Getting to know the aesthetes who started Makati’s auction houses

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When I met Richie Lerma for the first time, the foremost question I asked him was where the Lermas were from. I had read about the old Lermas who came from Bicol, but this one, I was made to understand, was from Manila.

Richie’s father himself grew up in the Avenida-Escolta part of town, and his uncle has a compound in the Blumentritt area, to which he and his parents went during special occasions when he was still a child. He assumes all Lermas are related to one another although I forgot to ask if they have anything to do with that street of the same name in the University Belt.

RICHIE and Karen Lerma, director and president of Salcedo Auctions.

So, what do all these things matter to Proust and his journey to the summit? Well, family, family, family is foremost. Which Araneta are you from? Cubao or Quiapo? Or Zamboanga? (Although they are related to one another.) Which Ledesma — rich, a little bit richer, a diva who would insist she came from the humble branch, or the legislator who, as of the last pronouncement we heard, was giving away his family’s vast lands?

Remember the art patroness, Purita Kalaw Ledesma, who said that by the time she had married into her husband’s family, the earlier generations had already divided the lands among themselves, there was hardly enough for their progeny to play around with? Not that it mattered to her if her husband only had a handful planted to sugarcane. After all, she was the daughter of the astute pioneering realtor and suffragist Pura Villanueva Kalaw.

EVITA Sarenas of Finale Auctions and Finale Art Gallery.

Purita, interestingly, was good at both investing in lands and investing in the arts. Although we all know she helped a lot of artists whose names would become big, one wonders now if they became well-known because she collected them, or if she recognized their talent before anyone did and so bought their paintings. Either way, both parties, we tend to believe, had been happy with the patron-artist relationship.

But to go back to the Lermas, “primero” social-climbing “yo“ am, of course, interested in knowing which Lerma Richie descends from because, according to one history book I read, the street in the University Belt was named after Juana Lerma, the rich landowner and grandmother of Benito Legarda. And if Richie used to go to this compound in the middle of this jungle we call Manila, well, there must be some connection. This, I must soon find out.

BOCETO for ‘Spoliarium‘ was sold at a record price.

The Aussie connection

What Richie is certain of is that his forebears have always been engaged in the pawnshop business, while his own parents owned Lahi Crafts, exporter of decorative arts “where I was constantly surrounded by beautiful objects and by people like Corazon Alvina who were interested in them.”

In college, at Ateneo, “I did my undergraduate degree in humanities. And my area of interest was Philippine visual arts,” Richie reveals. His favorite mentor was Eric Torres, the art critic and director of the Ateneo Art Gallery.

Next, he attended the Instituto d’Arte d’ Lorenzo d Medici for Art History in Milan where he focused on the Arts in the Renaissance. Not long after, he received an invitation to join the museum of Ateneo as an assistant curator. Then, he was given a scholarship to take a master’s degree in arts administration in Australia. After he came back to the Philippines, he was promoted to the position of curator in 2001. He retired from Ateneo in 2016, after about 15 years of service. In 2004, he started the Ateneo Art Awards.

FINALE habitues usually find a proliferation of art works in the gallery.

Somewhere along the way, in 2006, when he was married already, he and his wife, Karen, moved to Australia, all the while keeping his Ateneo post. So, he would travel back and forth.
It was during their stay from 2006 to 2009 that, he says, “We saw a lot of auctions taking place because in Australia, most everything was in the secondary market, whether it was real estate, jewelry, art, or pre-owned, and these were sold in auction right in our neighborhood. And so we thought, how come there’s nothing like that in the Philippines? At that time, it was the craziest idea.”

When they came back in 2009, “we just put that idea into reality. We put it together and found a space.” He is referring to their spanking address at Salcedo Village, which is close to the Salcedo Market where the uppity crowd meets for Sunday brunches and buys their gourmet ensaymada, laing and longganiza.

Their first auction though was in Rockwell in July of 2010. “It was an auction of just 10 artworks. At that time when I came back, Rockwell was then launching its Edades Towers. And they wanted to put together a unique marketing event for Edades Towers. They knew me because the Ateneo Arts Awards used to be held at the Power Plant Mall, so that was the connection and so they trusted my eye.”

The rest is history.

THE creative elite viewing the artworks at Finale.

The gallerist

Evita “Vita” Sarenas might have been your typical provinciana, naturally sweet and welcoming, except that she looks more like a bohemian who’s at home in the company of the rich and famous, especially the upper bohemians themselves, the so-called “enlightened elite.”

After graduating from high school in Davao, her parents sent her to Manila where she took up Fine Arts and majored in Advertising at the College of the Holy Spirit. This post-modern lady, who looks every inch an unfettered spirit, might have been, only a few years back, an interna whose every movement was measured according to the standards of the nuns.

The Vita whom I first met at Finale Art File which now doubles as Finale Auctions (until the venue of the second is ready), was most charming. As soon as I looked at her, I asked myself where I was all these years because this was one kindred spirit, not in the sense of our having the same social aspirations, but in the way I would want to relate to people, so relaxed and so articulate. Make that lively and chatty, as she herself was wondering, “Why am I telling you all these?”

Hers is an interesting story, but we must click fast-forward. She finished college, went back to Davao to teach, returned to Manila, went into textile designing, got tired of it and helped mount a Sining Kamalig exhibition at the Regent Hotel. Then, they asked her to stay with them, so she stayed, but soon quit.

She met a lot of people, one of them the CCP curator, Ray Albano, “who suggested that I put up a gallery,” she relates. “He said, ‘You like it and you’re good at it.” So, we put up our gallery in 1983. By “we,” she means herself, Ray and a friend who used to work at Sining Kamalig, Inday Tiansay.

How it grew is a story of friendship among people who would help one another, not for the economic gains, but for plain and pure friendship. Ray’s associate at the CCP, Tony Espejo, who was then the big boss of Gantimpala Theater, asked his friend, Ben Chan (Yes, the Ben Chan of the future Bench) “if we could use a space in his boutique at Atrium, which sold mostly home accessories and dresses. Ben Chan must have been in his late 20s then.

“So he gave us a wall and he built a small stock room for us. Since the name of his store was Finale, we decided to call our corner of the space as Finale Art File. When we had a sale, we would give him a little commission. Kasi we were using the light and the space. He was so nice, he didn’t charge us rent.

JEREMY Barns, director of the National Museum of the Philippines, with Richie Lerma.

“When he decided to sell the unit, he found us a place in Sunvar Plaza. He even helped us set it up. Around this time, he was also setting up Bench, and when he got very busy, and Bench demanded most of his time, he gave the Finale Art File all up to us. ‘Kayo na diyan, hindi na ako kasale diyan’ (It’s all yours, I’m out) he said.

Ray Albano, being who he was, was responsible for bringing in artists who would exhibit at the Finale. Their first show featured the four masters: Cesar Legaspi, Malang, Ang Kiukok and Romulo Olazo. Hence, the exhibition was titled, “Four Masters, Four Worlds.” It became an annual event which lasted until Legaspi passed on. Vita believes it is to these masters they owe the initial success of the Finale Art Gallery.

Another associate of Ray’s, Roberto Chabet, brought in his young students, many of whom would eventually become the big names in contemporary visual arts — Nilo Ilarde, Jerry Tan, Francesca Enriquez, Pardo de Leon, Popo San Pascual, who all considered him the ultimate guru.

After Ray Albano passed on, Finale moved to the La O Center upon the suggestion of Kit Roxas. Here, art and antique dealers had been entrenched for a long while, and soon, Vita and antiquities expert and book author Ramon Villegas became close.

Fun and small

In 2005, Mon suggested that they conduct an auction. Of the new decade and millennium, theirs was the first auction establishment.

Vita clarifies that in the 1980s, Manila Auction House was established by Connie Gonzales and Maricris Olbes.

“Our auction in 2005 was almost just for fun except that we were dealing in great art works,” Vita recounts. “We started small with our auctions in La O Center, on the second-floor showroom of Ramon. We did that from the latter part of 2005 and then stopped it in 2013.

We had 13 auctions. What happened was the collectors would ask us to sell pieces now and then. That time, in 2005, people were selling. So, Mon said, why don’t we have an auction? And that started it, with Ramon himself as our auctioneer. Manila’s top collectors came to bid.”

Meantime, Vita went on with her art gallery. She points out, “I’m not a store, I’m a gallerist,” in response to people’s thinking that “this is just selling. Instead, I want to show what we have, but I just won’t hang it there. It is curated.”

Vita now is the sole owner of Finale Art File, meaning just the gallery, although she stresses, “I never think I am alone here because my people have been with me for 20 years or more. They also enjoy what we are doing. And I can trust them.”

The Finale Auctions, on the other hand, is a result of her collaboration with her friend, Jayson Ong, a young businessman, “who’s really a collector. We would go to auctions together, so it was art that got us together. He had been telling me that we should put up our own auction house.”

Vita finally agreed to Jayson’s idea when her clients, “who usually come with their art works, and ask me to sell them in my backroom which had always been my bread and butter, chose to sell them in an auction. So, that’s why we’re here now.”

Finale Auctions, as we know it today, has already had two auctions, October last year and April this 2018. Just recently, when I came visiting, was the third auction.

The moral of the story? I could glean several. Be good at what you’re doing and enjoy it thoroughly. People are bound to notice and they’re even willing to help you. Also, you get into exclusive circles because you have a purpose in their lives. And, of course, be fair, even in a world where you could dictate prices. Art collectors would be happy with a little discount here and there. But then, auctions are another story because the bidders themselves dictate the price. Then, they can’t complain. Keep them happy, and they keep coming back. You don’t have to worm your way into their lives.

Vita doesn’t give a hoot about high society but they’re chummy with her. And she’s not about to claim she belongs in their tight circle. Trabaho lang, she is sure to say. But then, it’s not just about work. It’s about art, and it’s about enjoying it. And it’s about being polite and friendly. It helps too that one is comfortable around the Bobos, or the Bourgeois Bohemians, and Vita does know how to mix with them.

In the latest Finale auction, also offered were watches and jewelry, which leads us to getting to know another erudite gentleman of Manila’s top drawer crowd. He goes by the name of Paolo Martel. The story of his love affair with the finer yet powerful things of life comes your way next week.

(Should you wish to agree or disagree, or call my attention to something interesting, please email me at jojosilvestre54@yahoo.com.)

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