Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I can’t believe this 13 in. ivory San Juan found in Tiendesitas was passed up several times by many antique collectors. It had sat for too long at the Bernales Antique Shop—and had been relegated to a shelf full of repro santos and second-rate antiques.

When I asked about the piece, the girl manning the store told me that this ivory santo (which she couldn’t even recognize) had elicited a lot of inquiries and interest from prospective buyers, both here and abroad. In fact, she said, a U.S. customer had been calling her about his particular item. If that were so, I thought about telling her, why is this ivory Juan still here?

Well, as collectors know by now, when Tiendesitas opened a few years back, the arts and antique section was much ballyhooed as the place with the most number of dealers carrying the finest selection of antiques. Indeed, some of the shops in Mabini and Philtrade relocated to Tiendesitas with the hope of winning new clientele and doing good business there. Apparently, this did not happen; but it’s not easy to see why. The exorbitant price tags of antiques at Tiendesitas are the biggest turn-offs--prices often pegged according to the dealer’s whim rather than based on true market values.

When I finally asked about the price, I was already expecting the worse. To my surprise, she quoted something that I thought was very reasonable. When the shop owner arrived, I tried to have the price trimmed, but he was firm, contending that it was a good price to pay for a piece that’s relatively complete.

The most striking part of this ivory piece is the carved and gilded floral base, with the upper peana deeply carved with roses and the lower part with acanthus leaves. At first I thought that the base was a replacement as floral bases were often seen on female santas, but a closer inspection showed it to be original to the piece, as the feet, pegged to the base, showed no sign of having been transferred.

The clothing of San Juan was in bad shape, but the major embroidery was intact. Its violet satin cape had turned yellow while the green robe was in tatters. The santo was wearing a hoop skirt to keep the shape of his robes, which I thought was a nice detail. The santo head had lost much of the painted detail as its wig. The hands were intact, although one was missing a finger. The halo and other metalwork were all gone.

When I got home to Makati, I could not keep my mind off the San Juan, so I called the dealer and asked if they make free deliveries. He said ‘yes’, and by the time the afternoon ended, I had my ivory San Juan—my third ivory San Juan, in fact.

The next weekend, my San Juan was off to Dr. Raffy Lopez for his usual diagnostics. It turned out he had seen this santo in Tiendesitas before, and had even been interested, but he found it too short (just 10 inches + 3 in. base) for his taste. He took note of the well-made ornate floral base and he asked my permission to have it copied (permission granted). As usual, I discussed what I wanted with the San Juan. I wanted the embroidery from his old robes saved and transferred to a new vestment of deep green satin. I also wanted the base to be repaired and re-gilded.

When we took a look at the ivory hands, I noted that one hand was in a gripping position, so he could not have held a quill but a sprig of flowers (St. John’s Wort). Fortunately, I saw a small San Juan holding a similar branch at Floy Quintos’s Deus shop, so I just drew it from memory for Raffy to copy.

After two and a half weeks, Raffy finished the work and as always, the results of the restoration were startling:

The face of San Juan was repainted with details, and a painted wooden book was added—at no extra cost.

Raffy also stuck to the original embroidery design for the robe even as he recreated and supplemented the missing parts with more gold threads and sequins.

Friends have often asked how on earth I could still find reasonably-priced ivory pieces, such as this San Juan. I wish I knew the answer.

Serendipity? Being at right place at the right time? Charisma? Seeing how cash-strapped the antique industry is now, the only thing that is guaranteed to work is to flash—what else?—your cash. In the end, all things considered, the definition of a 'fair price' depends on how much you are willing to pay for the piece.