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Juan Luna´s boceto of the Spoliarium comes home, raises questions, intrigue

Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, has, for the longest time, been the Philippines’ most revered work of art. The 4m x 7m Neoclassical piece depicting dying gladiators being dragged by their Roman oppressors is the centerpiece of the National Museum of the Philippines and the first thing one sees upon entering its massive hall. 

For most, the large piece at the National Museum is the only version they know that exists and frankly, the only one that matters. But Luna made smaller copies, two to be exact, as confirmed by renowned historian Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo in an Inquirer column in 2016. One, he writes, is in a private collection in Manila and the other, with a Russian nobleman.

Imagine the surprise—perhaps elation—when Salcedo Auctions director Richie Lerma received an email early this year from a private collector in Spain who says that he has in his possession what is allegedly the 1883 boceto of Luna’s “Spoliarium” (1884).

But unlike most bocetos, this study isn’t a mere sketch by the artist. Lerma first saw the piece via a photo sent to his email and, save for a few noticeable differences including the lighting and a few missing details, it did indeed seem to be a miniature version of the “Spoliarium”.

Excitement aside, Lerma the professional that he is, approached this revelation with the utmost skepticism. Not long after, he found himself in a small town in Spain and face to face with not only the piece in question but another painting “La Pintura” by a different Filipino artist—Luna’s contemporary Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo.

Each revelation merely raised more questions, foremost of which is how did these two marvelous Filipino works, after all these years, end up under the same roof?

Understandably so, the owner of the boceto expressed his wish to remain anonymous. What he made known, however, seemed plausible enough for Lerma to dig deeper. The two paintings, Lerma found out, originated from the Castineira family. Don Xose Vazquez Castineira, a solicitor and mayor of Sarria in 1890, had a son Don Francisco Vazquez Gayoso, an accounting officer of the Public Treasury, who gained possession of the works and ownership was transferred to his wife Dona Maria Nunez Rodriguez. Childless, she then entrusted the “Spoliairum” boceto and “La Pintura” to the current owner.

Lerma went even further as he sought to establish how the Castineira family came to possess the two artworks.

The investigation took him to Sarria where a connection was made to Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. He discovered that Don Xose Vazquez Castineira lived in close proximity to one Don Matias Lopez y Lopz (1825-1891), who is an extremely important figure in the political and economic history of Spain at the time.

Lerma reveals “it is through Don Matias that Salcedo Auctions presumes that the connection between Luna (and Hidalgo), Sarria, and the Castineiras was established; because in 1889, the Spanish government appointed Lopez, at the peak of his power and fame, as the President of the Spanish Committee and Commissioner of the Spanish Pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris.”

Furthering his cause are newspaper clippings that had the names of Juan Luna and Felix Ressurreccion as part of the Spanish Pavillion to present their works and it’s easy to surmise that with his title, Lopez could have directly acquired these from both artists.

As the pieces started coming together, Lerma became increasingly convinced that the boceto is the real deal and he and the owner then came into an agreement to have the work brought home to the Philippines where further research was made and expert opinions were sought. It’s worth mentioning that after 125 years, finally the boceto and Hidalgo’s “La Pintura” has finally been separated.

“Among the many fascinating details of this painting, the most revelatory aspect that aroused the interest of Salcedo Auctions… was found on the lower right hand corner of the painting,” Lerma says. “Based on an analysis of the penmanship, it was evident that the writing on the boceto and those on art historically accepted, exhibited, and published works by Luna matched: from the block letters that spell out the title of the artwork and the artist’s name, to the distinctive manner in which the ‘R’ preceding the year ‘1883’ echoed the manner in which the ‘R’ in ‘Roma’ had been inscribed on other works by Luna that he had painted in the city.”

Two symbols also appear that establishes Luna’s connection to the boceto. Dr. Ocampo refers to the glyphs as pre-Spanish syllabary or Baybayin where “Luna” (moon in Spanish) is replaced with the characters “bu” and “la” to spell “bulan”, which is the Ilocano word, again, for moon. Luna was born in Ilocos Norte. There were instances when the artist would sign his work, such as “Dona Consolacion (circa 1890s)” with the initials J.B. for “Juan Bulan”.

Convinced with the provenance, literature, written and photographic documentation, Lerma says that he is leaving it up to the public to “press on” in terms of getting people to say on record what they think about it. The boceto is on display at The Peninsula Manila along with some 200 items ranging from art, jewelry, watches, coins, and even vintage motor vehicles as part of Salcedo Auctions “The Well-Appointed Life”.

“By us bringing this out, knowing how important this is and the claim we are making, all of us are hoping that we could be your partners in reaching out to all possible experts, historians, collectors, etc. to say their piece regarding this particular boceto,” Lerma says. “As far as we are concerned, the evidence is there and no one has yet shown any evidence that this is not authentic.”

During the media preview, Lerma was hesitant to reveal the price for the boceto, saying “it is very difficult to put a price on a painting that we can say is the very first version of the Spoliarium. This is simply entrusted to us and it’s our role to be able to present its story and, having told that story to its full extent, (for the piece) to go to the highest bidder.”

Further pressing afterwards and Lerma revealed that they were looking at around P18 million as the starting bid.

Asked whether he hopes the painting stays in the country, Lerma says that he would personally want it to be that way.

“Knowing the significance of the painting, who would not want this to be in the collection of the state? To be enjoyed by as much people as possible. Every time we hear the word Spoliarium, we palpitate a little, because it means so much to us. We see posts by millenials and it’s as if they’re in ecstasy in front of the Spoliarium and how wonderful it would be for (the boceto) to be alongside all the other works of Juan Luna? I would hope for the boceto to go to a collection of the state if that were possible.”

In other countries, he says, museums have acquisition funds especially for art works that are extremely important to the narration of the country.

“In the UK, any work that goes to auction, the government exercises its right to purchase that piece of art at the highest price after the hammer falls,” adds Lerma. “That mechanism is not available to us right now but that doesn’t mean to say that won’t or can’t change.”

But what of the other painting, Hidalgo’s “La Pintura”?

The owner decided that Luna’s boceto belongs to the Philippines, which is why he got in touch with Salcedo Auctions and Lerma believes that at some stage, “La Pintura” will be coming to the Philippines.

The Well-Appointed Life auction weekend will be held at The Peninsula Manila on September 22-23 at the Rigodon Ballroom, with the preview starting on September 13-21 at The Gallery, Level 3. Dexter R. Matilla

Email the author at dextermatilla@gmail.com

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