Wednesday, June 20, 2012


 As one who considers himself a purist antique collector, the idea of getting a new ivory santo was simply inconceivable. But recent developments in the antique trade has led me to rethink my position. It cannot be denied that the stock of antique ivories in the market has dried up a long time ago—even dealers say so. As late as the mid 1990s, one could still go to Philtrade and check out Cesar Reyes’s horde of antique ivories still in their original virinas. I remember seeing a Nino Dormido lying on a hilly meadow decorated with mother-of-pearl “rocks” under a bell jar with a price tag of 45K. A Del Rosario image dressed in gold-embroidered vestments holding a baby Jesus was similarly priced.

Today, antique ivories available in local shops carry astronomical price tags that have become totally out of my reach. A recent visit to an antique shop last week yielded an ivory masked San Jose without a virina and incomplete metalworks outrageoulsy priced at 80K. Such realities have led me to think of more affordable ways to own these precious pieces. Like assembling a santo from disparate antique ivory parts. Or even considering ‘new antiques’—ivories aged to look like old pieces.

Last year, I made the rounds of Philtrade antique and repro shops and this Nino head and hands caught my attention. The hands were okay, but the billiard-ball sized Nino head was carved with a cloyingly cutesy expression complete with  pudgy cheeks and pouty lips, painted a garish pink.

It was the sheer size and heft of the ivory that struck me-- the head was one solid ivory mass. I remember a santo carver advising me to ignore the carving flaws of an ivory head: so long as the ivory is large and solid; it can be recarved and corrected.

When I sheepishly asked about the price, the dealer quoted a figure that sent me scurrying out of Philtrade. On my way out, I decided to text my offer—half of what she quoted. She texted back to tell me that “she needs to confer with her business partner ”. When I told her I was already in a taxi en route for home, she frantically said that she was accepting my offer.

And that’s how I came to own this ivory Nino.  For months, the head sat on its stand, while I figured out what to do with it. One day, I decided to take it to  Nick Lugue, Pampanga’s most accomplished santo carver, and asked him to make a body and a base for it. I was just too busy to even think about this project and didn’t even bother giving Nick specific instructions—except the design of the peaña, which I wanted copied from a book of Mexican colonial art.

Months after, I dropped in for another visit to find the base already done. It had a rococo design, gold-leafed and marbleized. The Niño body was almost finished too. The wooden body was classically carved, with one leg slightly bent on one knee, and a trademark chubbiness complete with a distended stomach and small ding-aling.

But it was the Niño head that floored me. That’s because Nick remolded the facial features—reducing the pudgy cheeks, refining the nose and the eyes, and reducing the size of the collagen-thick lips.

It looked entirely different from the Niño that I bought—more classical looking, less of the cutesiness. The new features of the child Jesus were painted on—the eyebrows were arched, the cheeks were given a soft blush and the blue eyes retouched. A few months after, the assembled Niño, now beautifully transformed,  looked like this:

The standing Nino measures about 17 inches tall; with the base, around 22 inches high. With the crown, it stands an impressive 28 inches.

With the carving  complete, I now was ready to have the ivory Nino dressed. So off I went to Dr. Raffy Lopez to discuss the preliminary vestment style I wanted. Initially, I just wanted a simple Nazareno colored velvet robe with transferred embroidery salvaged from an antique vestment of a Virgen del Carmen I have been saving for years.

Instead, Raffy suggested making a chasuble for the Niño on where he intended to transfer the antique metallic embroidery, so the design could be shown to the fullest. He also preferred using a thinner kind of fabric so the added embroidery could be more detailed—not possible on thick velvet. The work went rather fast on the chasuble and this was the progress of the work after just one week:

The design concept for the cape, on the other hand, was inspired by an old velvet belt I picked from an antique shop in India a few years ago, and which I happened to bring along in my visit to Raffy. I thought it would make a perfect belt for my Dolorosa, but it was just too long. The belt was intricately embroidered with unique quatre-foil panels, the centers of which were studded with glass stones.

While I was engrossed with the design style, Raffy was also thinking of ways to improve my Niño. He discarded the cheap-looking brass crown which came with the ivory, and produced from his full stock of santo accessories, a more appropriate, proper-sized silver crown plated in gold.

He then did final retouches on the facial features of the Niño, darkening the brows and the lids, and subtly refining the lips and the blush. Lashes would be added later.

Two more weeks after, the propitious call from Raffy came--my ivory Santo Niño was ready to be picked up! The result exceeded my expectations;  I never thought new ivory, when properly carved, painted and vested—could look as good as this:

I still have not changed my stand about genuine antiques, but this new ivory project has certainly readjusted my attitude towards collecting: today’s affordable treasures can be tomorrow’s fine antiques.


  1. Thank you, Alex, for introducing Dr. Lopez and his important work. Could you send Fray Juan Dr. Lopez's workshop address/contact info @ 915.509.0855. God bless!

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  3. Hi sir Alex, i need to have your advice. I have an upcoming ivory santo.

    Please email me at

    Thank you so much!