An earlier version of the ‘Spoliarium’ is up for auction. But is it real?

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The value of this 1883 boceto, which measures 74 x 144.5 cm, is in the unravelling of the origins of the “Spoliarium,” which can contribute to a fuller understanding of one of the country’s most important artists, Juan Luna. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Spoliarium,” the largest painting in the Philippines and a national treasure, has an earlier version. Or so we think for now.

A boceto, or a “sketch” that serves as a guide for an artist before completing a piece, of Juan Luna's obra maestra is now at the hands of Salcedo Auctions, where the piece will be auctioned off in September.

Richie Lerma, the director of Salcedo Auctions, shares that detailed photographs of the copy were sent to them via email earlier this year. At initial glance, he doubted it as there was a stark difference, especially in color, from the finished “Spoliarium” — the most apparent being the grieving woman on the right hand corner.

In the final piece, the woman is barely seen, but the boceto displays her wearing a dress in Aegean blue, a color that is also prominently found in Luna’s later paintings, such as his “¿A Do...Va la Nave?”

But it was Luna’s signature at the bottom right hand corner of the 1883 boceto that urged Lerma to investigate further.

“When you take a look at the particular painting, the manner in which the artist signed it is unhesitating. If somebody were to copy the painting, it would be more studied,” he explains. “The ‘R’ is very telling; it’s the same ‘R’ of the word ‘Roma’ in the 1884 ‘Spoliarium.’”

boceto signature.jpg “When you take a look at the particular painting, the manner in which the artist signed it is unhesitating,” says Richie Lerma, the director of Salcedo Auctions. There is also a baybayin script beside Juan Luna's signature that all the more strengthened Lerma's hypothesis of the boceto's authenticity. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

There is also a baybayin script inscribed next to Luna’s signature that reinforced his hypothesis.

He added that historian Ambeth Ocampo’s essay in the catalogue during the Raden Saleh and Juan Luna show in the National Gallery Singapore says that there are other works that bear the same baybayin.

“It represented the Ilocano manner of referring to the moon,” he shares. “Moon in Spanish being Luna, so this was I suppose like a symbol of Luna spelling out his name, being proud of the fact that Filipinos had their own native alphabet.”

Lerma shares that after several exchanges with the European collector who wants to remain anonymous, he flew to meet him in Europe. The collector, to Lerma’s surprise, also had a Félix Resurrección Hidalgo piece, “La Pintura,” that he’s also never seen before. Lerma was eventually led to Sárria, a small town in the northwest of Spain, where they found even more provenance of this earlier “Spoliarium.”

From there, they traced the journey of the pieces, and found that both were in fact, as presented in written record, exhibited in 1893 at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.

Spolarium-4.jpg “This is the first manifestation of the thoughts, the inspiration, the way in which the artist was thinking, conceptualizing, and putting thoughts onto canvas,” Lerma says. “In my view, this is the original ‘Spoliarium’ because this is the earliest version of ‘Spoliarium.’” Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

The importance of the “Spoliarium” in Philippine history can be attributed to its winning of the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid. This, along with Hidalgo’s “Virgenes Christianas Expuestas al Populacho,” strengthened the Propaganda Movement in the Philippines, which pushed for better treatment of Filipinos rather than independence, as it showed how Filipinos can manage to overshadow even the artistic prowess of our colonial masters.

The value of this boceto, therefore, is in the unravelling of the origins of the “Spoliarium,” which can contribute to a fuller understanding of one of the country’s most important artists. “This is the first manifestation of the thoughts, the inspiration, the way in which the artist was thinking, conceptualizing, and putting thoughts onto canvas,” he says.

“In my view, this is the original ‘Spoliarium’ because this is the earliest version of ‘Spoliarium,’” he adds. “We know the weight of history on our shoulders, making this assertion … It’s really in the spirit of openness that we present this because we know what it is supposed to be and of course, questions need to be asked because it changes our understanding of Philippine art history.”

In so far as we know, the evidence of its authenticity provided by Salcedo Auctions align with the known details of Luna’s journey. As with any detail in history, and oftentimes history’s utmost flaw, there are theories that can be disproved and there are truths that can always be questioned.

Lerma is convinced of the boceto’s authenticity but they are also open to people investigating and questioning the piece, particularly the National Museum.

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The “Spoliarium” boceto will be available for auction at Salcedo Auction’s The Well-Appointed Life on Sept. 22 and Sept. 23.