OPINION: Historical documents belong to the nation, not in private collections

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Important historical documents signed by historical figures such as Andres Bonifacio were auctioned off at León Gallery's Kingly Treasures Auction on Dec. 1. and were sold at ₱450,000. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The context is clear: it’s a state of affairs where historical facts are questioned, this time and place where unless an original document is surfaced, what we all know to be truth is deemed untrustworthy or invalid, or both. We are exasperated and exhausted. In the face of false news and alternative facts being repeated until it becomes true, one holds on to the hope that in the final analysis, what will hold water are documents, data, statistics.

And so it is the worst time to have to deal with one León Gallery selling historical artifacts and documents from its consignors, with no apologies and no shame — and worse, with pride at what they’re doing. Don’t forget the marketing blitz before the auction, and the token historian(s) who will justify the fact that this auction house is putting up history for sale.

And we’re not talking art as history. We’re talking historical documents, written artifacts about historical moments from which we continue to build our identity as a people, from which we gain understanding of who we are, what has happened, and where we might be going.

There is a difference between the auction of art and the auction of historical documents and artifacts. The former is the sale of collectibles, a matter of taste, heirlooms to hand down to the next generation, or symbols of an embarrassment of riches for the Imeldific elite.

The latter carries with it the weight of a nation’s making and unraveling, our collective sense of who we are as a people. These are documents that belong to the nation, that were kept in family vaults and handed down from one generation to the next by our forebears, not with the intent of profiting from these, but of contributing to national discourse at some point.

It is of course the state of national cultural and heritage affairs that has led us to this: where instead of descendants handing over these documents to government agencies with the goal of making these public, these are handed over to auction houses for sale to the highest bidder. But this falls squarely on auction houses like León Gallery, because there are many way to handle acquisitions like this one, so that Katipunan documents are not treated in the same way, are not put on the same level, as artworks for sale.

Certainly León Gallery owner Jaime Ponce De Leon can start by operating and speaking with less arrogance, and even less double-speak. We after all have enough of that coming from the president.

LG3.jpg A portion of the Naik Military Agreement signed by Andres Bonifacio. The document was also sold at León Gallery's Kingly Treasures auction. Photo from LEON GALLERY/FACEBOOK

Beyond the law

The art systems in this country go largely unchecked, and the auction system is the same. In a country where even cultural institutions are rarely questioned for how it spends its funds, and cultural workers have no real recourse in the face of oppressive anti-worker policies, the wealthy in the private sector can live generally free of accountability.

This does not make it right for any of them to speak with such belligerence, as if they are beyond reproach because they “comply with all laws, rules, and regulations.” This was how De Leon sounded when he responded to the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) request that the auction house hold off on offering historical documents for its Dec. 1 auction. The NHCP request is clear: give government time to procure these documents. It is not asking to acquire it for free. All it asks is time for government to put together a budget for its acquisition, given that the 2019 budget is already with the Senate.

De Leon’s response to this request is inexplicably defensive, taking offense as it does with what it called the “confiscatory nature of the citation of the law” that is the NHCP Charter. The NHCP had said that under its charter, they are empowered to “acquire important historical documents, collections, memorabilia and other objects that have significant historical value.”

Nowhere in the NHCP Charter are they allowed to “confiscate” any property, and neither does the power to confiscate cultural artifacts from private ownership exist in the Cultural Heritage Act. This is precisely why Leon Gallery can get away with selling historical artifacts and documents — these laws have no teeth. These depend on the cooperation of the private sector with government offices, these depend on the private owners’ sense of civic duty, on their sense of patriotism, to turn over these documents and artifacts to nation. Cooperation is not required, but it is hoped for. And this is why the arrogance of De Leon’s response is uncalled for.

It is also worth noting that in a Nov. 28 news article, De Leon seemed to take the request of the NHCP well: “Ponce de Leon says he will relay the government’s request to the sellers, but ultimately the decision rests with those who own the historic pieces.” But a day after, in a Nov. 29 article, his tone had changed: claiming “confiscatory nature” and “undue taking of property without just compensation.”

De Leon also said: “We must (however) decline to exclude certain memorabilia from our auctions for an undetermined period of time for the following reasons: we were not given adequate notice of these memorabilia being cultural properties nor the need of registration (we submit that notice is a basic requirement of due process).”

What happened in a span of a day? Was it a conversation with the consignors, or his lawyers? Was it the realization that the auction house stands to lose so much profit from the sale of these documents? Was it the realization that he could use this mileage to get an even higher final bid on these documents — might as well use a controversy to one’s advantage?

Or was it simply the realization that, in fact, there is something fundamentally wrong with what they are doing, seeing these historical national documents as nothing more but products to be sold, lots in an auction catalogue, marketed to the country’s wealthiest?

Ah, but that would mean I’m giving this auction house the benefit of a conscience.

‘Pieces from our history should after all never be treated as pieces owned, but as relics that should be turned over to the nation.’

Spinning these sales

What might be the most distasteful part of this whole crisis — and this is what the auction of historical documents actually is — is how León Gallery spins this activity into something that is beneficial for nation.

In September this year, when the Bonifacio flag was auctioned off along with other historical documents, León Gallery claimed this was a “triumph of Philippine history.” According to De Leon: “I am privileged to say that the great public interest — and the high prices — in the León Gallery historical auctions have brought so many of these fantastic documents and objects out at last from the closed doors and bank vaults of a few collectors.”

In the Nov. 29 article, De Leon continued this spin: “Just like in the last auction, there were some documents that no one knew existed, so if not for that, there are a lot of pieces of a puzzle in the last century that would have been lost because we didn't know of their existence. Actually the discovery would not have been made if not out of the enticement of a sale.”

What these statements from De Leon evades is the fact that these documents are surfacing from private collections only to be transferred to other private collections — an anonymous new owner, and not necessarily Filipino — as facilitated by an auction house that earns from this transaction. What De Leon is doing is spinning this sale as a contribution to nation, because the gallery allows historians access to these documents as it passes through their space. What De Leon wants us to believe is a narrative in which León Gallery is practically a hero for surfacing these documents, and in which its rich patrons are heroes too for spending on the restoration and preservation of these artifacts.

What De Leon erases here is the fact that in this transaction, historical documents are seen as nothing more but products to be sold at a market, acquisitions that hold no other meaning than the price tag attached to it. Sure everything’s legal. But that doesn’t make this practice any less abhorrent.

The only thing more disgraceful here are the historians themselves who have decided there is nothing wrong with this enterprise. Namedropped since the September auction by De Leon himself, Ambeth Ocampo had said of the September auction: “Some well-meaning but misguided social media posts suggest that all historical documents should be in museums, which already have more than they can handle. Auctions have drawn these items from hiding. Let the collectors preserve the expensive deteriorating originals; historians just need the content from a high-resolution scan.”

It is unclear why Ocampo would think us misguided at all for demanding that these documents be turned over or sold to institutions that would make it publicly accessible. Though the bigger question is why he would stand idly by as historical documents are sold to the highest bidders, never mind that these might again be hidden from the public, never mind that it arguably becomes — as with all art — something that promises not much else but a return on investment. Unsurprisingly, that line about “high resolution scans” has been used by De Leon in defending the auction of these artifacts: “Ponce de Leon said historian and Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo, himself a former chair of the NHCP, had said that government did not need the original documents, ‘but the facsimile copies should suffice.’”

But are these facsimiles even being given to pertinent government agencies, to university libraries, or just uploaded online to be freely accessed by all Filipinos? Are these documents ever even made public, even just in terms of digital scans, before these go back into private vaults?

And why does León Gallery pride itself in providing historians access to these documents? They presume that we trust these historians who are so privileged by the auction house. But what if we don’t trust these historians? After all, why should we trust someone like Ocampo to interpret these historical documents for us, when he himself doesn’t care to give us access, doesn’t fight for the public’s right to these historical documents?

The answer is: we shouldn’t.

LG2.jpg A portion of Lot 118 at León Gallery's Kingly Treasures Auction. This was part of a document signed by General Artemio Ricarte. Photo from LEON GALLERY/FACEBOOK

Custodianship vs ownership

Sadly, what we are proving here is that we cannot expect civic duty or a sense of nation to operate, not when millions of pesos in profits are at stake. We can’t expect it of an auction house like León Gallery, and not of people like Jaime Ponce De Leon. And apparently, we can’t expect it of historians like Ambeth Ocampo who is happy enough that he has access, never mind the rest of us.

Sadly too, we are at a time and place when there’s barely enough time to keep track of what government is doing, so that arts and culture must but take a back seat. In the process what is unfolding before us is the normalization of the process by which our history can be auctioned off, with De Leon ferreting out historical documents, based on not much else but the amount it will bring.

There are many ways to handle artifacts such as these. León Gallery could simply facilitate a transaction between private consignors and government institutions, so that the latter might acquire these documents at a price that can be included in the national budget. León Gallery could decide not to put these documents up for auction, and instead assist cultural institutions in raising the funds to actually acquire these from private owners.

Auction house owners like De Leon and historians like Ocampo can be the ones to speak to those who have inherited these historical documents and artifacts, and explain to them that they are not so much owners, as they are custodians. These pieces from our history should after all never be treated as pieces owned, but as relics that should be turned over to the nation that fueled it into existence.

Of course this is being overly optimistic about people like De Leon and Ocampo, who are obviously happy enough with this status quo. What one banks on though is the amount of criticism this enterprise continues to generate, and the kind of backlash auction houses like this one should receive from the cultural sector it purportedly serves. As with nation, the wait need not be a long one.