Just before the Leon Gallery auction featuring the collection of the late Leonardo and Armida Siguion-Reyna, one of their grandchildren revisits loss and memories.
“For people who are passionate about art, selling is often associated with a sense of loss, and this is compounded when the selling is spurred by the loss of a loved one,” writes Sarah Thornton in Seven Days in The Art World, in the section about art auctions.
She goes on to describe Honor James (pseudonym), a woman who watched as pieces from her parents’ collection of 600 had been bid for and sold at various auctions. “As paintings and sculptures from her family home came up on the block, she would tell me, “That was in my parents’ bedroom,” continues Thornton, “That was on the table in the hall.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking of this part of the book. On September 11, a selection of art work that belonged to my grandparents Leonardo and Armida Siguion-Reyna are to be on the block at the Leon Art Gallery.
After Mahal (what we grandchildren called our Lola) passed in February of 2019, we continued having family lunches there, but when the pandemic started, my immediate family never returned. There’s an Amorsolo and a Sansó in the sale, along with Abueva’s marble Code of Kalantiaw that used to sit on a table in the foyer. After this Saturday, I may never see those again.
In the second version of the house (there were three: the one my dad and his siblings grew up in, the one I remember most fondly as a grandchild, and then the current iteration from my teenaged years onwards), the untitled Garcia Llamas was the first thing you saw in all its vertical glory as you entered the house.
The Lavanderas, meanwhile, took pride of place in the master bedroom, where my brother and I would sometimes sleep over, on mattresses on the floor. As a child, you don’t know the glory of the things that surround you, so I was clueless about the importance of Amorsolo.
It was only until I took up art history in college, and a stint interning at The National Museum, that I learned more about the man, and how valuable his work remains today.
James described the same feeling in the book: during an Art 101 survey course at Duke, there was a work she recognized on the slide projector. “All of a sudden an Arshile Gorky came up on the screen and I said, ‘Oh my God. We have one of those.’ All these slides went by of artists whose work we had in the house. We had never been told that they were valuable or famous. I had no idea.”
“Traditionally, auctions have been associated with the 3 Ds. Death, Divorce, and Debt,” says Jaime Ponce de Leon, the founder of Leon Gallery.
I was curious about the significance of auctions following a death in the family, so I emailed him, and he was kind enough to take my questions. How does all of this work? According to de Leon, the process, on paper, is pretty easy.
“In the instance of death, the heirs would ideally sell the art and other movable property through auction not only for the maximization of the sale but mainly for the aspect of transparency and fairness,” he says.
All it takes from the part of a family is to call for an immediate inspection of the property and to agree on terms and reserve prices. “As easy as that. Once done, we do the scheduling and we determine to which sale the pieces should go. That’s it!”
The affair should be relatively painless, but according to de Leon, he has dealt with numerous families, each with their priorities, and their situations.
“It is very difficult to divide art as the value is very subjective,” he tells me. As an example, he gave an anecdote about an old mestizo family whose parents had passed. The task facing the children was to divide the numerous art pieces.
“A brother wanted the Anita, a sister wanted the Hidalgo, and so on. The problem here is putting a value on each piece. Every sibling would naturally want a cheap valuation for the pieces they want for themselves,” he says.
That story had a happy ending. De Leon says a sibling stepped in and proposed an auction at Leon Gallery, to allow everyone the chance of paying for a fair price.
“I believe it was a sound suggestion as it prevents disgusto within the family,” he says. “The disgusto later on would cause resentment, like a wound that never heals.”
The family decided to auction all the pieces and every member of the family was welcome to participate without prejudice on the valuation and with full transparency and fairness. Excellent family relations prevailed.
The two biggest pieces expected to fetch the biggest price in the collection are the Amorsolo and Sansó’s Midnight Hues. Sylvia Amorsolo-Lazo authenticated the Amorsolo and the Sansó comes with a certificate from Fundacion Sansó confirming its authenticity.
“An authentication is only as good as the credibility of the authenticator,” says de Leon, naming Amorsolo-Lazo as a credible source in authenticating the works of her father, and another, Soler Santos in doing so for the works of his father, Mauro Malang Santos. Both are experts, using connoisseurship as the methodology of authenticating the validity of a work of art.
Another way is to rely on authentication based on ledgers on provenances. While de Leon says this has its worth, some issues arise when authentic pieces are denied authenticity only for the basis of their absence in the said ledgers. “It’s very sad,” he says.
Memories that matter
For James, selling the first few pieces from her parents’ collection was tough (her parents named her the executor of the estate and willed that all assets be liquidated, for all proceeds to be donated to a local community foundation).
“It was really difficult to see the Pollock and the Rothko being packed up to leave. It was like having your children leave home,” she tells Thornton. “I didn’t have any appreciation of the huge sense of personal loss that I’d feel.”
While I’m aware that others have lost so much more in this period, I believe any feeling of loss is important to think about and parse through, which is what I’ve been doing while writing this.
I’ve come to realize it’s not sadness per se that I feel, but the having to go through the rigmarole of grief. I thought it was done. Turns out, it might never be.
After sharing parts of Sarah Thornton’s book with de Leon, he told me it was normal for me, and for anyone else in this situation to feel this way. “It’s truly hard to part things you grew up with,” he says.
His advice is complete detachment from the worldly aspect. “In the case of Honor James the proceeds were all to go to charity, which is a very noble thing to do,” he says. “This assuages the feelings of loss and grief of having to part with something that once was part of your life… the money is meant for a good cause and you can always look back on the sale of the artwork that was for such purpose.”
De Leon invited me to come to the gallery and see the pieces for one last time. Rules in my household are quite stringent when it comes to leaving the house (as in, I can’t), so I have made my peace with possibly never seeing these works again.
And truly, it doesn’t matter. It’s what Leonardo and Armida Siguion-Reyna did in their lifetime, in the spheres of law and Filipino music, film and anti-censorship advocacy that will be remembered for years to come, and not for the works of art that used to hang in their house.
At the end of the day, they were my Lolo Sig and Mahal, who had a cabinet of sweets in their bedroom (truthfully, this to me, was the greatest thing there), who took us on adventures and helped provide to give my family the lives we have today. They were the greatest people I ever knew.
As de Leon says, in the end, it will always be the good memories that matter. “To be able to see your artwork in a museum or someone else’s house will always be a source of pride and nostalgia,” he says. “After all, we are only custodians of these, and they are meant to be passed on to others.”
The Magnificent September Auction at Leon Gallery will take place on 2:00 PM (GMT +8), September 11, Saturday. To see the lots for auction, see here. For information on how to bid online, please visit here.