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Looking Back
Trash and treasure in the gallery

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:45:00 04/01/2009

Filed Under: Arts (general), Human Interest, Personalities

Long before the business was broken up among his interested sons and moved into the malls, Mario Alcantara maintained the Heritage Art Gallery in an old house on Lantana Street in Quezon City. It is a short street that leads to a dead end, with dilapidated cars from a nearby auto repair shop on the sidewalks. Stray dogs barked at everyone who sought refuge in the gallery.

I used to spend my afternoons in one of the balconies or quiet rooms in this labyrinth that any fire marshal would declare a fire trap. It did burn down eventually, but before that it was a place to see artists come and go: Vicente Manansala and Onib Olmedo held court in the coffee shop and challenged other artists to a game of chess.

There were weekend events in the large ground-floor room, and it was there that I watched all of Kidlat Tahimik?s films, starting with ?Mababangong Bangungot? (Perfumed Nightmare). It was there that I sat dumbfounded after a performance of Ionesco?s ?Bald Soprano? in Filipino. It was there that I learned about Rizalista cults in the magic mountains of Arayat, Banahaw and Makiling. The speaker was an ex-Carmelite nun who did a PhD dissertation on the group and got converted. I don?t remember much of the theology or philosophy behind it, but she waved around a sheet of bond paper with a drawing of a telephone dial that was supposed to be a hotline to God. Unfortunately, she did not provide us with God?s private number.

Every day after class, I would go to Heritage to do my homework and reading. Then while having merienda, I would watch people go by.

For art collectors in the early 1980s, Heritage was the place to be. There were about 27 rooms in the gallery, filled with paintings for every taste and budget. It was literally trash and treasure mixed together, but if you had a keen eye then, your choices would be worth a lot in today?s market. A small pre-War Fernando Amorsolo painting could be had for less than P30,000, a watercolor by Juan Luna for P50,000, a mural sized work by Anita Magsaysay Ho for less than P50,000. When I remember the prices then and compare with the astronomical figures set by Christie?s and Sotheby?s for the same works, today I wish I had taken an advance on my inheritance. Prices of the works of modern painters who would later be declared National Artists?H. R. Ocampo, Cesar Legaspi, Vicente Manansala, Arturo Luz, etc.?were affordable then. If you were short of cash, there was a lay-away, zero-interest plan available or sometimes plain barter. Art collecting used to be fun until it turned into the high stakes, speculative, sosyal pastime today.

Hovering about in spirit was Lyd Arguilla who owned the house and property where Heritage was. Although she was long dead, Arguilla?s memory sort of lent a connection to her pioneering Philippine Art Gallery.

I reminisce on all this today in the light of the coming Sotheby?s auction of Southeast Asian art in Hong Kong. I want to see how the market holds in these days of worldwide financial crisis.

As a college student on allowance I couldn?t afford great paintings, even if placed on a pay-when-able plan, so I bought what others did not buy: books. Heritage was not confined to paintings, prints and sculptures. It was a place of books, antiques, and other items considered junk by some but treasure by others. Tired old men pushing ?kariton? [wooden pushcarts] would drop by in the afternoons and unload sacks of used books on Mario Alcantara, who then had shelves made throughout the house where everything was stacked as they came, without much classification. I chose what I wanted and when I asked for the price, Alcantara would say, ?Pay what you think is fair.?

I didn?t realize at the time that he was taking note of what I bought. I didn?t realize then that I was sorting the books for him ? for free.

Years later, he brought me into one of the closed rooms of the gallery and switched on the lights. There on the shelves was an instant Filipiniana collection for anyone who could pay for it. He then explained that he had told his employees to find a copy of every book I bought, and through the years he collected a shadow of my library.

One never knew what would come up in a kariton, like a hard-cover, first edition of ?Rizal Philippine Nationalist and Martyr? by Austin Coates and published by the Oxford University Press. There was a copy bound in green with Jose Rizal?s monogram stamped on the cover. It cost P500 so I settled for a soft-cover reprint at P30.

When I met Coates and asked him to autograph my book, I asked about the copy I had seen at Heritage. I was surprised to learn that only three copies of the book with the monogram were in existence: the first was kept in file at the Oxford Press, the second copy was in the possession of the author, and the third was presented to Ferdinand Marcos. I rushed to the gallery weeks later, only to be told this rare copy was gone.

There are similar stories of things that got away, stories exchanged by collectors everywhere ? collectors of stamps, coins, baseball cards, Coke bottles, and Star Wars dolls. Collecting is a hobby and a compulsion. If only it would remain fun and reasonably priced.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

Copyright 2015 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.




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