A Lao Lianben painting goes on the block, and the rise of art as a financial asset

The headliner for Salcedo Auction’s last event of the year continues the conversation about treating art as an investment.

A Lao Lianben work—Obliteration 2—is currently on display near the entrance of Salcedo Auctions, welcoming visitors and inviting them to appreciate its streaks, circles, and negative space: a few hallmarks of Lianben’s style. 

“There’s a lot going on in terms of composition, but in a very quiet way,” Salcedo Auctions chairman and chief specialist Richie Lerma notes. “With the idea of ‘obliteration,’ there’s something oriental about it in terms of erasure, of creating and obliterating,” he adds, referring to Japanese aesthetics and the process of eliminating excesses to arrive at something pure and simple, yet whole. 

Lao Lianben’s Obliteration 2 greets visitors at Salcedo Auctions. Photos from Salcedo Auctions.

Interestingly, these elements have increased the demand for Lianben pieces in the market. In previous auctions across the metro, the visual artist’s works have enjoyed special sections in gallery previews. It’s no wonder that Obliteration 2 begins at an estimated price of P12 to P14 million—but Lerma also attributes it to current design and interior trends dictated by economics.

“Lao is very well-placed,” he continues, referring to the continued demand for abstract art alongside the recovery of the Philippine economy. “With this growth comes the growth of financial resources, and [a consequence of this] is that more houses are being built. And the architects that spearhead these developments currently follow a style where Lao’s pieces fit it well.”

“[Lianben] has encapsulated that Zen sensibility, and that’s part of the value that it brings, [especially when you purchase it for] your home,” Lerma says. “Right now, Lao Lianben has been synonymous with great interiors, which I think is a wonderful melding of what’s at the heart of what he does and what people are looking for in their lived spaces.”

Art as investment

What’s quite serendipitous about Obliteration 2 (and Lianben as an artist) being talked about in terms of economics and investments is that its consignor, who wishes to remain anonymous, once worked on a thesis on art as investment back in 1992—a time when such a sentiment was unpopular. And he also happens to be Lerma’s batch mate and co-member at the Ateneo Arts Club. 

“The gentleman offering his Lao Lianben is the first person from the club who comes to mind when it comes to art collecting. He somehow knew right away that he wanted to acquire the works of the artists he met—at least the ones whose works moved him. I don’t think [he] had a crystal ball at the time,” Lerma shares, referring to that idea of “sensing” what piece could become good investments in the future. 

Salcedo Auctions chairman and chief specialist Richie Lerma at the Ateneo Art Gallery when he was appointed the museum’s director and chief curator in 2001.

The consignor’s art appreciation journey began with a class in Ateneo, helmed by the first curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery. “I took a class under the famous art critic Emmanuel Torres, and that’s when I fell in love with art. I joined the Ateneo Art Club, which we actually revived. That’s when I met a lot of artists, like Ang Kiukok and Cesar Legaspi, and became good friends with some of them. And that’s the time when I learned to look at paintings.”

“I had no talent, so I just dabbled in collecting,” the consignor candidly admits. “[And] for my thesis, I wrote about investing in art. And my resource persons were artists and collectors. A lot of people were against that idea of seeing art as a commodity, [including] my artist friends. They hated it, but acknowledged it at the same time. But for me, I already knew that art had value and the potential as an investment.”

Lerma recalls that the consignor pushed with his ideas at a time when the Art Club (and the milieu then, by extension) were raving over Philippine modernists. “We [and the faculty then] were all about modernism. We weren’t looking at Amorsolo or the other conservative artists,” he quips.   

As such, the Art Club during Lerma’s time invited artists like Ang Kiukok, Cesar Legaspi, and J. Elizalde Navarro over to Ateneo. They would also visit the residences of these artists—a privilege at the time, as artists weren’t simply allowing access to just about anybody. “If Ang Kiukok didn’t like you, you wouldn’t get an invitation to his home!” Lerma emphasizes. So, the fact that [this Lianben consignor got to foster a relationship with the artists then] demonstrated his genuine interest in their works. You cannot craft sincerity—the best artists always felt that.”

Members of the Ateneo Arts Club visiting the late National Artist Ang Kiukok in the early 1990s.

These close-knit relationships also informed the state of the Philippine art market at the time, wherein first sales were primarily done through gallery shows and independent dealers. “These dealers operated by word-of-mouth and pure trust. They would go around people’s homes, show paintings, and transact. It was quite the ‘Wild, Wild, West’ situation; the more trustworthy ones had the confidence, and they knew how to [do business well],” he muses. 

However, it wasn’t until years later that the secondary art market—the resale of works through auctions and other gallery events—had a more formal scene in the form of Salcedo Auctions and León Gallery, both of which were established in 2010. 

“Prior to the auctions, you didn’t know the demand vis-a-vis the perceived value [of a painting], because you never got to test it,” Lerma notes, which is quite fascinating given that commercial art galleries have been around in the Philippines since the mid-1950s. “The practice is not new, but it was not conducted in a more formal way.”

Full Circle

That Lerma eventually went into the auction scene in 2010—years after taking the helm of museum director and chief curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery from Torres in 2001—seems like a confirmation of the consignor’s ideas back in 1992, which Lerma already lauded at the time. That the same consignor would offer the Lianben for auction through Lerma is a more serendipitous full-circle moment. 

“We have to take the aspect [of investment in art] seriously. [But also,] you need to stay true to what makes value in the market. Art is not just a commodity—you have to appraise what it means, what it represents, what it encapsulates from and about life.”

It’s a way of viewing art that Lerma brings from his extensive academic experience combined with his years in the auction scene. As such, it’s also the foundation on which Obliteration 2,  the highlight of this year’s Under the Tree: The Wish Life, rests upon. 

“Once [this Lianben and the other works up for auction find their new homes,] I do hope it’s not just there because of an interior decorator’s decision. When it comes to works like these with great value and particular price levels, you really have to work [hard to get them], take care of them, and give them the necessary care that they deserve,” Lerma hopes.

“More than two decades have passed since [the previous owner got this piece and cherished it.] I hope it goes to a place where it will continue to be valued.”

The new lifestyle.