It is now the most expensive Philippine painting per square inch.
A magical Anita Magsaysay-Ho painting, titled “Tinapa Vendors,” returned to its homeland and set a world record for the artist at a stunning P84 million, inclusive of buyer’s premium.
“My heart was pounding when I first laid eyes on it,” said Jaime Ponce de Leon, director of León Gallery. “It is just luminous!” he exclaimed.
If you used a measuring tape, Ponce de Leon declared, this beauty, which measures just 20x16 inches, “also set a world record per square inch for all Philippine art.”
Ponce de Leon was contacted by the family of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Miller, an American diplomat and his wife who were in Manila long enough to become fast friends with Anita Magsaysay and her husband Robert Ho.
In an article titled “Mrs. Ho’s Women” in the Sunday Times Magazine, on May 6, 1956, “Tinapa Vendors” was described as “now belonging to Mrs. Paul A. Miller.” Moreover, Mrs. Ho would go on to amplify that it was also “her favorite among the market scenes she has done and is in her favorite medium, egg tempera.”
“You simply can’t argue with the fact that this particular work was Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s favorite work,” emphasized Ponce de Leon. “Also, egg tempera is a medium she herself said she mastered in the style of Fra Angelico, the Renaissance painter. It gives it that radiant quality, as if it were lit from the inside.” (At one point, the Poultry Growers Association offered to make her its spokesperson. She politely declined.)
“Tinapa Vendors” led a grand slam of the four top pieces at the León Gallery auction: Next was Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera’s “The Dance of Isadora,” which brought in P41 million. This nine-foot piece, featuring three muses in floating drapery, is a third longer than, well, Michael Jordan if he were lying down on a basketball court.
Third on the list was Vicente Manansala’s “Pila sa Bigas,” which depicted the rice lines of the ‘70s. Of course, as the pundit Ramon Villegas would say, Mang Enteng was “incapable of painting anything but a beautiful picture” no matter what the topic. The transparent and vibrant colors make up for the social reality. This work rang in P33 million. The Manansala, incidentally, came from the family of Dr. San Gabriel, well-known as the artist’s physician.
Juan Luna’s “Sorprendidos” (or “Caught”) was in the same league at P35 million. “This is what I mean by ‘provenance,’ said Ponce de Leon. “‘Sorprendidos’ passed from the hands of Don Alfonso T. Ongpin, to Don Luis Araneta, and finally to Don Arturo Rocha, in one unbroken, distinguished — and well-documented — chain of ownership.”
The trove of one other legendary collector, Don Benito Legarda, was also on auction. “Views of Manila,” one of the few signed by the master of ‘letras y figuras’ Jose Honorato Lozano, fetched P17.5 million. This handsome piece set another record for a work on paper.
This and other treasures from the “Don Beniting” hoard attracted a top-drawer crowd of antiquarians, chomping at the bit to win. Ponce de Leon explained, “These are works not just from the 19th century which usually makes people very excited to begin with—but also from the 18th and 17th centuries. It’s impossible to find such a collection—and put it together—in this day and age.”
Mid-century modern works from best buds Cesar Legaspi and H.R. Ocampo provided intriguing results: the powerful Legaspi titled “Village on Fire” registered higher at P12.3 million versus the usual crowd favorite H.R. Ocampo, whose “Side Show” came in at P9.3 million.
John Santos’ “The Game,” possibly another marital portrait of himself rolling the dice with a Venus-like statue reminiscent of his wife, shot up to P10 million.
A Mark Justiniani, “The Chronicler,” an ironic commentary on foreign media, rolled in at P4 million. Lee Aguinaldo’s “Mandala in Green” struck somewhere in between at over P7 million. Rodel Tapaya’s “Repatriated Bodies” raked in P6 million, while a Nena Saguil, again from the prestigious collection of National Artists F. Sionil Jose, also brought in nearly P4 million.
The Lao Lianben “Prediction 12” pulled in another world record for the artist at almost P13 million.
“Each time this piece re-appears,” said Ponce de Leon, “it sets a world record.”
To cap off the serendipitous circumstances, second-generation collector Helen Ho Delgado recalled as she viewed the masterpiece by her mother, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, “We have several photos of the Millers with my parents,” she remarked. “And I believe Ernest Escaler’s father was in one of the photographs.”
The Asian Cultural Council, which Escaler chairs, is the beneficiary of a portion of the funds from the auction, earmarked for grants for Filipino artists seeking to go abroad to expand their practice.
All’s well that ends well for Philippine art, old and new.