Why the NHCP wanted to stop the Bonifacio flag sale
MANILA, Philippines – The Katipunan flag that once belonged to Andres Bonifacio is now owned by an anonymous private collector who paid quite the sum for it at an auction by the Leon Gallery on September 8.
The flag, previously owned by the family of Don Antonio Santos Bautista who received it as a gift from Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria de Jesus, went to a private collector for P9.3 million – far higher than its floor price of P1 million.
The sale was celebrated by the gallery and is a victory for the previous owners, but it was not without controversy. A few days before the auction, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) sent a written appeal to the Leon Gallery, asking to stop the sale.
NHCP chair Dr. Rene Escalante told Rappler that they appealed to stop the auction because they wanted to examine the flag, determine its authenticity, and possibly purchase it.
"We want to take a look at it, and we want to check if it is really genuine and because we were thinking of buying it for our museum. We have this Katipunan museum in San Juan," Escalante said.
Escalante added that their decision to send the appeal was triggered by a proposal by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman to provide funds for the NHCP to acquire historical artifacts.
Lagman himself urged the NHCP to deter the auction, citing Republic Act 10086 which states that the NHCP has the power to "acquire important historical documents, collections, memorabilia and other objects that have significant historical value."
At any rate, the appeal went unheeded. As Leon Gallery director Jaime Ponce de Leon said, the appeal had come in too late. "We had been publicizing the auction for many weeks yet the appeal came a few days before the auction," Ponce de Leon told Rappler.
"We are operating as a business and we have our obligations to consignors. When they have fear at putting things in auction with us, it will prevent many other consignors from bringing forth other pieces with us in the future, and that will be tantamount to losing our business," he explained.
He also mentioned that the flag and other heritage items on sale had not formally been declared as cultural properties.
"All these things have to be very clear prior to acting on it," he said.
Escalante confirmed that the flag has not been declared a cultural property, and is only presumed to be one. And even if there was a formal declaration, it would still remain the property of the owner, according to Republic Act 10066.
According to the act: "The private collectors and owners of cultural property shall not be divested of their possession and ownership thereof even after registration of said property as herein required."
That being said, the act gives the government more accountability for registered cultural properties. For instance, the preservation and restoration of items declared as important cultural properties may be funded by the government.
The act also stipulates that registered cultural properties may only be exported temporarily, and only for "scientific scrutiny or exhibit."
This means that if the flag were to be declared an important cultural property, it would be protected not only from deterioration, but from exportation. However, for this to happen, the new owner must apply for the declaration.
"Before we declare something as an important cultural property, we have to examine it first, so we have to get the consent of the new owner," Escalante explained.
"If the owner wants to keep that flag for himself or herself, I’m pretty sure he will not apply for declaration. We’re also thinking of declaring it motu propio but we have to check, ask our lawyers whether that is possible because we don’t normally declare a particular item an important cultural property without consent of the owner, whether it’s the government or private individual," he said.
At any rate, the NHCP has yet to validate the flag's authenticity, though Ponce de Leon wholeheartedly vouches for it saying that "the provenance is unassailable." "There is a newspaper article with photos of the donation of Gregoria de Jesus to the Bautistas in 1931," he said.
Escalante, however, is more skeptical.
"It came out in the early 30s, in one of the celebrations in Malolos and we’re not sure if it is really genuine," Escalante said. "I dont know if the buyer of that was able to ascertain the provenance of this flag. Baka mamaya nadala lang siya sa media hype (he may have just been influenced by media hype)."
Without access to the flag itself, the NHCP cannot conclusively determine its authenticity.
"Normally, we have to look at the provenance or historical documentation of the flag. But you know you cannot do that overnight. You have to do a lot of comparing…it’s not that easy," he added.
Who owns the flag now?
Confidentiality agreements prevent the Leon Gallery from disclosing the identity of the flag’s new owner, including whether he or she is foreign or Filipino
In theory, foreigners could have bid on these historical artifacts. But as Ponce de Leon said, it's an item that would only appeal to Filipinos.
“Why will someone from Hong Kong or someone from China want to have the Philippine flag?” he said. “It’s a very nationalistic thing. This I can say, the interested parties are mostly Filipino.”
Ponce de Leon is of the opinion that historical artifacts such as these are better off in the hands of private owners, who can focus on their upkeep and care.
"The present state of all these pieces have really been deteriorating in the family’s possession and now that it transfers ownership I think it will be better preserved," he said.
"These pieces have been handed down for generations...they're co-owned by many families. A singular owner with a fresh view into preservation will always make these pieces last longer and perhaps with the end view of getting it available for the public to see."
He added that private owners can focus on the upkeep of each piece better because they are only concerned with a few items, unlike in museums that house numerous historical artifacts.
Escalante shared the same opinion, saying: "It’s not really a big problem because [the flag] is just changing hands from one private individual to another private individual and for sure whoever bought that will take care of it because of the amount involved."
"I don’t think the owner will need financial assistance to maintain it because if they can shell out millions then for sure he has a couple of thousands to maintain and to keep it in a place where it will not deteriorate," he said.
Private property, public interest
One can surmise that the controversial flag that once hung in Bonifacio's study is now tucked away in the home of a wealthy person, away from the public eye.
But as Ponce de Leon noted, the auction was at least able to draw the flag – and other historical pieces – out of hiding, at least for a time
"When these pieces come to us, all the historians are always amazed and they see some very important segments that were not manifested in the past until they see," he said.
"These tidbits of history are never told and now it actually connects many dots in our history and I think this is very important and viewed by historians as a triumph of completing what we have lacked and what we know of our history," he added.
Escalante also said that the fact that such items generated a lot of interest shows how much Filipinos value history – and also how wealthy some Filipinos are.
"I think you know how much these items were sold in the markets so you can just imagine how wealthy Filipinos are now and how valuable they look at our historical artifacts," he said. "We’re happy that at least a lot of people are interested in history."
He did bring up his worry, as NHCP chair, that historical items such as the flag may be taken out of the country and auctioned off in foreign countries.
"There might be some unscrupulous people who will take this out and we might find out in the end these documents or items will be in auction houses because you can just imagine running into millions."
Without the flag being registered as a cultural property, this scenario is definitely a possibility.
Ultimately, it is the new owner who gets to decide the flag's fate. History may belong to everyone, but it would appear that the bits of it one can touch and see belong only to those who can afford it.
Will the new owner of Bonifacio's flag please stand up? – Rappler.com