Photograph by Joseph Pascual

ANCXclusive: Inside Julius Babao's Casa Uccello, the news anchor's art-filled home

Mr. Babao, how to be you po?
Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta | Nov 16 2018

I would, in a nanosecond, watch an art show that Julius Babao was hosting. Not just because he’s articulate, charming, and knowledgeable about the art market, but because, more than anything, Mr. Babao cares. He cares about art (that’s a given), but he also cares about the artist (which is not a given, but should be). Given his appeal to a mass audience, and the years he’s spent entrenched in the art scene, we expect Mr. Babao to be almost blasé about the art world, and even mainstream in his tastes—but his art collection is as diverse as they come: Venturas and Javiers, yes, but also pop toys and superheroes. His home itself, christened Casa Uccello because it's shaped like a bird, is a work of art, but that’s another story.

The Babao living room showcases a sweep of art, from paintings, to sculptures and pop art toys, among them works by Elmer Borlongan, Jose Santos III and Leslie de Chavez.

Before the upsurge in the local art market, which we can trace roughly to the second decade of the new millennium when local auction houses promoted their own talents, and local bankers and traders decided that local art could be a good investment, Mr. Babao had already been collecting art for more than a decade. “Oh, it started in 1997-98, around that time,” he says, “the landscape changed when the auction houses came into the picture.”

But in 1997 or in 1998, Mr. Babao hadn’t yet made his fortune, and hadn’t yet become a household name. He was just starting out in ABS-CBN. He was scouring Megamall galleries, devouring Olmedos he couldn’t yet afford, and was settling for Olmedo wannabes because those he could actually spring for. “I was walking along the Art Walk in SM, and I was amazed by Olmedo’s artworks, [They were] expressionist, very strong ‘yung mga subjects, and he used pastel on felt,” he says, “so it was different. But before that, I didn’t know anything about art collecting. So I asked the gallery manager how much the painting was, and he told me it was about 40,000 pesos, and I was just starting out in ABS-CBN, and I couldn’t afford it. So sabi ko, ‘maybe someday I could afford an Onib. Someday, but not now.’”

“Pepper” by Austrian-Irish visual painter Gottfried Helnwein, one of the most treasured pieces in the Babao collection

Fate has a funny way of working out, and Mr. Babao now owns about 500 works of art—everything ranging from current masters to trendy masters of the day. If local bankers and traders assessed his collection, they’d be weak-kneed. It appears that he knew what would make it big, even before the art market knew it. And the underlying principle behind his collection was simply this: an all-consuming love for art.

“Ako kasi, the advice that was always given to me when I was starting out is to buy paintings that I liked, paintings that I’m attracted to, not for the investment value. But nowadays, kasi, because of the auctions, the prices of artworks are going up, the focus now is being concentrated on the arts, with many young collectors and older businessmen buying art because of investment [purposes].”

White/Black by Nona Garcia
A Yayoi Kusama artwork lords it over artbooks in the living room.

Mr. Babao adds that a lot of collectors don’t necessarily know what art is, and don’t necessarily understand the artworks— but because they’ve been told about their monetary value, artworks are seen as investments first and as expressive canvases second. “Nagbago na rin yung landscape ng art collecting since the auctions came in. But it’s good for the artists because, nowadays, artists can easily sell their paintings, unlike before na wala pang mga auctions, they would just sell in art galleries; of course, they could sell their artworks, but not for as much as the prices they are selling for now,” he offers amiably.

And there’s also the cult of personality to consider, and about how sometimes it’s the person that sells the art, and not the artwork.  “I’ve known of many young artists na wala pa sila talagang masyadong shows, but their works are being sold for almost the same price as the senior artists because there’s hype that collectors are collecting their artworks, and they like story of the person—not just the artwork, but the person. Gan’on. So may hype na ngayon sa art. Kaya suerte ‘yung mga young artists now because they can easily sell their artworks.”

Julius half-reclines on a chair in his storeroom. Facing him is Hari Sonik, an iconic art toy by Elmer Borlongan

Nowadays, Mr. Babao can pretty much have any artwork from any local artist. He can state a desire and most impresarios will ask their stable of artists what they can provide for Mr. Babao, and when. As with men of his calibre, earning power, and influence, he can get pretty much what he wants, when he wants. He doesn’t need to go to art galleries, he can have the art delivered to his doorstep—which isn’t necessarily the tack he wants to take, but the art market is fickle that way. All impresarios need do, really, is tell their artists that Mr. Babao wants their work, and they’ll bring their work to him, post-haste, no delay. They shouldn’t forget that Mr. Babao isn’t so shallow as that and that he’s interested more in the art than in patronage, although he’s helped more than his fair share of struggling artists—something that’s paid off in the long run.

“So may mga works ako ng mga artists na hindi pa sila ganun ka-famous, but they’re famous now. Gano’n,” he says, “And their works appreciated na through the years, and some I bought because basically may mga kailangan na mag-unload ng madamihang​ works because they needed money, so I would buy art just to help that person. And luckily, siguro sa dami ng mga artworks na nabili ko, mas marami sa kanila yung​ nag-upgrade yung value. I mean it’s not a lost investment at all. A lot of my artworks have appreciated in value and are now being collected by other collectors.”

Click on the image below for slideshow

Julius’ love for art is such that the collection spills over to the hallways 

A sweeping view of the living room with works by Elmer Borlongan, Jose Santos III and Leslie de Chavez 

Bululs flank a doorway, while an Ikea + Virgil Abloh collaboration is spread before the door

Julius by his staircase, about to lead into his trove of treasures 

Pop toys by renowned American artist Kaws line glass displays

More work by Kaws 

Flyboy by Hebru Brantley 

Origami cranes hang as centrepiece in the dining room

By Jose Santos III 

Portrait of Julius Babao by Luis Antonio Santos 

By Manok Ventura 

Hari Sonik by Elmer Borlongan 

Hindi Lang Pang-pamilya, Pang-towing pa by Elmer Borlongan

Kapit Tuko by Elmer Borlongan 

Revolucion Perpetua by Joven Mansit 

Temple of My Familiar by Geraldine Javier 

By Keb Cerda 

White Blank by Nona Garcia

Mr. Babao’s success story reminds me of that time I confessed my sins to an iconic Ateneo priest, and all he told me, besides saying three Hail Marys, was to purify my intentions. Which is an example that all collectors should follow when taking a page from the book of Julius Babao: purify your intentions. Love the art for its own sake, and wealth, fame, or whatever else your art collection is meant to give you—will follow. Take it from Julius Babao.


Photographs by Joseph Pascual 


You may also be interested in: