Lost and Found: The incredible journey of the Juan Luna bust by Mariano Benlliure

The mystery behind a rare sculpture of the daredevil artist and revolutionary

Screenshot 2023-09-10 at 10.26.11 PM.jpg
Juan Luna’s bronze bust, (left) casted from a mold made by Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure in 1884. IMAGE : Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions. Luna returned the favor to paint Benlliure’s portrait (right). IMAGE: Courtesy of Fundación Mariano Benlliure

Words by Devi De Veyra

According to records, a junk collector presumably picked a metal bust amid the Second World War’s rubble sometime in the 1940s. He probably didn’t think anything of the two names inscribed on it: M. (for Mariano) Benlliure at the nape, and on the base in front, Juan Luna Y Novicio. The bust was sold for P5.00 to a magbabakal or junk dealer.

The Filipinas Heritage Library catalogs a similar bust with identical dimensions, noting a similar account of the piece “being found by a pushcart vendor.” In their version of the story, however, it wasn’t a "magbababakal" who bought the piece, but someone who undoubtedly recognized the names and who appreciated the artistry of the bust - Ireneo Cristobal, a carver of Taller de Escultura in Manila.

It’s a story worthy of a Netflix series, starting with the friendship between the bust’s creator, the Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure, and Juan Luna who met in Rome when the latter was apprenticing under Alejo Vera.

Luna (far left) with friends (front row, left to right) Pedro Paterno,Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo,  Miguel Zaragoza; (back row, left to right) Juan Antonio Benlliure, Juan Jose Puerto Villanueva,Mariano Benlliure, c. 1883 - 84. IMAGE: Courtesy of Fundación Mariano Benlliure

Mariano and his brother, Juan Antonio (also an artist) were "pensionados," who, through Luna, became friends with other Filipino expats in Europe, including Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. All four showed promise, as seen in their triumphant outing at Madrid’s 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes. 

There, Luna gained the First Class Medal for Spoliarium, with Hidalgo getting a silver for Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho. Juan Antonio’s De él Por la Patria and Mariano’s sculpture "Accident!," on the other hand, were awarded Second Class Medals. It was in the same year when Mariano molded a bust of Luna.  

The war-damaged Legislative Building as it appeared in Life Magazine.  

Records show that thirty-eight years after the creation of the mold, the Consul General of Spain, Vicente Palmori, commissioned the Benlliure brothers to create Luna memorabilia for the American Gov. Gen. Leonard Wood. Juan Antonio’s copy of the Spoliarium was displayed at the Legislative Building, while Mariano’s bronze Luna bust was exhibited at Quiapo’s Philippine Library and Museum, before being transferred to the National Library. Both works were lost during the Battle of Manila in 1945.

According to records, Ireneo Cristobal, a sculptor of Taller de Escultura in Manila, bought the Juan Luna bust from a junk collector for P5.00.

Salcedo Auctions can’t ascertain if the mambabakal or push cart vendor sold the same bust gifted to Wood, or if the same piece was transacted between Cristobal and its next owner, the artist and antiques store proprietor Elsie “Inday” Cadapan. But the Mariano Benlliure Foundation has recently confirmed the authenticity of the piece - one of only two known and acknowledged busts of Luna by Mariano, the other one being a painted plaster version that’s part of the UST Museum’s collection.

Cadapan eventually sold the bust to its present owner, East Asia Corporation for Antiques and Antiquities (an affiliate of Multinational Investment Bancorporation, now MIB Capital Corporation) in 1979. This year, the company has decided to open its vault to offer the storied piece at Salcedo Auctions’ The Well-Appointed Life live and online auction on Sept. 16, joining other stellar pieces  such as works by National Artists Carlos ‘Botong’ Francisco, Ang Kiukok, Jose Joya, J. Elizalde Navarro, BenCab, and H.R Ocampo; as well as masterpieces by Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Juvenal Sansó, Fernando Zobel, and Betsy Westendorp, among others.

The bust is an exquisite output from Benlliure which deftly captures the nuances of Luna’s character. “Mukhang umbagero,” exclaims a Cebuano power publicist, though filmmaker Dean Marcial thinks otherwise, saying “It feels softer than later representations maybe because of the artist’s relationship with his subject.” “He is so indio pala,” says a society swan. For artist Dex Fernandez, all that  makes the bust so appealing: “Ang hot nya.”  Its historic significance is most poignant, a tender token of a friendship forged in a time of escalating conflicts between Spain and the Philippines. It is also proof of Benlliure’s supreme skill in immortalizing a daredevil artist and revolutionary.

JL bust back.jpeg
The bust’s nape bears the artist’s signature as well as the date and location of its molding.IMAGE: Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions

The Well-Appointed Life live and online auction takes place on September, starting at 2 p.m., with previews from Sept. 8 - 15 at Salcedo Auctions (NEX Tower 6786 Ayala Avenue, Makati City), 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. (Tuesdays to Fridays), 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Interested parties can view the catalogue and register to bid at salcedoauctions.com.