Books & Art

The 'Original Spoliarium' May Have Just Been Returned to the Philippines

Richie Lerma of Salcedo Auctions tells the compelling story of what could be the art find of the century.
IMAGE Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions
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The importance of Juan Luna's "Spoliarium" transcends its artistic significance, which is saying quite a lot. Widely considered to be Juan Luna's masterpiece, every Filipino schoolchild knows the work not only as the monumental painting that now occupies a place of honor at the National Art Gallery, but as a landmark achievement for Filipinos.

In winning a First Class medal at the 1884 Expocision Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid (while Felix Resureccion Hidalgo took home a Second Class medal for another work), Luna also scored a symbolic and moral victory on behalf of Filipinos. The win proved that indios were the intellectual equal of the Spanish colonizers—therefore bolstering the cause of Luna, Hidalgo, and their compatriots in the Propaganda Movement, who were fighting for recognition and equal treatment from Spain.

"Very few works in national collections have achieved similar stature: this merging of political and art history in a single image—one so powerful that it can be said to ultimately define a people," writes Ramon Lerma, curator and director of Salcedo Auctions.

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And so jaws dropped when Lerma announced that the auction house will be featuring a newly found boceto of the "Spoliarium." A boceto is a preliminary rendering of a piece—a "sketch," if you will, or a practice run in preparation for the bigger rendering, so this is essentially a small-scale and earlier rendition of the "Spoliarium."

Courtesy of Salcedo Auctions

Would you consider this the original "Spoliarium," Lerma was asked. "It is," he replied, drawing nervous laughter from the small crowd at the unveiling. "In my view, this is the original 'Spoliarium' because this is the earliest version of ‘Spoliarium'."

Of course, the question foremost in most people's minds is: Is it real? While Lerma says that he is happy to present the painting's story and "let people decide for themselves," he is convinced that the evidence presents a compelling story. The provenance of the painting seems to present a more or less direct line from Luna all the way to the present-day owners (a private European collector who wishes to remain anonymous), for one thing. The handwriting and signature on the boceto lines up with what we know of the artist, too: "The penmanship is clearly that of Luna," Lerma says. 

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The "most tantalizing detail" for Lerma is the baybayin script at the bottom of the work, which, he ventures, stands for "bu lan," the Ilocano word for "moon"; luna, of course, being its Spanish equivalent. It would have to be a staggering coincidence for this to be other than Luna's doing. 

While Lerma presents the details of the find and of their detective work in the accompanying video presentation, Salcedo Auctions declines to give an answer to the other question on everybody's minds: How much will this historic piece fetch at auction? (The estimate is "available upon request.")

In the meantime, the public will have a chance to decide for themselves by seeing it up close. The boceto will be the featured art work among other significant pieces at the Well-Appointed Life Auction on August 22 at the Peninsula Manila. Before then, it is open to preview along with the other pieces from September 13 to 21 at the Gallery of the Peninsula.

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