Auction star and/or museum piece?

Published December 6, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

Auction prices of paintings have reached astronomical levels. A BenCab was estimated to go for ₱16-18 million in the Nov. 27 “Under the Tree” at Salcedo Auctions and the other day at Leon Gallery, bidding began at ₱12 million for an H.R. Ocampo and ₱22 million for an Anita Magsaysay-Ho.  

The incredible prices prompted media star Ces Drilon to organize an ANCX discussion on the topic, “Is an auction star also a museum piece.” The question begets others: “Are works that do well at auction museum-worthy?” and the opposite, “Do museum-quality works fetch high auction prices?” For the investment-minded, “Will I make a profit if I later decide to sell? And at the end of the day, “Do all works hanging in museums deserve to be there?” and “What is a good work and what is not?”

Ateneo Professor and art enthusiast Leo M. Garcia, big-time contemporary art collector Dr. Rico Quimbo, and your columnist gave their two cents’ worth on the topic.

High Values at Leon Gallery Auction: “Fish Vendors” by Anita Magsaysay-Ho

Are works that do well at auction museum-worthy?

Not all.  Eager bidders are differently motivated. The frenemy of that matrona has an Amorsolo so she wants a larger one. See the man in dark glasses, he has loads of mystery cash he wants transformed into an explainable asset. And that hottie, her designer says her condo needs a painting in blue and she wants her friends to say “Wow, that must be worth zillions!”  So her sugar daddy outbids everyone for a large painting in blue signed by a National Artist but in fact could have been done by a house painter.  And that guy—he’s into history so he’s planning to throw his life savings on the Justiniano Asuncion Tipos del Pais (starting bid ₱5 million).  

Quality is a matter of opinion but status is clear if the painting is on the auction catalogue cover and/or is a “book piece,” i.e. illustrated in an art book. A glowing catalogue description could do wonders, something like, “The rare Don Fabian portrait of the super-rich Bicolana Doña Buding in the saya of emerald Lyon silk she wore while flirting with Jose Rizal.”

Artists have their off days too and sometimes produce works that they are later ashamed of. They may have been broke and dashed off something quick for a few pesos. Dr. Quimbo disclosed that a now famous artist painted something really awful when he was young and hungry. The artist had learned that Quimbo had the work and wanted to buy it back. The doctor turned him down saying he had no intention of selling it anyway.

High Values at Leon Gallery Auction: “Mutants” by H.R. Ocampo

Do museum-quality works fetch high auction prices?

The really good ones do, although they tend to go to private collectors and not to museums. The big collectors and dealers know art history and have an idea of what is and what is not museum-quality. Just the same, top works sometimes escape detection and go for a song.

“Sleepers” do come up, excellent but unappreciated works. By coincidence, Leo Garcia and I separately recognized on different occasions, beautiful Juan Arellanos that no one wanted.  They were unsold and we both got them afterwards, cheap.

Will I make a profit if I later decide to sell?

It’s not predictable.  

In the early 1970s when I began to be interested in paintings, HR Ocampos, Manansalas. Amorsolos, and Malangs cost about ₱2,000 per (which was about my monthly salary then, incidentally). Angelito Antonios, Antonio Austrias, and Norma Bellezas that I also liked went for about ₱600. HRs at al have reached the stratosphere but Antonios, Austrias, and Bellezas have not.  

Tastes change. The so-called Mabini artists were once snubbed but some are now in high demand. For decades, Amorsolos were cheap—would you believe ₱60,000 in the mid-’80s. My friend Monchet Lucas once organized a Ronald Ventura exhibit in Malabon. What I spent on take-home pancit could have bought me one.  

It also works the other way around. A promising artist may decide he’d rather be on stage, and gives up painting. A fashionable artist could keep on painting the same way and people get tired. Down goes the value of their works. 

Do all works hanging in museums deserve to be there?

The three panelists agreed that some auction stars did not deserve to be in a museum. A known name may entice bidders, but not all top name works are worthwhile. The artist could have been experimenting on a new style or groping his way into a new period. What developed into excellence at a later stage of that period might have had early on flat colors, uninspired brushwork, poor technique, and/or unclear intention.

Museums have the right to accept or reject donations and of those accepted, the right to exhibit or to hide in storage. Some take the easy way out and accept anything, thereby failing in their objective to help develop taste and to guide younger artists. They also mislead the public and the international community as to the quality of Philippine art.

If short of masterpieces, a museum can borrow great works from private collectors for temporary exhibits, attract long-term loans, and seek inclusion in a collector’s last will and testament.

“What is a good work and what is not?”

Time was when art work was representational—images of saints, incidents in the lives of saints, historical events, classical mythology, landscapes. Then, one looked at composition, color, anatomy, perspective, facial expression, and the like. How successfully the artist depicted reality in two- or three- dimensional form was the test.

When rules changed and artists painted their impressions, or expressed themselves in paint, stone, assembled objects, sound and light, virtually, and whatever else, how does one distinguish between gold and junk?

Ces Drilon and the panelists left this question up to the viewer.  

Note:  Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold in 2017 for $450 million or almost ₱23 billion. That’s more than one-third of our 2021 national defense budget. Juan Luna’s España Guiando a Filipinas fetched HK$25.88 million or $3.3 million in a 2013 Hong Kong Sotheby’s auction. That’s ₱167 million at today’s exchange rate.  

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