Hobnobbing with the big bosses of auction houses

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Recently, I have not only been climbing vertically. I have also done a little social hopping, which is to say a horizontal kind of climbing, if you can imagine that, or expanding one’s reach within a social radius, if you know your geometry.

So, that’s the next rule. Or lesson, if you will. It is not enough to go up, up and away. It is just as essential to look around. The social summit, you see, is not just what’s up there but also what’s around you, the right people you should try to rub elbows with, if you could get any closer to them.

I am referring to the relatively new, yet, paradoxically, old world of auctions. And I can assure you, I had such a good time because I learned from the masters themselves, meaning the auction house owners who make it their business to know what they’re offering to the enthusiasts of the good life.

HEART Evangelista (second from left) with the Lhuilliers: Camille, Philippe and Angelique.

This way, I told myself, I would learn the right things and pass them off as if I knew them from the day I was born. I could always say I learned it from my Mom, bless her, who would not have known a Lalique vase if she saw one. Although she had her own collection of vases and bibelots, some of them given by detail men to my physician father, others she bought in a Quiapo store at a cheap price, she would proudly announce. Although she might have been referring to Aguinaldo’s, for all I know.

Of course, I was being cautious; that’s why I chose to talk to the auction house bosses. I didn’t think it was easy to talk to the people who came to bid, if you could spot the real connoisseurs, although there were some polite, half-smiling, half-smirking faces (“Oh, gosh, here comes this plump-oh who couldn’t even pass himself off as a parvenu; hasn’t he ever read about the social tricks of those elegant news hens of yore? Que Asco.”).

Between talking to the auction bosses who were very sweet, kind and obliging and gorging surreptitiously on the plentiful finger food, I decided to be low-key, sat down or moved around the art pieces and all those finer things in life, and pretended to breathe in the elegant air that emanated from the Lunas and Amorsolos, the Dalis and Patek Philippes, the last securely enclosed in a glass display case, a precaution I could understand. In this country, you could never tell, with those respectable-looking thieves.

JAIME Ponce de Leon, founder of Leon Gallery.
JAIME Ponce de Leon, founder of Leon Gallery.

My friendly village neighbor

The first time I met Jaime Ponce de Leon of Leon Gallery, I thought I was face to face with my imaginary neighbor. I say “imaginary” because in my fantasies, I’m chummy with not just any other neighbor. Instead, he is my friendly neighbor in Forbes or Dasma. More aptly, if our haciendas stood beside each other, we would be neighbors still. His thousands of hectares, real; mine, all in a concocted title, like we’ve heard and read of lately.

There’s something provincial about Jaime, but I am saying this with great affection. Jaime meets you for the first time and it’s as though you’ve known each other forever. That is, I believe, an Ilonggo trait, if he is not being a snob, and we, of course, know there are a lot of them. Not that I’ve been snubbed or maliciously pointed at by the handsome Teddy Boy Locsin whom I must get to know if I know whom to know today.

But to go back to Jaime, you’d think you were talking to your neighbor, with all his warmth, his mellifluous way of talking, and his making it sound like you were the most important person in the room. Well, I was alone with him on that side of his office-that-looks-like-a-rich-man’s-store-room, but even if we were, you would know he’s that kind of person.

Probably because he comes from the less snobbish side of Negros Island, although I suspect I would soon be warned not to be sure about this statement. What is certain is Jaime doesn’t look like the Angry Christ of Alfonso Ossorio, but a god who gives you all his attention. No one could be more deserving of the title of Director of the Leon Gallery. When it comes to niceness and sweetness, Jaime is sans rival, like his hometown’s modern-day culinary specialty.

Jaime grew up in Dumaguete and moved to Manila 12 years ago.

PROUST with Casa de Memoria’s marketing manager Camille Lhuillier.

Here’s the big surprise. He used to be the barangay captain of that side of Dumaguete where you find that famous Rizal Boulevard, known for its cleanliness and the food that tourists love.

“But I wanted bigger things. I wanted to explore the big city,” says Jaime, who comes from a political family. His great grandfather was governor of the province. His mother is a Teves-Larena. His father is an Arnaiz-Ponce de Leon. As he says these things, Proust keeps nodding to himself, knowing in his heart, ‘I am in the right place and the right company. Include, too, curator Liza Guerrero-Nakpil, Tats Manahan and her cousin-in-law Tonico, and, of course, the high society raconteur and provocateur Toto Gonzalez, who are always present in Leon Gallery events, the last even lecturing about the excesses and debauchery of the rich of yore, shouldn’t Proust be congratulating himself?’

A graduate of Silliman University, Jaime says, “I have always been really drawn to the arts, to nice furniture, to all these things.”

By the time he was 40 and had had enough of politics, even resigning from his post, he worked in sales for Megaworld, left for Malaysia for a brief sojourn, and as soon as he came back to the Philippines, took up Interior Design in Manila.

As an Interior Design student, he, of course, “started designing, and that’s how I got acquainted with the business of art. You move art pieces.” He then put up an art gallery at Corinthian Plaza.

Jaime got into the world of auction accidentally, although it was a fortuitous turn of events.
“At the end of 2012, a lawyer friend approached me,” he recalls. “They were liquidating an insurance company that folded up. And they needed to sell a number of paintings. And I think by law you could only sell it through auction.

“So, with my zero knowledge of auction, I said, okay, we will do it. So, that’s how we first did it, and then it continued and continued. There was one Amorsolo, one Zalameda, one Joya and other artists whom I didn’t even know. Most likely these were courtesy buys of the owners when they attended shows or when they were invited to cut ribbons in exhibitions opening.”

Jaime has since attended a lot of courses, sharing that in the last five or six years, “I have even taken a lot more courses in Sotheby’s in New York and Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts) in London where I learned about auctions, history of art, arts and so on. Then I took strategies of business in Harvard University.” This year alone, he took a course on Art Law, and another on Contemporary Art Market.

Jaime avers, “The last five or six years have been very challenging. People were watching us very carefully, the kind of pieces we had, with regard to such things as authenticity and all these. We always did everything right. We tried to do our best all the time. We followed the rules, so that’s how we gained our foothold in the business. We got the trust from old families.”

Someone in the know told Proust that Leon Gallery had been entrusted with the treasures of the likes of the aristocratic Aranetas, the family of the late formidable Bebe Virata, humorous newsman Joe and his wife Nene Guevarra, important collectors Tony and Ces Enriquez, and restaurateur-cum-creative writer Linda Enriquez Panlilio.

Jaime, ever engaging, explains that auctions, in the past, were always about “the three Ds —Death, Divorce and Debt. So, people unloaded because of these three reasons. But such is not the case anymore. People are still on top of the game but they want to edit their collection. Like they have things on their walls and they feel that they don’t go well anymore with their houses. They want to sell a piece of art because they want to buy something new. So, this is now why people sell.”

He talks just as confidently of the things he auctions off. He points at the long, sturdy table before us and describes its details with utmost authority. “This table, for example, is a large piece. This is from the Valderrama family and it is one big, whole piece of wood. It’s not easy to sell because you won’t need it even if you had all the resources. But there’s probably one gentleman in Forbes Park who has just built a huge house and now needs a table.” (“He even predicts its future,” I tell myself.)

He is pleased that Leon Gallery sold the portraits of Chona Ysmael, one by Claudio Bravo and another by Amorsolo. I prefer to shut up and not tell him that I knew that the Bravo fetched P3 million, and the Amorsolo, P2 milion, if I remember my figures right.

“Chona was a very famous woman so it would be great to have her name,” points out Jaime. “The buyers would want to have the glamour of having something once owned by Chona herself, and with Chona herself as the subject.”

While he does not name who the buyers were, he shares as much as telling me that one was bought by “someone who wanted to have a Claudio Bravo, and the other by a regular collector who was enamored by Chona.”

“That could not have been Hans’ wandering spirit,” Proust confidently tells himself.

LEON Gallery’s founder Jaime Ponce de Leon with his partner, Robbie Santos.

The ‘It Girl’ from the house of memories

If Jaime looks like my imaginary friendly neighbor in some uppity village, Camille Lhuilier, who is in charge of marketing of Casa de Memoria, looks like the “It Girl” I have always imagined myself to be.

Camille is the second to the youngest of the seven children of Ambassador Philippe and Mrs. Edna Lhuillier. He is our current envoy to Spain.

Camille and her sister, Angelique, started thinking about putting up an auction house in 2016.

It was a business they knew they would be at home in “as we both grew up around art because our dad is a collector,” she says. “Art was something that we enjoyed from our younger days. And as part of the experience, we would go with our parents to flea markets, museums, galleries and auction houses.”

Of their Dad, Camille shares, “I think art is something that my father has been interested in even when he was very young. He has always been a passion collector.

“We would always say in the family that Dad was born a salesman. While in grade school in La Salle, he would buy secondhand watches, and then sell them to his classmates and teachers. He was 11 years old. So it is something that is ingrained in him.”

“I grew up in Rome,” says Camille, whose father was Philippines ambassador to Italy from 1999 to 2010. “So, that was my exposure. I can’t not love art.”

In Poveda where she started school, she was exposed to the sciences and math, but when they transferred to Rome, and she enrolled at Marymount, “I had a different, more stimulating experience.”

When she and Angelique started the company in 2016, it was clear between them that she would handle the artistic and marketing side of management.

“From the start, we wanted it to be an International Auction House, one that specializes in international art pieces and decor, rather than local ones. Our objects are mostly European and Oriental. We may have one or two Filipino pieces but that’s not our focus. Our focus is really international so that’s what makes us different.”

Looking beyond the commercial aspects of an auction house, they found out, “there was an opportunity for us to educate the Filipinos in finding the roots of arts again. We have very unique pieces, some of them from the 16th century. You will never find them again,” Camille says.

As soon as she met people and visited their homes, or saw what they brought to the Casa de Memorias, she realized that “the elder generations, including my parents, collected objets d’art that were mostly Spanish and French, not from the Philippines. It has only been recently that people have been buying Philippine art, so we now have older collectors who are consigning to us.”

She classifies collectors into “those who are like my father who likes to collect and hoard; those who like to collect and collect and make new space for new things; and there are new collectors who are not really that confident. They just collect a few pieces.”

Camille doesn’t mind that people “come in and take a look. You don’t need an invitation to see the works. We actually encourage people to come in and then say I can actually afford this. Things from P5,000 and up.”

True enough, when I came to have a look at the pieces offered for bidding in the recent Casa Interiors Auction, I found some interesting treasures that, well, Proust could easily afford — that is if the price didn’t go up. A George II Style chest of drawers, described to be English late 18th to early 19th century, was available for only P15,000. A pair of Vieux Paris porcelain vases could have been Proust’s for the asking, at the initial tag of P8,000. And if you’re the kind who loves infants, not necessarily your own, there was indeed a set of three drawings of infants, of European 19th century origin with one signed “Ernesto” available at the starting bid for only P18,000. Of course, I was thinking, all these were bound to go higher, but what if only you love babies on paper?

At the other end of the value spectrum, was a bronze sculpture of a “Cosmic Rhinoceros” by Salvador Dali. It came with a certificate, of course, at P1,650,000 to get the bidders revved up. A favorite of Proust’s, though, was an Hispano-Filipino 18th century ivory head of Jesus Nazareno, which shows his right ear. It simply means that Christ listens to our prayers, something that I could easily believe with or without this beautiful treasure right in front of me. But then, I could still keep it, if only as a symbol of God’s love, for P650,000.

But if you want the whole Infant Jesus, Saviour of the World, nothing beats the Indo-Portuguese 17th century polychrome ivory representing our very own Sto. Nino. Interestingly, it has a little of Buddhism in it, with his conch-shaped hair (for sacredness, resembling the hair of Buddha, according to the catalogue), and a square base which resembles a Buddhist Temple’s base. What would be universal, of course, are his hands in gesture of benediction, and the Infant himself standing on a globe, which means he rules over us all. There’s of course a different way of looking at these things, which is beyond their final price. Proust would not have minded if the final bid went up to millions of pesos, but I have yet to find out from dear Camille, who’s very cheerful and accommodating.

For Camille and Angelique, getting into the auction house business was “not because of the monetary value that we could derive from the sale of these treasures. This was, from the outset, a passion project. My sister and I, and our cousin Poli Mathay, are all art-oriented.” The creative director, says Camille, “is Miguel Rosales, who is quite well known in the art scene.”

“I must meet this guy,” Proust tells himself because he wants to be able to look at an art object and pronounce it “Excellent” or “Fabulous” or even better, “Magnifique.”
Camille concludes, “We had to learn the auction business, but we’re in a place that we’re confident to be in now.”

Next week: All about Richie Lerma, the quintessential academic; Vita Sarenas, the Davaoena who made it big in Manila’s art scene with the help of Ben Chan; and Paolo Martel and his P10 million watch, and that’s just for starters.

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