Museum to get Botong painting

Lisa Guerrero Nakpil - The Philippine Star
Museum to get Botong painting
National Artist Carlos Francisco’s last, unfinished work ‘Camote Diggers’ became the center of controversy after news of its auction broke.
Image taken from Leon Gallery’s website.

MANILA, Philippines — The distinguished – but anonymous – collector who consigned the iconic “Camote Diggers” to the recently concluded León Gallery Spectacular Mid-Year Auction has decided to donate the work to a museum for the general public to enjoy.

The “Last Botong,” so called because it was the last work to be painted by the master in 1969 before his sudden death, achieved P23.4 million, inclusive of buyer’s premium. That made it the “top lot” or the artwork to achieve the highest price in the entire sale.

However, just a few days before the auction, the work became the subject of a brewing controversy that it had been presented as a gift to the Marcoses after Botong’s death.

The person who consigned the work to auction had no idea of the painting’s supposed background because it was offered to him in March 2004 — or 18 years after the EDSA Revolution — by a well-known official’s son and the consignor paid the going price then. At the time, he had asked former first lady Imelda Marcos for her consent at the time and she gave it.

The consignor has owned it therefore for some 15 years since then and has even lent it to several public museum exhibits. He had never learned of the ownership issue until just before the auction.

Jaime Ponce de Leon, director of León Gallery, noted that he received a letter from a lawyer representing the heirs of Botong Francisco days before the recent auction.

“Such requests for information about how artworks wind up for sale are not unusual from former owners or even the artists themselves. It is the policy, however, of León Gallery to treat the identities of the owners as well as the buyers of any artwork with utmost confidentiality. Discretion and trust are both required in our business. We can merely refer these inquires to the consignors and it is entirely up to them if they want to be identified or not,” he said.

Ponce de Leon also added that the work had been exhibited at the Yuchengco Museum on loan since 2015 and there had been “no comment nor questions from any interested parties as to ownership whatsoever.”

“We relayed all of these matters to the Franciscos’ lawyer in a formal letter,” he explained. “It was surprising that they decided to send a letter of inquiry to the Marcoses a few days before the auction. It’s been 50 years since the painting was supposedly given as a gift.”

After careful consideration, however, the consignor opted to resolve any issues and avoid the politicization of the masterpiece by donating it to an institution.

He nominated León Gallery to act on his behalf. The gallery, through Ponce de Leon, will take the lead in facilitating the donation.

The buyer, who acquired the work successfully, was also consulted on this decision and has likewise gracefully agreed.

“Camote Diggers” is an unfinished but evocative painting of the Filipino’s strength amidst terrible difficulty.

 It is the first time in Philippine art history that a successfully auctioned artwork will be donated outright to a museum.

An announcement on the final choice of the museum will be made shortly.

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