Rare Juan Luna painting fetches record P46.72M at PH auction

SOLD. The painting, u0022u00bfA Do...Va la Nave?u0022 (oil on canvas, 55 cm x 104 cm / 21 1/2 x 41 in) is auctioned off to a private collector after a heated bidding war on September 19. Image from Salcedo Auctions

SOLD. The painting, u0022u00bfA Do...Va la Nave?u0022 (oil on canvas, 55 cm x 104 cm / 21 1/2 x 41 in) is auctioned off to a private collector after a heated bidding war on September 19.

Image from Salcedo Auctions

MANILA, Philippines –  A Juan Luna painting fetched P46.72 million at a recent auction in Makati City marked by a "heated bidding war" – a record-high for an artwork at a Philippine auction.

The brushwork, the colors, the hem of the dress with the flowers of blue, green, and pink are all definitely Juan Luna – evident in the 1885 painting that was sold to a private collector at an auction conducted by Salcedo Auctions at the Rockwell Tent in Makati City on September 19.

The sale of "¿A Do...Va la Nave?" – P46.72 million or $995,731.05, including buyer's premium and value added tax –  is the highest for an artwork at a local auction, and a new Philippine auction record for Luna, Ramon E.S. Lerma, chief adviser at Salcedo Auctions, told Rappler via email on Tuesday, September 29.

Lerma said that proportionate to its size, the auction price of "¿A Do...Va la Nave?" is consistent with that of two other high-profile works of Luna: "Parisian Life" (Christie's, 2002), and "Espana y Filipinas" (Sotheby's, 2013).

"Parisian Life" was sold for HK$6.67 million (P40.36 million/$861,166.44) to the Philippines' Government Service Insurance System, and is exhibited at the National Museum. "Espana y Filipinas," meanwhile, was auctioned off for HK$25.88 million (P156.52 million/$3.34 million), reportedly to an overseas institution. A version of "Espana y Filipinas " is on display at the Lopez Memorial Museum.

"This shows that important Philippine artworks can be sold and get their maximum price potential in the Philippines instead of these being sent overseas," Lerma said.

"¿A Do...Va la Nave?" was sold as public interest in the Lunas was revived following the success of Heneral Luna, the Philippines' official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2016 Oscars. It is a semi-fictionalized account of the life of military genius Antonio, Juan's youngest brother.

Lerma said that he has seen Heneral Luna and understands how the movie has increased interest in Juan Luna's contributions to the country not only as an artist, but also as a patriot.

"His singular achievement at the Madrid Exposition in 1884, his outstanding body of work, as well as his role in the Reform Movement all contribute to the value that we place on the artist, which has shown and, based on this result, continues to show that he stands above all other Filipino visual artists in the public imagination," Lerma said.

Bidding war

Luna completed the piece a year after "Spoliarium" earned him the gold medal at the 1884 Madrid Exposition of Fine Art. Based on the catalog, the title of the ouevre is borrowed from an unfinished 1841 poem by 19th century Spanish Romantic poet Jose de Espronceda:

“Y alla va la nave;
Quien sabe do va?

(And there goes the ship;
Who knows where it will go?)

In a post on its official Fracebook page, Salcedo Auctions wrote that  "¿A Do...Va la Nave?" was earlier estimated to fetch from P9 million to P12 million ($191,815.37 to $213,116.72).  

Lerma said that the owner was prepared to sell at a lower price, "with the reserve price (the lowest price that the piece can sell) being set even below the published estimate."

"We felt that this was a fair and admittedly conservative price for a painting of such significance, as we wanted to let the market decide the final value of the painting," he explained.

Lerma shared that during the auction, the price quickly soared to P35 million ($745,950.93) with paddles not even going down. "Such was the enthusiasm and interest in the work," he said.

He added: "We had an instruction from one bidder that in case there was a challenge at P35 million, to contact the said bidder to get further instructions. And so that resulted in a competitive 'bidding battle' from P35 million to finally a hammer price of P40 million which left people at the edge of their seats and breaking into applause."

The booming art scene continues to encourage investors to bet on Philippine art.

“Judging from the unprecedented result for the Luna at auction, one can conclude that the market was prepared to pay much, much more than the published estimate,” Lerma said. 

The Luna piece surpassed the record set by Hernando Ruiz Ocampo’s "Pagoda" (1967), which fetched for about P36 million ($767,179.28), including buyer’s premium also at Salcedo Auctions in March. (READ: Loving, investing in the art market)

The painting shows a skiff bobbing along a turquoise sea. There are 6 elegantly garbed women sitting languidly on the boat, with the one perched highest, presumably Luna’s most favored model, Angela Duche, Salcedo Auctions wrote.

PASSENGERS. The passengers of the boat consist of 6 elegantly garbed women in evening dress sitting languidly, with the one perched highest, presumably Lunau2019s most favored model, the distinguished looking and voluptuous Angela Duche, Salcedo Auctions wrote. Image from Salcedo Auctions' Facebook page

PASSENGERS. The passengers of the boat consist of 6 elegantly garbed women in evening dress sitting languidly, with the one perched highest, presumably Lunau2019s most favored model, the distinguished looking and voluptuous Angela Duche, Salcedo Auctions wrote.

Image from Salcedo Auctions' Facebook page

Coming home

Lerma said the owner of the Luna painting did not know who the artist was, and that his sister even thought of disposing the painting to turn its gilt frame into a mirror.

But seeing the inscription on the frame, "LVNA Paris 1885," the owner Googled it and found Salcedo Auctions, which sold Lunas in its last two seasons, so he emailed the pictures to Lerma.

The auction house said that until its discovery, the existence of "¿A Do...Va la Nave?" was recorded only in a reproduction in a Barcelona literary journal from 1886.

The owner of "¿A Do...Va la Nave?" acquired the painting from his grandmother, Maria Alberta Esther Susana Pignocchi-Bonaldi.

Bonaldi's husband, Jose Domingo – whose grandfather was the first vice consul of Italy to Argentina – received it as a gift from business associate Goar Mestre, a media tycoon who fled his native Cuba when the Fidel Castro-led Cuban Revolution triumphed.

Salcedo Auctions wrote that it remains unknown where Mestre obtained the painting but suggested that a plausible connection is through Felix Pardo de Tavera, the brother of Luna’s ill-fated wife Paz. Pardo de Tavera settled in Buenos Aires with Argentinian wife Agustina Manigot and worked there as a physician and as a sculptor.

"But considering the bad blood between Luna and the Pardo de Taveras – it was known that the family consequently destroyed all of his work in their possession – could this painting have been spared and crossed the Atlantic, later to be acquired by Mestre?" Salcedo Auctions said.

Another theory pointed to Ramón Blanco, Spanish governor general of the Philippines from 1893 to 1896, and captain general of Cuba from 1897-98, whose portrait Luna had painted. Blanco was known for his conciliatory position toward the Filipino reformists, and for his friendship with Luna and Dr Jose Rizal. Rappler.com

$1 = P46.93