The controversy over Carlos “Botong” Francisco’s ‘Camote Diggers’, just like the painting itself, is yet unfinished.
Painted by the National Artist before his passing in 1969, it recently resurfaced in the last auction of Leon Gallery—which sparked the controversy.
The work, though unfinished, is regarded as an important piece of art. The artist succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 57, before he could finish the painting. The image portrays the hardships of Filipinos in their grinding poverty—a stark contrast to Botong’s murals which depict larger than life images of our mythical heroes.
The work, which once hung in a room next to the study of former President Ferdinand Marcos in Malacañan, was the object of a tug of war among three parties: 1) the heirs of the National Artist, 2) the painting’s purported rightful owner—who consigned it for auction—and 3) the auction house which sold the ‘Camote Diggers’ last Saturday. The consignor has since cancelled the sale and is instead donating the contested work to a museum.
But the story isn’t over.
The heirs of Botong are asking for the intervention of the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts or NCCA. They are seeking the government agency’s assistance in ensuring that the painting is donated to a public national institution. In a letter addressed to Virgilio Almario, Chair of the NCCA, the heirs said through their lawyer, Attorney Arnel Valeña, “that it is best donated to the Filipino people in the care of the NCCA.”
Last weekend, the last ‘Botong’ painting, as it has come to be known, fetched PhP 23.4 million (inclusive of buyer’s premium) at the León Gallery’s Spectacular Mid-Year Auction. But at the eleventh hour before the scheduled sale, the auction house received a letter from the heirs of Botong, inquiring as to how it had come to possession of the work. In the letter, the counsel of the heirs said the painting should be in Malacañan, having been given as a “present, a gift as a way of thanking the government thru the Marcoses for all the support given to their family through the years.”
The heirs also wrote the former First Lady, now Congresswoman Imelda Marcos, enclosing a newspaper article with a photo of Botong’s widow Rosalina presenting the unfinished painting to then First Lady Imelda. In the letter, their counsel asks, “Was the painting stolen from Malacañang?” Atty. Valeña also mentioned in the letter that the family tried to get information from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the Yuchengco Museum where the painting was previously exhibited but was unable to get any, “despite their best efforts.”
The consignor, who described himself as a ‘casual collector,’ said a friend called him and asked if he was interested in the last painting of Botong. The consignor said he was only vaguely familiar with the work at the time, recalling that his memory of the work was only based from having seen it in a book. But to be sure of its provenance, he contacted a Blue Lady—a member of the group of socialites that surrounded Imelda during her years in Malacañan—to check if the former First Lady had bought the work. When Imelda’s answer was no, he then purchased the work for PhP 500,000. The consignor says the possibility of it being “donated” didn’t occur to him then.
The consignor loaned the ‘Camote Diggers’ and other works to the Yuchengco Museum from 2011, until its consignment to Leon Gallery this year. The consignor said, since the “art market is good,” he decided to put the work up for auction.
It was confirmed to ANCX by the Yuchengco Museum that Botong’s work was part of a rotating exhibition of various National Artists. It was also disclosed that they received no inquiries from heirs of the Francisco family about the work during this period. As for its supposed exhibition at the BSP, as asserted by Francisco’s heirs in their letter to Mrs Marcos, ANCX learned that the ‘Camote Diggers’ was never in the possession of the financial institution.
The consignor says that before the auction, he was called by Jaime Ponce de Leon, the director of Leon Gallery, and was told that the Francisco family, according to their lawyer, wanted PhP 5M as their “share of the auction proceeds.”
The supposed PhP 5M demand, according to Attorney Tonico Manahan, Leon Gallery’s counsel, was brought up by the Francisco family’s counsel in a phone conversation with Leon’s Jaime Ponce de Leon. “Jaime wanted the sale to push through. At that point the consigner didn’t want to push through and wanted it withdrawn. Because in the art world, there is such a thing as a defamation of an art piece, so Jaime asked (the Francisco family’s counsel) , ‘How can we appease you?’” The auction house was concerned because the issue was about ownership and title. Manahan asserted such damaging claims can affect the work’s reputation permanently. “When an art piece is defamed, that art piece goes with it forever with what happens.”
Atty. Valeña admitted quoting PhP 5 million, but clarifies in a text message to ANCX, “I did say PhP 5M just to throw a figure in the air. To be clear this was not for the family. This was for a foundation, which was what De Leon [Leon Gallery Director] said the consignor offered, to buy peace and appease the family but not to insult them. I never said the money would be given to the family, as the consignor is implying.”
Atty Manahan told ANCX the counsel for the family had many outlandish demands. “As far as we know, there has never been a declaration of this painting as government property, hence the sale pushed through. He would say it’s not about the money, it’s not about the publicity, it’s about the painting and it reverting back to the people of the Philippines. So not only did he want a sum of money, he also wanted to attach conditions to the sale. He wanted it paraded somewhere, published somewhere. I don’t recall where,” Manahan said.
Atty. Valeña stressed their demands were “not at all outlandish- the Php 5M was to be donated to a Foundation, and that the buyer will loan the painting to Malacanang for a fixed number of years. After that, De Leon said they would just withdraw the painting from the auction. However, they did not withdraw the painting."
Leon Gallery has been at the forefront of featuring astounding Philippine art in its auctions and is no stranger to controversy. About his adamance to sell the ‘Camote Diggers,’ De Leon told ANCX, “This is a famous painting. Every single serious collector in the Philippines would know this painting. This has been in the Yuchengco Museum for 10 years, this has been published in books, this has been everywhere. Every collector would know how this was acquired. It had something to do with Malacañang but it was also known among everybody that it had the consent of Mrs. Marcos. Before the consigner acquired it I think he asked for the consent, and Mrs. Marcos apparently said yes. Even Irene [Marcos] confirmed at lunch, and Irene is aware.” He quoted Imelda’s daughter as saying, “The consigner has all the right to that, mommy said okay.” We sent Irene messages through a friend to confirm De Leon’s claim but we have yet to receive her reply.
The consignor could legally walk away with his estimated PhP 21M proceeds, having been assured by his lawyer that it is rightfully his, but according to De Leon, “due to the noise that happened immediately after the sale,” the consigner raised the idea that he’d rather donate the painting. “So I had to speak to the buyer because it was technically bought already, it already passed through us,” continued De Leon. “I told the buyer that this is the scenario now and there might be a problem when you get hold of the painting, not legally but...” he waves his hands implying the trouble caused by the social media commentary but not completing his sentence and is quick to stress, “not legally because the consigner was resolute on his stand about his ownership.”
De Leon then bewailed that the whole situation has been politicized. “This time if you look at the comments on Facebook, there are pro-Marcos, anti-Marcos. To other people also, it’s war booty. If you go to major museums in Europe, everything is from the palaces, for instance the home of the Duke of Wellington, the palaces of Spain. If you go to the Louvre, they’re all from the palaces of all the countries that they’re from.”
The consignor confesses he was in a quandary after the work fetched a whopping PhP 23.4M at last week’s auction. But the “tipping point” came when he saw the photograph of Botong’s widow Rosalina presenting the ‘Camote Diggers’ to then President Marcos and the First Lady. He then made up his mind to rescind the sale. He has taken the recent events philosophically, downplaying his loss. “I’ve learned not to kill the hen before the eggs are hatched.” He said he has not yet made up his mind where to donate the contested “Camote Diggers” and will weigh his decision carefully.