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The P100 million fish and tales from the Koi fishbowl

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 18, 2020 5:00 am

The latest ‘plant-tycoon-tito’ sale at a BGC garden fair is reportedly at seven figures, or a cool P1 million.

Art is apparently one thing that’s going swimmingly this December, what with a number of exhibits and even one art fair opening this month.

One of the most enchanting is the show titled “Aquarium” by the young artist Katarina Ortiz, age 26. She happens to be foreign-educated, having graduated with a degree in fine arts from Central Saint Martins at the University of the Arts London.

The pieces, numbering only 10, took her almost all of the pandemic to create. They are a tangle of finely wrought drawings of undulating sea creatures that she calls “doodles.” Not that these are a “lesser” form of art, she clarifies. Katarina prefers the phrase, “doodle renaissance.” She adds that it “sort of elevates its status for the sake of semantics. I call the drawings ‘doodles’ because it was a visceral process, not a still life drawing. I draw a lot of inspiration from nature. It’s a constant source of wonder and the sublime.”

 This champion koi is P100 million at Japanese auction, a world record.

The hues are completely psychedelic. She explains the science of it with the certainty of a seasoned diver: “All colors exist underwater. The bright pinks and blues,” she explains further, “are to be found at reef levels mostly — although we have only explored a small fraction of our oceans. My work is likened to a saltwater aquarium, so that’s quite shallow, as I took my artistic liberties. I should elaborate that though a literal aquarium is physically limited in depth, the artwork (though physically contained itself) alludes to a depth of a conceptual kind. Perhaps likened to that of the human mind — limited in the physical, but within it lies the immeasurable human psyche.”  (Aquarium runs until Jan. 16, 2021 at the Drawing Room, Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Chino Roces Avenue Extension, Makati.)

Now, if you’re so sure that art is the taipan’s ultimate pursuit, think again. Recent news that an Ecuadoran anthurium as well as a variegated monstrera had recently changed hands for almost P100,000 each is old hat. The latest “plant-tycoon-tito” sale at a BGC garden fair is reportedly at seven figures, or a cool P1 million.

 Katarina Ortiz

Of course, nothing compares to tales from the Koi-fish Bowl, which isn’t a bowl at all but a several-ton mud pond. This is the fascinating world of the Japanese koi, whose last record-breaking auction was for 200 million yen, or a whopping P100 million for a single, envy-making and uber-lucky champion fish. (The world record for art auctioned in the Philippines by León Gallery is still safe with Jose Joya’s “Space Transfiguration” at P112 million — just to put things in the proper perspective.)

When you plunk down the money for a Joya or an Amorsolo, however, you’re pretty sure it will stay a Joya or Amorsolo. Not so for koi, prize-winning or otherwise, says a certain expert who insisted on anonymity. “Koi are sensitive creatures. I wouldn’t say they are temperamental but they are easily, shall we say, spooked. They lose their appetites over the slightest changes in their environment. A little too much sunlight and their prize-winning scales will change into an unattractive dark color. They could bump into the side of the pond and turn out a little misshapen. And the water they swim in must be kept on an even keel at 14 degrees centigrade or it will show in their delicate looks.”

 The Anthurium Forgetii is priced at P75,000.

There is a Japanese system called “Azukari” in which you can buy a young koi and if the breeders think it has a bright future, they will agree to care for it. If all goes well, it can become one of the champions and compete at the legendary All Japan Koi Show. It’s almost like betting on a colt that appears to be cut out to win the Kentucky Derby — or a bit like those Korean academies that rear and train superboy-bands. However, if the worst happens, much like your Korean superstar getting involved in a nasty scandal or sex video, you get that chilling phone call from Japan saying your koi no longer qualifies to be tended so carefully and has been prepared for a one-way trip to his owner in Manila. With that, all hopes of future championship are dashed. “That’s the difference between an artwork and a living creature,” says our koi sage. “These are living creatures that change minute to minute.”

 Price available upon request for the Soft Tail Monkey Cactus.

“Serious” but entry-level kois start at P20,000 (just like a middle-tier monstrera plant) but can quickly move up to P800,000, then to P1.5 million, and to even P3 to P4 million pricetags.

 The Ecuadoran Veitchii seems to be a steal at just P50,000.

“Of course, koi owners are all big boys,” says my anonymous source, “and they’re willing to lose a fish or two — even several — without losing much sleep over it.” For the koi aficionado, there are plenty of thrills. One of them is chancing upon an unexpected gem — which would be the artworld equivalent of paying P3,000 for a painting at the Bangkal flea market, discovering that it is a Lao Lianben and then auctioning it off for P3.9 million. (Yes, this actually happened in last June’s Mid-Year Auction.) Once in a while, says our expert, a triple-A koi finds itself thrown into the triple-D pond completely by mistake and, therefore, a lucky buyer would have purchased it at a triple-D price. The breeder may finally realize his error but, unlike in the art market, he will go to you hat in hand and offer to buy it back for its true value.

 Epipremnum Pinnatum Albo is P65,000

I wonder now who has it hardest — artists, collectors, plantitos or koi.

Banner caption: The delicate koi