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How Those Bonifacio and Aguinaldo Letters and Documents On Auction are Authenticated

The recent influx of historical documents by auction houses is changing how we view our history.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons / Courtesy of Leon Gallery
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The past few months have been momentous for the historical memorabilia auction scene, as important documents from pivotal scenes in Philippine history were put under the hammer, including documents penned by Bonifacio himself, Aguinaldo’s first-hand account of the Bonifacio execution, and the telegram that summoned General Antonio Luna to Cabanatuan. Certainly an exciting time for collectors, and even the government.

One of 150 pages of Emilio Jacinto’s poetry and pro-patria writings: “Sa Anak ng Bayan” was published in a book by scholar Jose P. Santos.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Leon Gallery
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These documents hinge their importance on context and, perhaps more importantly, authenticity. Here, Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, historical and cultural consultant for León Gallery, sheds light on how the auction house scene works and its place in preserving culture.

The Right Experts for the Job

León Gallery is proud to say that it consults with some of the country’s most eminent historians. Nakpil herself is the daughter of historian Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, and counts Julio Nakpil and Gregoria de Jesus as her ancestors. 

Some of the well-known historians León has worked with in the past include Jim Richardson, a foremost expert on Katipunan documents, and Adrian Cristobal, whose work Tragedy of the Revolution served as a reference for some documents. If Nakpil had to describe the auction house's consultants in a word, she says they are “obsessive.” 

Authenticating historical documents is sort of different from authenticating art. “Important historical documents, by their nature, are very well known and established, meaning they have been examined, translated, transcribed, and in many cases, photographed and reproduced in books and periodicals,” says Nakpil.

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“If these were works of art, these would be ‘book pieces’—or pieces that have appeared in art books—several times over. Being a ‘book piece’ adds to its desirability because it confers authenticity.”

This letter shows Emilio Aguinaldo's admission of his hand in Andres Bonifacio's execution.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Leon Gallery
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IMAGE: Courtesy of Leon Gallery

The Devil is in the Details

In the authentication process, the devil is in the details; Nakpil lists a few examples in the recent documents that were up for auction. She recalls Jim Richardson’s analysis of the Bonifacio letters, who pointed out that they “were authenticated by José Turiano Santiago, whose signature can be seen on each of the first pages.” Richardson adds, too, that “Santiago was Emilio Jacinto’s predecessor as secretary of the Katipunan Supreme Council, and hence familiar with Bonifacio’s handwriting.”

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“For the Aguinaldo confessions,” Nakpil says, “these were written in 1948; published and publicized in his lifetime, giving them additional credibility. In addition, it has been transcribed and, on one occasion, reproduced in a large photograph in Cristobal’s book (Tragedy of the Revolution, published 1997).”

Hen. Luna’s logbook of telegrams, the Entradantrada de Telegramas.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Leon Gallery
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The Luna telegram was also authenticated by Jim Richardson, who found the document “had been copied by Gen. Antonio Luna’s clerk into the Entrada de Telegramas, a record of all telegrams.” The Entrada is found in the Philippine Insurgent Records, a collection of documents confiscated by the Americans after the war.

“Three such telegrams were sent as a sort of a ‘text blast’ from Aguinaldo to ensure that Gen. Luna received the message,” Nakpil says. “Each telegram was numbered and the one on offer was No. 224, corresponding to its own entry in the logbook, making it indubitably authentic.”

Beyond this, auction houses also establish what is known as provenance, or a clearly established timeline of a document’s origin. If a document can be traced back to the author, then there’s no doubt of its authenticity. “The provenance of all the historical documents León Gallery has handled is both well-known and more importantly, well-documented,” she says. “The Bonifacio and Aguinaldo letters are from the collections of the scholars Epifanio de los Santos or his son Jose P. Santos. The Luna documents are from the Andres Luna de San Pedro collection, the son of Juan Luna.”

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Three telegrams were sent as a sort of “text blast” from Aguinaldo to Hen. Luna.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Leon Gallery

Nakpil points out that the auction items aren’t newly discovered. Historians have pored through these documents for years, but they may feel new to the public because of pop culture. “TV, cinema and newspaper columns, YouTube and social media—and I dare say, auction catalogues—are the way people come face to face with history these days,” she says. “This is how they consume it or breathe it in. In this way, the catalogues raise a lot of awareness about forgotten people and events.”

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More history: The Biggest Misconceptions About Andres Bonifacio

More history: The Life and Times of Emilio Aguinaldo

Commodifying our History?

The sophistication of methods and attention to detail of the auction market only shows just how lucrative it is, with individual items selling for as much as one million pesos. “Collecting historical artifacts is an age-old aristocratic obsession that is a worldwide phenomenon,” says Nakpil. “It’s a natural outgrowth of collecting art, antique furniture, and porcelain. After adding the umpteenth old or modern master to your collection, the next step is to acquire first editions, letters and documents, flags and insignias.”

This begs the question: Is the auction market turning history into a commodity?

Heritage commodification is the term used when cultural and historical themes are evaluated in terms of its economic value. This is why a hotel room in Baguio costs more than a hotel room in Dagupan, or why something by Rizal would fetch more than something by, say, Antonio Ora. Things like “cultural significance” and “tourist value” as ascribed to a place or a figure inflate its value in the eyes of the commodity market.

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Auction houses contribute to this sense of value in art and history. An auction house, apart from selling an actual piece of history, also becomes an avenue to showcase it. “The auctions have an interesting consequence,” says Nakpil, “and I don’t want to claim that it’s being done entirely as a non-profit enterprise—but the general public and even the Philippine government is now part of the audience.”

Auctions serve as a way to popularize history beyond the classroom. They generate buzz for historical documents, leading to more people finding out and appreciating the culture showcased therein. So, do auction houses turn history into a commodity? Nakpil disagrees. “In the strictest sense, a commodity is something that is bought and sold, that is traded,” she says. “Part of the exchange that is included in the transfer of art or historical document—that is absent when you’re just  talking about coffee beans or sides of beef, or even gold bars and silver ingots—is a very deep respect and responsibility to that object.” 

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“Our past is composed of the heroes and the heroic events of our country. That can never be commodified.”

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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