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Consuming Passions; Philippine Collectibles’

(Article published in the Dec 15, 2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)  

It is itself a collector’s item, Consuming Passions; Philippine Collectibles, edited by Jaime C. Laya. A collection of essays on collecting and collections by collectors themselves.  Following closely his award-winning Letras y Figuras: Business in Culture, Culture in Business, this latest work of Mr. Laya is in answer to a long-felt need for a book on Philippine collectibles that projects both knowledge and love for concrete items of art and artifact speaking volumes of the country and its people.  A “must-have for all” according to the more cultured and knowledgeable than I am, like Benito Legarda, Jr., Fernando Zobel de Ayala, and Doris Magsaysay-Ho.

The material is organized as neatly as a financial balance sheet. On one side are the assets, consisting of three essays on the activity, or as the reader soon enough finds, the obsession for collecting and various articles on the objects of a collector’s fancy.  These items are categorized into (a) objects associated with beliefs and rituals; (b) what we read and study; (c) objects we gaze at; (d) things we put on; (e) what we live [and die] with; and (f) memorabilia and commemorative items. 

 On the other side is the human toll of collecting: eight peeks into the psychology, or, if you will, psychosis, of some collectors in “Collectors: a special breed” and a final tribute to the collector’s better, or often bitter half, in Juan T. Gatbonton’s “Collectors’ Spouses Grin and Bear It”.

 Despite of, or maybe because of, the formidable assembly of knowledgeable, if not expert, writers dealing with their areas of interest, the book has something for everyone with even just a bit more than latent hunting gene in his blood.  It has copious advice to beginners and, for specialists, incredible minutia (trivia for the for philistine).  It has a number of first person accounts, wittingly at times and passionately always, speaking of their authors’ own chase, capture, and, heaven forbid, loss (a most heart-wrenching experience for collectors) of prized though not necessarily valuable items as well as a detached and scholastic dissertation, such as, the distinction between private and institutional collecting. And one cannot but notice a generous dose of history, both of the long ago (for instance, maps, money, stamps, santos, and the recent past, like the Bangko Sentral Art Collection as well as a former first lady’s “Imeldific” collection.

 What the book does not have, however, is the point of view of those whose task it is to clean up the mess after the collector has gone ahead of his collection.  For an executor, administrator, or even heir of a serious collector, what to do with the collection left behind is formidable problem.  That I know and would like to add to the Laya opus as a footnote, recalling my short stint as a trust administrator at the Provident National Bank in Philadelphia, right after receiving my masters of law from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. 

 A trust administrator, in local terms, is an account officer who deals face to face and day to day, with trustors and their beneficiaries, explaining to heirs why they could not get more money that what their fathers or rich uncles had provided in the trust document. Our partner is the investment officer, who has the more glamorous job of investing the client’s funds and  whose bad judgment calls we trust administrators had to explain to the irate client.

 As the most junior in the organization, I had the job of settling the estate of clients and distributing their assets, net of taxes and debts, to their heirs.  This involved, more often than not, going to homes that smelled of abandon during the client’s last illness, taking inventory of his scattered belongings, settling his obligations sprouting all of a sudden from nowhere, and, sometimes even searching for his next of kin.  Even in the United States where there are outfits which make it their business to bid for estates in lots, it was always a nightmare when the decedent left a collection. The ever present problems were of valuation and disposition.

 In the Philippines, we have a more chaotic situation.  We have no organized market, except for the more traditional items of stamps and coins, and perhaps, furniture, that can readily give the executor an idea of the value of what was dumped on his lap.  With no impartial arbiter of worth, heirs and estate managers are at loss on how to report the collection in the decedent’s estate tax return.  The temptation is great, to the detriment of the tax authorities, to simply lodge the collection under “miscellaneous items” and attribute a zero value.

 And perhaps, the most difficult question, especially in dysfunctional families, is what to do with the collection.  Should it be simply divided up by lot, thereby wasting away the surplus value of whole over the sum of the individual parts?  Or should it be kept whole, and treated as if it were a parcel of land? Should it be donated or sold? To whom?

 One attractive solution, to my mind, is to constitute, a national agency, say the National Museum, as a public trustee of all collections that testators and donors may wish to bequeath or give by will or deed.  This agency should be given the capability of attributing a value to the collection donated and to grant tax credit certificates for collections that it accepts.  Collections accepted can then be either maintained individually, even bearing the names of their previous owners to satisfy their dynastic inclinations, or incorporated in existing ones, with appropriate recognition, of course, of provenance and source.  As trustee, the agency should be given authority to sell or dispose of the items in the collection, both to avoid unwanted redundancy as well as raise revenues for its own upkeep.

 At the very least, the existence of such an agency would mitigate the headaches of executors, administrators and heirs, and could even assuage the dread fear of collectors that their prized possessions would end up in the trash can.