Sleuthing 101 with the Jaime Ponce De Leon

So much has already been written about how Jaime Ponce de Leon found the holy grail of Philippine art, Juan Luna’s Hymen, oh Hymenee. Allow us our own version, this time, exactly our exclusive interview with the man whose name has been permanently etched in the annals of Philippine art.

It was one languid afternoon when Jaime allowed us a glimpse into the person who, at first, would seem just like the boy next door, or more aptly, the hometown boy made good, unassuming, relaxed and cool in his mien. These traits, I now realize, had made things easy for him to convince collectors to open up to him and allow him to view their treasures that all the years they had kept away from the public eye.

The way he operates, we can look forward to more of Jaime’s discoveries, all for our good and wellbeing as a nation. Let’s wish him luck as we hope he finds more of the treasures that should be right at home with us.

WITH Irene Marcos Araneta.


Our series on Jaime ends with our conversation where he lets us in on what, so far, may be considered the most important journey of his lifetime. To future collectors, scholars and arts entrepreneurs, take the cue from Jaime. Nothing beats persistence, dedication and commitment to one’s life’s work.

But where was it?

Daily Tribune  (DT): So, tell us about Luna briefly because it’s all over. But we need your point of view.

Jaime Ponce de Leon (JPDL): This Luna was in the consciousness of everyone who knew Luna. There is no important publication about Luna without this painting. There are the books of Jack Pilar, and there’s the Lopez book that was published in 1980. And all the way back to the 19th century on Ilustracion Filipina. But the question was, where was it?

DT: So, it existed no doubt. But where was it all the while?

JPDL: Everybody knew about it and nobody knew where it was. And nobody had seen this work in color. Nobody saw it in full color. No one because nobody had seen this particular work of his. So, if you google Hymen, oh Hymenee!, you’ll see all the black and white. All the prints, wala. But Teyet Pascual told me that he saw this painting.


DT: How did that happen?

JPDL: He himself told me. So, if we go back a little bit, we had an ambassador in Spain. His name was Manuel Stilianopolous. He was a friend of Mrs. Imelda Marcos. He was married to Pitita Ridruejo. This lady was circling around royalty. She was a Spaniard and  she was the most interesting woman in Europe. When King Carlos had dinner, Pitita would be beside him. She was the best dinner guest you can have. She was fun, she was everyone’s favorite, she was the life of the party. She was wealthy and she inherited a vast fortune. She was known in Spain. Whenever Mrs. Marcos went to Spain, she would hang out with Pitita.

Pitita, without a doubt, gained entry to the most fabulous residences in Europe. She was part of the jet set. And so, when she saw this painting, she couldn’t speak. She cried when she saw this painting.


Knocking at royalty’s doors

DT: What was so touching about the painting?

JPDL: It is a painting about life. Besides, even if you had all the resources to acquire it, all the government resources to acquire it, you could not buy it because the family that owned it was not ready to sell.  No matter how persuasive you were.

I am told that one Filipino collector gave gifts to this family so he could acquire it but the family would not budge.


DT: So, how did you find out about its existence?

JPDL: Doc Teyet told me about it. Of course, that had been after many years when he last saw it. He told me that the painting indeed exists. So, I knew it existed. So, me naman, I didn’t know anyone of these people. Pitita Ridruejo, my God. I mean,  her friends in the Philippines were no longer in power. They would have been helpful but times were different.


DT: So, how did you do your sleuthing?

JPDL: So, I had this book, the Nobilities of Europe. I went over it page by page, photograph by photograph. I had to knock on everyone’s door. And who was this guy who is knocking in all these doors, they were probably asking themselves.


DT: What was your pretext?

JPD:  I only had one purpose. It was to look for the grail.


DT: But what did you tell them?

JPD: Well, bahala na. I could just think of anything. I would adlib, whatever came to my mind at the moment. I befriended the maids and all these people to gain the entry to all of those things. And by doing that, I was able to find other Lunas.


The Mystery Call

DT: So, you went around looking.  How did you finally find your Luna?

JPDL:  Well, I was looking for it, like the search was already part of my consciousness. So, one day, I got a call on my phone.


DT: You were here?

JPDL: No, I was also traveling. I had to be in this city. I was told I had to go to this address. There was something important I needed to see. And I never refuse these hints and clues because I might miss something And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be there at 10a.m. sharp.’”


DT: Did you know what it was all about?

JPDL:  No, nothing. But because the caller said it was an important meeting and that I had to go to be able to see something, I went. Me, I always go to things like this. Even here in Manila.  You don’t know what treasures these meetings would yield.


DT: Yes, you never know.

JPDL: Yeah. You never know what’s in store. So, of course, I got to this aristocratic lordly home in this European city. So, when I entered, it was marble and everything. So, I was ushered by the butler to the drawing room. So, I sat and waited for a while. And then, someone came, the Lord of the House, and we went through all the pleasantries. And then, fast forward, he led me to a door. And when it was opened there it was. I saw for the first time Luna’s Hymen  Hymen, oh Hymenee.


DT: You knew immediately, of course.

JPDL: You wouldn’t believe what I saw. I couldn’t believe myself.


DT: But it was always at the back of your mind.

JPDL: Shocking. It was really nothing short of shocking.


They heard about Jaime

DT: Tell me about the negotiation.

JPDL: These things naman, you know how they go. Of course when you are the seller you want the best deal, right? So, we took a walk. We had to negotiate. We had to iron out so many things.


DT: But he was willing to sell?

JPDL: So, basically, the reason I was there was because they were interested to sell to me.


DT: How did they find out about you?

JPDL: Probably because they started to hear about me. I started to have a reputation. And because they always had the option to auction it. I mean, in Hong Kong or anywhere. And Manila was also an option.


DT: What were the issues involved?

JPDL: We had to iron out so many things. For starters, the price and the manner of payment. Everything essential and the related matters. So we had to fix all of these. So, basically that’s what we needed to do.


DT: When was this?

JPDL: This was sometime in 2014. And then, I transported the painting three years after pa. 2017.


DT: Really? But you paid for it as early as 2014?

JPDL: Yes.

DT: Where did you keep it?

JPDL: I had to keep it in my facility. So, it was in my storage for all these years. And I didn’t tell anybody. Nobody knew about it.


DT: How could you keep a secret?

JPDL: Whew, I could keep a secret naman.


DT: Not even Lisa or Toto knew?

JPDL: Not even either of them. Nobody. Even my employees didn’t know about it. It was in a crate and the crate was all they could see.

They couldn’t believe what they saw.


DT: When did the Ayala Museum exhibit come in?

JPDL: So, last year, Mariles Gustilo and Joana Duarte of the Ayala Museum told me that they wanted to raise funds for the foundation. Of course, the intention was to have an auction. So, I said, “Why don’t we do something different?” I presented the idea but, at that time, I didn’t tell them what it was yet. They pressed me to tell them what it is and everything. And then, finally I told them in the next meeting. And they couldn’t believe what it was. So, of course I had to show the proof of the pudding, I had to show them what it was.


DT: Who else were there?

JPDL: Martin Arnaldo was also here at that time. I invited Martin Arnaldo. Martin Arnaldo eventually made the film that goes with this piece. So, I asked Martin if he wanted to come along. If he wanted to be on board. And he said, he was interested to be onboard. The next day, we all met and brought the crate. We all went to Ayala Museum and opened the crate.


DT: And there it was.

JPDL: They couldn’t believe what they saw.


DT: When was this?

JPDL: October of last year. That’s when we started working on this. We made a book and  a film, and everything else.


DT: Pero under wraps ha? How were you able to keep that from everybody?

JPDL: We all agreed that no one had to know. That’s why you wouldn’t even see anything. All the marks in Ayala Museum were only unveiled the day after.


DT: So, tell me. How is Filipino art today, from your perspective?

JPDL: Philippine art is very vibrant and there is a very strong collecting community. Always out to see the newest things or the best things, or other things to buy.


DT: What can you say about the government’s support for the arts?

JPDL: It seems to be quite good.

And I could see that the government is very supportive. I mean, whether it be theater or dance or literature or film, whatever.  Because everything complements each other.


DT: Who is Jaime Ponce de Leon outside of the public view?

JPDL: I just wanted to be by the sea. That’s what I loved most in life. Enjoying the sea from my Dumaguete hometown.