By Ces Oreña Drilon
In the usually opaque world of art, identities are shielded behind numbers on paddles and the anonymity of phone and online bidding. Last Saturday, at the León Gallery Magnificent September Auction, the unexpected happened. One of the country’s wealthiest men, Iñigo Zobel made a dramatic appearance on the auction floor to bid for a personal treasure.
A very special early work by the painter Fernando Zóbel , entitled “Siga-Siga”, was on the block. It was special not only because it had once been in the collection of Enrique “EZ” Zobel, who is a nephew of the artist and the man who had charted the bold expansion of Ayala Corporation in the 1970s, but also because the work was part of Zobel’s first exhibit at the Philippine Art Gallery. It was shown alongside the “Carozza,” the gold prize winner for modern painting in the Art Association of the Philippines competition in 1953, a year after the exhibition. This famous opus was later donated by the artist to the Ateneo Art Gallery in 1961.
As one of the elusive series from Zobel’s very first one-man exhibit at the legendary Philippine Art Gallery, it was surrounded by its own incredible mystique. “Siga-Siga” depicted a cocky cigarette vendor, from the Manila sidewalks, blackened by the sun and arms defiantly akimbo. Some said it was a metaphor for the brash atmosphere of the Philippines in the mid-century. The work, with its verve and raw simplicity, is as relevant in 2022, as it was 70 years ago when it was painted.
Connoisseurs would debate weeks after its arrival on the pages of the León auction catalogue whether it was truly the best of its kind and if it would trump the multi-millions paid for Zobel’s highly desirable “Saeta” abstracts.
Rumors that the Zobels themselves would make a run for the work were rife; the Zobel family, however, is well-known for their discretion and playing their cards extremely close to the chest. Nothing could be confirmed. It was said that certain members of the clan searched high and low for the work, even consulting the maestro of advisers, the scholar Ramon N. Villegas as to its whereabouts shortly before his demise.
“Siga-Siga” was Lot 123 in a field of 161 others and the day had already yielded several world records including one for what many consider the Philippines’ first and foremost abstract painter, Hernando R. Ocampo. Lot 23, the early HR piece, dated 1955 turned out to fetch the record for the auction. ‘Fifty-Five “A”’ sold for PHP 47,888,000.
But the Fernando Zobel “Siga-Siga” opus stole the thunder that day!
Almost exactly 10 lots before, Iñigo Zobel, son of Enrique, strode into the room, alone, dressed in jeans, dark glasses, and a fatigue-green jacket. It looked like he was ready for combat. He took a position in a chair in the very middle of the auction space and sat unaccompanied while the crowd went reverentially silent.
Auction participants recall a bevy of guards from Leon Gallery ushering Iñigo in and one hearing a convoy of back up cars outside the gallery entrance.
As bidding for “Siga-Siga” was announced open, the audience burst into cheers and wild applause, anticipating a battle royale. Starting at P10 million, a series of phone bids volleyed the prices skyward. Zobel remained quiet until the bidding reached P20M, when the paddle he was holding with the no. 66 went up.
The exchange of bids went up to P32 million in quick succession when it seemed to slow, finally moving to its last place, in favor of Iñigo Zobel. The room exploded when the hammer went down at P38 million or P44 million with buyer’s premium. Several people rushed over to congratulate him right before he slipped off after bidding for the piece.
Overheard after his victory, Zobel noted, “I want you to know that this painting belonged to me. It was given to me by my mother. It hung in my room. My father sold it.”
The aftermath of an auction is always full of analysis of what the day’s prices mean — or do not mean? One well-known collector said, “I was certain that this stupendous work would go for at least P50 million. But I have very good information that when one other very serious bidder heard that he was bidding against Iñigo, he opted out of the race.”
Two days after the dramatic auction, Iñigo Zobel tells me over the phone, when I asked what prompted him to personally bid for the work, in a “siga-siga” fashion, akin to the work he was set on reclaiming; his voice still betrayed the thrill of the chase, “I have searched 20-25 years for that painting. My mother gave it to me when my parents were still together.” There were no ifs or buts, he just had to be there to lay his claim.
When Iñigo’s parents separated and his mother moved to Spain, his father Enrique, sold their house in Forbes Park, which was right beside the house of Iñigo’s grand-uncle Fernando (the artist’s home now belongs to Iñigo’s cousin Fernando.) Iñigo recalled how he would watch his grand uncle paint in that house when he was growing up, “I was very close to him.” He would also spend summers in Cuenca, Spain where his mother lived and where his grand-uncle had a studio in a two-storey home they all shared together. Iñigo’s mother Roció was very close to his Tio Fernando, “Maybe even closer than my father. They lived in the same world – Art,” he confides.
After the separation, EZ sold the house, some pieces of furniture and art works, Iñigo explains, “he wasn’t very attached to them, they were more my mother’s taste. They then moved to Alabang, as his father explained to him, “we had to move there as we were developing that area.” Iñigo was then away at boarding school and never saw the painting again. “I heard it was acquired for PHP30,000 at that time. “
But his search for the elusive painting never stopped. About a decade ago, he came across a photo of their old lanai where a study of the “Siga-Siga” had been hung. As word got out about his treasure hunt, Iñigo eventually acquired the study through Jaime Ponce de Leon, owner and founder of Leon Gallery. Jaime managed to zero in on the piece overseas! In 2012, Jaime sold the study to Iñigo. He was finally closing in! But it was not until about five years ago that Iñigo set eyes on the masterpiece itself. A close friend brought him to the home of a lady, who owned the work. But alas, she didn’t want to part with it. “She said maybe someday,” Iñigo recalls, “ I waited long enough so I said to myself what’s a little more time.”
Then last month, the catalog of the Leon Gallery September auction was sent out featuring the elusive painting on the cover! “Siga-Siga” had a floor price of PHP10M. Iñigo remembers that day, “there is no ceiling. I would have tripled that amount.” In the end, he paid more, PHP44M with the buyer’s premium. He laughs, “I just received my bill and now I have to cough up! “
PHP44M is the third highest a Zobel piece fetched at an auction and the highest for a non-abstract work. Zobel is renowned for his abstractions. Serendipitously, starting this November 15, the Prado Museum in Madrid will open an exhibition of Fernando Zobel. The exhibition is part of a program where the museum opens its doors to contemporary art. Zóbel will be celebrated alongside an exhibition on Pablo Picasso and El Greco. Entitled Fernando Zóbel and the History of Art, the exhibit will run from November 15, 2022 to March 5, 2023, and will feature a dialogue of the author’s sketchbooks “in which, starting from the classic copy, he ends up building his own abstract imaginary.”
The Siga-Siga painting will have a special place in a new home Iñigo is building in Makati, but for now it will be hung in his bedroom just like it did when he was young.
“I am really happy I got it. That it’s back with me. It’s very emotional. There is a lot of history. It’s very special, “ Iñigo says.
At the end of the day, art is not just about the relationship between paint and canvas but also the relationship between collectors — past, present and future — as they renew those connections.