detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Wednesday, June 04, 2008

: . Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and Juan Luna's "Parisian Life"

( Parisian life; signed, inscribed and dated 'LUNA, Paris 1892'; oil on canvas; 22 x 31 in. [57 x 79 cm.])

A perspective on the controversial painting from Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, the painting's previous owner. The painting was sold at auction, to the GSIS Museum, for a record HK$6,674,100/$859,924/PHP37,858,108, the highest price ever paid for a Philippine work in the international art market. The previous record holder, at least for Christie's, was Fabian de la Rosa's 1902 "Women Working in a Rice Field", the mother of all rice field paintings.

From Legends and Adventures (Manila: Circe Communications, Inc., 2007): 136-138.
On the elongated corner lot of Ortega and Mabini, which I inherited from my parents, Nakpil had designed and built a capacious "ranch house", as the), called it then, flat on the lawn, with a row of windows along the garden, an elevated, split-level wing for bedrooms, and an inner patio, enclosed by a brick wall, with an entertainment pavilion and a swimming pool. He had also brought several Luna, Resureccion Hidalgo, and Fabian de la Rosa paintings, some antiques and valuable accessories from the Nakpil house in Quiapo which had been deeded to him by, his parents and his uncle Dr. Ariston Bautista. The result was tasteful and artistic. My five children saved it from prissiness.
One of the paintings would cause a furor in the newspapers and art circles decades later, in 2002. It was a large oil by Juan Luna, depicting a scene in a Parisian cafe of the [end of page 136] 1890's with a pretty young girl, a cocotte, hatted and furbelowed, seated alone on a banquette, with a gentleman's hat and coat shown in one corner, and at the other end of the room, a trio of men in dark suits and hats seated around a small table, deep in conversation, but also ogling the young woman. The three men were recognizably, Jose Rizal, Juan Luna and Dr. Ariston Bautista, the owner of the painting. It had reposed on the main wall of the dining area of our San Juan house for about two decades, and another decade on the wall above the bed in the master bedroom (when Nakpil decided it needed more controlled temperature).
A few years after Nakpil's death, I decided to move from my San Juan house to a condo in Makati, and, because none of the homes of my children could accommodate such a large, precious, and by then fragile treasure, Ramon, Lisa, and Luis put it up for auction with Christie's, the international art house. The Manila representative of Christie's competitor, Sotheby, which had originally failed to acquire the painting for their own auction, was Mrs. Kim Camacho, wife of the then Secretary of Finance. The Manila customs house, which is under the Department of Finance, loyally found an irregularity in the shipping invoice. The Inquirer, sensing a big story, latched on to some malcontent Nakpil relatives. A front-page sensational coverage, involving art, nationalism and a family feud sold many Inquirer copies for weeks. Although the news reports made mention of me in the supposedly "nefarious" deal, I kept my peace and refused to be baited.
The sale proceeded. My children paid millions in taxes to both the National Museum and the Bureau of Customs; Christie's declared they were satisfied with the proofs of ownership and the auction took place in Singapore with the GSIS placing the high winning bid of Php50 Million. The malcontents got their [end of page 137] pictures in the papers, a national agency acquired a national treasure for its well-guarded exhibition hall, and millions of Filipinos (instead of just one family) got the pleasure and the joy of viewing one of the Luna's most beautiful and intriguing works. Now and then, I miss that baffled, overdressed cocotte and the three ilustrados in the Parisian cafe, with whom I lived many fascinated years but bear no ill will to that side of my husband's family. The fact that Julio Nakpil, his wife, children and grandchildren had occupied the ground floor of that Barbosa house did not qualify his descendants to question the ownership of the Luna painting deeded to Angel Nakpil. But if they had not invented that controversy, the painting would not have been sold for such a record-breaking amount. As Mommy used to say back there in good old Ermita, "No hay mal que por bien no venga. " It's an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good.
For more on Juan Luna's "Parisian Life", read:

The Cost of Living Our Cultural Heritage
by Bienvenido Lumbera
‘A Piece of History’: Juan Luna’s Parisian Life and the Production of Property by Patrick D. Flores

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