found a 1785 Philippine map that was printed in Venice. He was able to bring it home for the equivalent of ten US dollars at that time, bought from an old man who kept his engravings in a pushcart.

“What I collect are basically objects that represent aspects of our history, not necessarily paintings alone,” says Laya as he sits in the middle of a gallery at the Yuchengco Museum, surrounded by pieces from his wealth of works by National Artists (the show is part of a series on collectors). The current chair of Philtrust Bank and one time Dean of the the U.P. College of Business Administation collects books and paintings primarily, along with a sprinkling of other things, “some valuable, many are not.” It's hard to tell if the man is kidding or not; his face and delivery is deadpan, and his gestures are as frugal as the movements of his well-pressed long-sleeeved polo barong. But back to the assortment of objects he's acquirds: two or three anitos, rare salakots, old photographs, a 700-year old burial jar from Mindanao, textiles (he has a trunkful of pinya cloth), santos, and maps. He recently got into collecting bululs—just six months ago it started but already he has accumulated 15.

Laya's refuge where much of his varied collections are kept. From the book Hidden Treasures, Simple Pleasures. 

It is not, however, numbers Laya is most interested in. He is interested in memories, in history, in stories. Does the fact that both his parents were educators—his father taught English, his mother history—have something to do with it? 

This predilection for back stories and recollections is apparent in his most recent acquisition: an old aparador. The piece of furniture might be, at first glance, very ordinary-looking—even Laya says so—but it evoked the appearance of his grandmother's aparador, a fragment of memory from his boyhood. (Laya found the chest in, of all places, Facebook).

The same predilection is apparent, too, in a sleek book he put together with his two collector friends, “Hidden Treasures, Simple Pleasures,” a glossy documentation of favorite pieces from their varied acquisitions. Along with the pictures of each piece, Laya writes about their story, its history and how he acquired it. A watercolor of a farm scene from the 1850s which he kept track of until it finally landed on his lap in the 80s. A stoneware dish that he asked the artist Ang Kiukok to add his magic to; it reminds Laya of how meager his salary was as a UP assistant professor, which made it impossible for him to acquire the sort of top-class ceramics that the likes of Leandro Locsin and Roberto Villanueva were acquiring. A portrait of his family done by Carlos Valino holds pride of place in one of the coffee table book's pages. It is the result of Sunday sittings that took not only months but years. “When he began,” Laya wrote, “we only had our eldest…Then the second was born so he was painted in. The third followed two years later. She’s the baby painted over the handbag that was originally in my wife’s lap.” Valino knew it was time to finish the portrait when signs that the fourth child was on its way, “or it would look as if our third and fourth were twins.” The man lets out a mild laughter.

Carlos Valino's portrait of the Layas. From the book Hidden Treasures, Simple Pleasures.

It was probably a shoebox full of used and stamped envelopes, a childhood gift from his father, that unknowingly started Laya’s career as a collector. He first got into stamps and coins, and then as a graduate student in California, the second-hand shops opened a whole new world of objects that would consume him.

The first painting he owned was for his office at the UP. He wanted something for his wall and so he made a trip to Mabini and went inside the store of Cesar Buenaventura where he bought a work for thirty pesos (“Ngayon pala P30,000 na ‘yon.”). His second painting would be a little more valuable: an Amorsolo, a wedding gift from his mother. The piece depicted an image of farmers at dusk having supper. “Nilakad ng nanay ko kay Mrs. Amorsolo," offers Laya. "So it was a gift from Mrs. Amorsolo, actually—magpinsan sila eh.”

Every piece, it seems, in Laya's collection has a narrative behind it. Like Jaime de Guzman's "She Sells Seashells by The Seashore." In 1992, the architect Tina Turalba gave Laya's daughter some seashells bought from a vendor in Apo Island. A few days later, on an invitation to look at de Guzman's works, Laya would find out the woman in one of the paintings was the same vendor who sold the seashells."  Like H.R. Ocampo's "Sampayan," inspired by a picture the artist took of his backyard clothesline. He showed the picture to Laya and the doctor asked if he could paint the image in warm colors. "Mang Nanding would ask if a client wanted a painting vertical or horizontal, in warm or cool colors and in what size, and he would go from there," the collector recalls. 

Laya is one of a few people who collects portraits. Undated and unsigned portrait of Don Desiderio de Belen, attributed to Eugenio Lopez.

When Laya was serving as Minister of Budget, Governor of Central Bank and Action Officer of the Intramuros Administration during the Marcos years, he delighted in buying art for said institutions. In the aforementioned book, he wrote, “To paraphrase Thomas Hoving, New York’s Metropolitan Museum Director, spending other people’s money is a true delight even if what one buys ends up elsewhere. I enjoyed buying things that I could not afford—for the Intramuros Administration (santos and Spanish colonial period artifacts), for the National Museum (an entire Bohol church retablo, one of the museum’s treasures), and for the Central Bank (art, pre-Hispanic gold and numismatics).” While his predecessor at Central Bank already had Amorsolos acquired for the institution, Laya is known to have tremendously improved the quality of the agency's collection. Although the most he would say about that time and his contribution is a modest “I was happy to be part of it.”

Does he get competitive with other collectors? “How can you compete with Paulino and Butch Campos?” he says with deadpan face. “Some compete with each other, some don’t." He does get envious, but he knows how to let go. "Nasa kanya na eh," he adds, matter-of-factly. "In my case, I just focus on other things they may not be interested in. Like nung araw hindi sila interested sa jewelry, so magaganda ‘yung sa akin.”

Click on the image below for slideshow

Vicente Manansala's "Candle Vendors" from 1976

"A Year of Faith" by HR Ocampo 

Fernando Amorsolo's "Supper In The Fields," a wedding gift to Laya and his wife in 1966.

Bencab's "Fishing Village," an oil on canvas work from 1964.

Victorio Edades's "Nude" from 1976

A 1785 Philippine map printed in Venice

Anita Magsaysay Ho's "Galapong" found in a shop in Mabini‚Äč.

Emmanuel Garibay's "Disco sa Kalye" is said to depict the last party of a Las Pinas neighborhood before it was demolished.

Jaime de Guzman's "She Sells Seashells by The Seashore"

H.R. Ocampo's "Sampayan" was inspired by a photograph the artist took of his backyard clothesline. 

Decades into the practice of collecting, it remains a mystery to Laya what exactly attracts him to a particular object enough to work on claiming it for himself. It may be an emotional and intellectual attraction, he says. “If I see something that looks nice,” he adds. “If it evokes a nice memory. If it’s something that looks better than something else. If it’s something you had in mind for a long time."


Photographs by Berwin Coroza

This story originally appeared in the Luxury Issue of Metro Society 2018