Obsessions of the rich

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Once in a while, rare treasures from decades past – which are almost always intertwined with the country’s history and our story as a people – surface or resurface, thanks in no small measure to some of the richest and most powerful families in the Philippines and their obsessions for rare and priceless finds.

Who knows where these treasures have been kept and hidden all this time? Perhaps in some billionaire’s sprawling and glittering living room, or in a basement with a hidden key, or in some den with a secret door.

Such treasures may range from paintings as old as time, to a rare self-portrait by controversial Filipino artist Juan Luna, to a rare easel-sized tableau of National Artist Francisco “Botong” Francisco – in stark contrast to his large murals – to a handwritten poem by our National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal, etc.

Trust renowned art gallery León Gallery once more to bring such jaw-dropping art treasures – and more – out into the market as it ends 2023 with one final auction, the Kingly Treasures Auction on Dec. 2, after three successful quarterly auctions this year.

I caught a glimpse of some of these pieces during a recent visit to León Gallery in Makati. Its director Jaime Ponce de Leon was busy preparing for the auction but managed to find time to fill me in on the stories behind the art pieces that will soon go under the hammer.

As someone obsessed with stories, I love hearing the interesting tales behind the different collections. It’s the reason I keep coming back to the gallery, especially when there’s an upcoming auction.

I bumped into society chronicler and writer Jerome Gomez during my visit last week. I told him I was planning to write about the upcoming auction, to which he jested: “So what’s your angle, ‘Obsessions of the rich?’”

Indeed, Jerome is right. Collecting the finest art pieces has become an obsession for the rich and the well-heeled crowd.

Up for auction on Saturday are rare finds from such exquisite collections.

Take for instance the collection of banking taipan Dee K. “DK” Chiong, president and chairman of the country’s first Filipino-Chinese bank, China Banking Corp. and the paternal grandfather of Miss Universe Philippines Michelle Dee.

From DK Chiong’s collection is Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s Harvesters, which depicts women pounding rice – immortalizing the artist’s childhood summers in Zambales.

It’s safe to say this opus was last exhibited in 1957 when it appeared twice on the walls of the legendary Philippine Art Gallery, first on Aug. 24. 1957 and then for Magsaysay-Ho’s first solo exhibit on Nov. 30, 1957 or some 66 years ago.

Juan Luna

Those obsessed with the works of Juan Luna will find a rare self-portrait of the artist with his wife Paz in a work titled Juan Luna and His Wife Paz in what is believed to be the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, once a forest and royal hunting preserve, says Ponce de Leon. It’s a painting that is enigmatic and no doubt an interesting find, even for those who aren’t fans of Juan Luna.

This one is from the collection of Pedro Hernaez, a Filipino lawyer, sugar planter, senator and diplomat. A political force, Hernaez would serve as the country’s ambassador to Spain, appointed by president Carlos Garcia and it was in Madrid where he would discover the world of Juan Luna. 


A copy of a handwritten poem of Jose Rizal titled Mi Retiro is also part of the collection.

But the most valuable and prized piece up for grabs in the Dec. 2 auction is Botong Francisco’s 1968 oil painting Bayanihan, commissioned by one of the most wealthy American expatriates of the era, husband and wife Herbert and Gertrud Harder, says Leon Gallery curator Lisa Guerrero Nakpil.

In Bayanihan, Botong tells a powerful story that celebrates the Filipino community spirit. “A dynamic theater of Filipino life,” says Nakpil, and a fitting image in this time as we mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of our nation.

Estate planning

The rich and the powerful are no doubt obsessed with prized artworks and because of them, art is passed on from one era to another, along with the stories that are closely intertwined with that of our nation’s journey.

But for some of the heirs of these collectors, especially those who have passed away, putting these pieces in auction is a good way to divide the wealth, especially if there is more than one heir.

The benefit of selling pieces through auction houses is that these auction houses, especially trusted ones, attract the right buyers.

The risk, of course, that the artwork may not be sold but fortunately for the collectors who place their bets on León Gallery, this gallery’s auctions are competitive and always attract a huge crowd.

What does this really tell us? At the end of the day, it tells us what we’ve always known. That art is the ultimate luxury and it beats the fanciest supercar or the most intricate watch, and that whether there’s blood on the streets or there’s a global health pandemic, the rich will always be obsessed with art.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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