The lost bust of Juan Luna

ROSES AND THORNS - Pia Roces Morato - The Philippine Star

At some point in history, between 1883-1884, a friendship between Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure and Juan Luna blossomed, together with other Filipino expats in Europe such as Felix Ressureccion Hidalgo and Pedro Paterno. In 1884, Spanish sculptor Benlliure molded a bust of Juan Luna but unfortunately, this was lost in the battle of Manila in 1945 and was still marked as lost even after independence in 1946. Yet, there was a glimmer of hope that this bust might have survived the destruction of the old legislative building (now the National Museum) which, as director Jeremy Barnes says, had been floating around for quite some time.

As Barnes continued to explain at the National Museum the other day to formally celebrate this milestone, it was some 10 years ago, while planning on loaning Benlliure’s monument to Arthur Fergusson, which was initially erected in 1915 in the plaza of Ermita, now standing prominently across the very hall of the museum, when the team first had reason to research the fate of the lost bust of Juan Luna.

Their attention was drawn to the fact that we used to have a Benlliure work of our own, this bronze bust of Juan Luna y Novicio, as was clearly listed in the catalog published by the National Library in 1938, a reference which was learned from Ambeth Ocampo that remains very valuable. Barnes and his team then learned more about the bust by studying a different version of it in plaster of Paris at the University of Santo Tomas Museum and, with thanks as he says, to Fr. Isidro Abaño who shared all the information he had about it, they were allowed to closely inspect it.

The late Dr. Jak Pilar also referred the team to an image kept in the Filipinas Heritage Library of the Ayala Foundation and it was this last piece of information with its associated notes that first told them that the bust in the image had been recovered in the rubble of the war by a push cart vendor who sold it to a certain Irene Cristobal. As pieces of the puzzle began to emerge, this led the team to the realization that the bust must have survived until the 1970s, when the Ayala documentation was likely made and that it might still be out there somewhere.

As the journey continues, and while waiting for the right moment to complete the process, this bust, identical to that featured on the Chronicle Magazine cover and included the Filipinas Heritage Library image archive, unexpectedly appeared in the Makati showroom of Salcedo Auctions and in its catalog for its September 2023 auction, with its specifications also matching the description written in the 1938 catalog. Barnes’ attention was called to this on Sept. 8 and they immediately jumped into action, with him writing to Mr. Richie Lerma to ask him very politely if he could hold off the auction of the bust pending investigation as to whether this was indeed the National Museum’s lost work of art.

The owners or possessors of the bust were duly consulted by Salcedo Auctions and a productive and amicable meeting was said to have taken place; and it was agreed that the bust would be pulled out of sale to give Barnes and the team time to put forward what was basically their claim to the object as a missing item of government property.

They soon afterwards transmitted all of their knowledge on the matter, incorporating their research – historical, curatorial, and legal – together with that which was contributed by Isidra Reyes, who posted an article on the bust on the Facebook page Manila Nostalgia, including an image of the cover of Chronicle Magazine from Dec. 9, 1967.

This image on the cover caption paired exactly with the Ayala image and Salcedo Auctions itself. Barnes also received an unsolicited communication from the Fundacion Mariano Belliure in Madrid that provided some useful details and finally, all these resulted to MIB Capital Corporation willingly relinquishing the bust and turning it over to the Filipino people and to the national government, ending the 78-year long story of the loss to the nation of this exceptional image of possibly the greatest Filipino painter, Juan Luna.

The bust has now been safely returned to its rightful home alongside the Spoliarium which, as Barnes explained, was the original intention as far back as 1922. The turnover of the bust of Juan Luna y Novicio by Mariano Benlliure at the National Museum of Fine Arts last Oct. 10, 2023, was graced by First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos, Senator Nancy Binay, the Embassy of Spain and other partners who affirmatively supported this effort.

Happy Museums and Galleries Month to one and all!

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