Richie Lerma on auctions, Juan Luna, and ‘Important Philippine Art’

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Salcedo Auctions recently sold Rodel Tapaya's “Baston ni Kabunian” for a record ₱19,856,000. The sale sets the world record for a Tapaya piece, but also the highest price achieved at auction in the country for contemporary Philippine artwork. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2018, the Salcedo Auctions made a record sale of ₱73 million with the boceto, or the ‘draft’, of Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium.” This episode in Philippine art was both celebrated and controversial. Some people asked how an important piece of history could just fall under an auction house’s gavel. But it was also a find that continues a Luna-related saga that seems to be a common theme for this auction house.

“[The “Spoliarium” boceto] was just hanging in a hallway in the [owner's] apartment,” recalls Salcedo Auctions director Richie Lerma. “They didn’t even know what they had. They just inherited it from a long lost aunt who called them to her deathbed and said, ‘Take what you want.’ That’s essentially how they got it.”

Another rare Luna piece, “Aesop after Velasquez,” ended up in Salcedo Auctions.

“It was found in a Swiss Auction house being sold for practically nothing,” says Lerma. “In that particular case, we uncovered a photograph in the collection of the Frick museum by a German photographer in the 1890s who took the time to visit all of the studios of the known artists working in Paris at that time and he happened to take a photograph of Luna in his studio and that painting was there. Nobody even knew of its existence.”

In September 2015, they also auctioned Juan Luna’s rare “¿A Do...Va la Nave?”. It was sold for ₱46,720,000.

“It was discovered in Córdoba, Argentina," says Lerma. "And that had travelled from Paris all the way to Cordova and then to Manila. That was a documented piece. It’s just nobody knew where it was. Until it was [found] in a garden, and [the owners] were about to throw it away. The owner’s brother got curious, took a photo, and sent it to us.”

The record sale of ₱73 million with the boceto, or the ‘draft’, of Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” makes it the second most expensive artwork sold in a Philippine auction. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

“I guess that’s why we become top of mind with the works of Juan Luna. The most exciting episodes have always been the Lunas that have come to us,” says Lerma. “Long lost pieces that have been discovered and that we’ve proven to be authentic.”

Salcedo Auctions just moved in its new home along Ayala Avenue. To inaugurate the new space, they held the “Paradise Found” auction, “a themed offering of substantial ‘eden’ inspired treasures” which includes highlight lots from Philippine Art masters such as Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, Napoleon Abueva, Vicente Manansala, as well as contemporary artists Geraldine Javier, Buen Calubayan, Leslie De Chavez and Rodel Tapaya’s 2011 Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize “Baston ni Kabunian, Bilang Pero di Mabilang.” Tapaya is one of the auction house’s highest selling contemporary artists. The others are Ronald Ventura, Jose John Santos II, Jigger Cruz, and Ronson Culibrina.

“Baston ni Kabunian” was sold for a record ₱19,856,000, going twice above the estimate. The sale sets the world record for a Tapaya piece, but also the highest price achieved at auction in the country for contemporary Philippine artwork. The previous record was held by Jose John Santos II’s “One Way” which sold for ₱15,184,000.

Given the rarity of the works of old masters and the high fetching prices of contemporary artists, it’s surprising how these pieces still end up in auction houses. According to Lerma, there are various reasons behind selling rarities: some works do not fit the spaces of the sellers’ homes anymore; the owners have outgrown the pieces; the work does not fit with the lifestyle of children who have inherited the work; there are more pressing financial needs; or perhaps the work doesn’t do anything for the sellers anymore.

It’s hard not to feel a little disheartened to find art to be treated as a commodity in this trading ground but, as Lerma notes, collectors offloading and acquiring works is just part of a cycle in the art ecosystem — an opportunity for important works to survive and be rediscovered.

Salcedo Auctions director Richie Lerma. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

Lerma says: “With the role of the auction house, value is reinforced, value is tested time and again. It gives people the comfort that there is a place they can bring these pieces to if they’ve acquired it maybe enjoy it after a while and they’re no longer keen to keep it, they can always go back, that’s the beauty of being able to have an auction house is that there will always be opportunities for you to acquire and unload. So the cycle continues. You might decide to take your collection to a different [direction], we can certainly do that. The auction house can make recommendations regarding the value, put it into auction.”

Lerma established Salcedo Auctions in 2010, backed by his experience as director of the Ateneo Art Gallery (he initiated the prestigious Ateneo Art Awards), and a masters degree in art administration at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

We sat down with Lerma and talked about the auction culture in the Philippines, some of the auction house’s highlights since it began almost a decade ago, and its responsibility in establishing “Important Philippine Art.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

I read that there’s psychology involved in auctions.

Yes! It’s theatrical. You’re building excitement for a work … and the drama of people bidding against each other, to reach its highest possible price. It’s the job of the auctioneer to create that atmosphere … making sure that attention is given to people. Sometimes they stop bidding but with a little encouragement, they come back. Not a lot of people dwell on the psychological side on the part of the bidders. Bidders also try to assess one another, some people decide to come in early on, and some people decide to come in late … so that they don’t show their hand yet in terms of their interest.

And some bidders can’t help but get excited so they sit up straight ...

Absolutely. There are some, from the onset, they can’t help themselves. They want that piece. There are some people who are [more poker-faced]. But a lot of it is also theater in their part. I’ve seen people who hold their paddle [up constantly]. It’s theirs to win.

It’s one way to psychologize. There are those who are a bit more discreet. They wait until the very end until there are one or two other bidders that are left that’s when they come in. But that’s not the only way to win. Some people have a long way to go in terms of their buying power.

[When you’re bidding over] the phone, you’re assessing the room and who you’re up against based on the way that the auction is being described by the auction house representative. Whereas when you’re in the room, you can see who you’re up against, how many more bidders are there — because more and more don’t send representatives, they come themselves to make the decisions.

"Rooftop in Paris" by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. This was sold for ₱2,569,600 at Salcedo Auctions' recent "Paradise Found" auction. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

Is there a difference between the auctions held in the U.S., UK, etc. versus in Asia, in terms of people’s behavior, considering that Asians have a culture that values modesty?

I think in the beginning, I often joked about it, part of the challenge when Salcedo Auctions started almost 10 years ago is people getting used to the idea of bidding up rather than bargaining down, which is more the Asian way to do things. There’s such a thing such as a Dutch auction where the price goes down … but most of the world is done in the English manner, which is bidding up. It’s true, in the West, it’s because it’s more of a way of life … In Asia, there is the initial reticence but especially now with the growing economic power, people aren’t shy anymore. On Instagram alone, fewer people are shy about their travels, what they spend on, [what they wear], etc.

What has changed in auction culture for the last 10 years?

I think the most important thing that changed is regarding the value of pieces. Before the auction started, there was not this transparency in terms of prices for art. The first time Filipinos even knew about the value of their artwork was when the auctions were being done in Hong Kong and Singapore. That’s when we started realizing it’s this much to have an Anita [Magsaysay-Ho], or a [Vicente] Manansala. It had to start overseas for us to have an idea of the value of our own pieces. That was one of the inspirations for Salcedo Auctions. I didn’t think it was right for Philippine art to have to leave for it to be bought overseas and then to come back. Most of the people who are buying these pieces are Filipinos. Why put them through all of that when you can do the same thing here? So when we started doing it here in Salcedo, people started waking up to the value of what they had.

How do you make sure you’re not overstepping the toes of the dealers? How do you draw that line between the auction house and the galleries?

I think in the beginning the auction house was met with some trepidation, some distrust by the galleries because they thought it was taking business away. But I’ve always thought that there was a synergy between the two because I think the auctions become a basis in the way that they price their pieces. I’ve seen it happen so many times, with somebody like a senior abstract artist such as Justin Nuyda. He wasn’t realizing these kinds of prices before and then at auctions his prices have been going up because there’s a growing recognition of his place in Philippine art and the prices coming out of the auction are slowly being reflected in his gallery prices as well.

There needs to be a very clear sense that the galleries address the primary market, that is building up the careers of artists. That’s not our job. Our job is providing a secondary market venue for pieces being resold. It’s not the job of the auction house to create a career or deepen the public’s appreciation of [an artist’s] work. Of course, we do our own scholarship and presenting what else is brought to us but I think we also have a certain responsibility that whichever pieces that we’ll take in are already by those artists whose reputations have been formed outside of the auction house circuit. You can’t build a reputation on price alone. It’s not one of my bases on taking in pieces. It is a factor.

What if you’re just selling a lot of paintings filling a lot of these walls of all of these model units … those kinds of things… they’re not necessarily the type that would end up at our auctions. Even if they’re commercially successful, or they sell a lot, I wouldn’t be comfortable offering it here in Salcedo … we also give [pieces], I think, a stamp of approval in terms of the longevity of the piece. When you say something is important, that means it should be able to withstand the test of time.

“[The “Spoliarium” boceto] was just hanging in a hallway in their apartment. They didn’t even know what they had, they just inherited it from a long lost aunt who called them to her deathbed and said, 'take what you want.'”


So there’s a certain extent of curation in the way you choose the pieces...

Yes. That’s a hat I can never take off, having been in that field for a really long time. And that’s the reason why in addition to the previews that we’re doing, [we have these] non-selling shows like this Roberto Chabet. There are non-commercial considerations at play. The automatic thing that someone in the commercial field would say “I’ve got this cache of Chabet works, it’s time to sell it!” I’ll go “Yes, of course they will sell and the fact that they were brought to me, the owner has an intention to sell it.” But that can wait. For me, foremost, is you need to see this group [of works] in its totality, because it’s such a loss for them to be already split up even before you see them altogether. Its importance also lies in it being seen together. We’d be doing a disservice to Chabet and to the collector as well for you not to be able to see them together. Now, whether or not it’s prudent to sell it one at a time … that’s to be discussed with the owner. But the most important thing now is for people to see it together. We do these things that you wouldn’t expect of these auction houses in the sense of simply selling things but there is that aspect of curation, establishing attention and focus.

Are there characteristics of certain works that indicate that they’ll do well in an auction, going beyond the name recall? Like in terms of shapes, colors, themes, etc.

People always like to have pieces that they can live with. Pleasant subject matter is always desired, whether these are still lives, landscapes, maybe they are genre scenes like market scenes, folklore, etc. Those will be the most popular ones. But in the contemporary art there are ones that are a bit more challenging. It’s good to see that there are people who are quite committed to a particular artist’s work or style. And they defy convention of what’s acceptable or liveable or not. It’s good to see that. Especially with contemporary art, the subject matter is wide open. Works from an earlier generation would still be in a certain visual vocabulary. Most of our contemporary artists, the trend is figurative artists.

There was the debate about the “Spoliarium” boceto last year. Some people were saying that it’s not an auction house’s place to sell something of that historical value. How was the internal debate here when that issue came out?

More of the question was how could something like that be sold. Let’s start with the fact that it was private property. They could do what they wanted with the painting. Sadly, it wasn’t in public hands. It was an opportunity for the state to acquire it if it had the funds, which unfortunately [weren’t] available. That would have been the last opportunity for people to see it, I mean when it was exhibited at the Peninsula.

In terms of it being sold, the natural place for such valuables to be offered, to see the light of day would be an auction house. People are always looking for where they can get the best possible price for these pieces and of course that would be an auction house because that’s one way for you to get as much interest as possible from different parties. I think at the end with that kind of result, which was a record price for a Luna in the Philippines, the owners were over the moon. They didn’t expect it. It was just hanging in a hallway in their apartment. They didn’t even know what they had, they just inherited it from a long lost aunt who called them to her deathbed and said, “take what you want.” That’s essentially how they got it.

Buen Calubayan's "Biowork Mount Banahaw," part of the "Instructions on Viewing the Landscape" installation which sold for ₱4,555,200 at Salcedo Auction's recent "Paradise Found" auction. Photo courtesy of SALCEDO AUCTIONS

What do you think is your responsibility when you label something as “Important Philippine Art”?

I think that we are just one voice in the entire art ecosystem. In a way, we’re just establishing value. At the end of the day, when you use these kinds of descriptives [like] “important,” etc., you’re establishing value. My hope is that people can see and understand the criteria that we place when it comes to describing such things. We hope that it helps build a more discerning market, a more discerning clientele. Like I said, we’re just one voice. People can accept it or not. But I think we have a valid voice, born out of many years of experience of being in this field. It’s our job to point people in the right direction in terms of what they should be looking at.

At the end of the day, this is not a bazaar or emporium, a free for all — we choose what we accept, we look for merit in a piece before it makes it way to Salcedo [Auctions]. We’re not saying this is the be all and end all. It’s an opinion that we have regarding certain pieces. And it’s nice to see that people value that opinion. I think that’s the most heartening thing to see. To have built that reputation, [to have people] trust you enough that [they] come to you and listen in terms of seeing what is important.