In September of 2010, in what was regarded as the “Deal of the Decade,” an authentic Batangas “Uno” altar “mesa” or table was sold at an auction conducted by the Four Seasons Auction House for the amount of US$650. This is ₱32,441.50 at today’s dollar exchange rate. The furniture was created by an unknown craftsman simply referred to by antique enthusiasts as Batangas I Master and was made of tindalo2 and kamagong3 with lanite4 used for the inlay.
The furniture was erstwhile owned by a prominent military family in Georgia, the United States; purchased in the Philippines early in the twentieth century and shipped stateside in 1922. The amount paid was apparently something of a “steal.” According to a 2014 article written by Ambeth R. Ocampo for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, authentic Batangas furniture pieces with “little or no restoration” regularly sold for at least a million Philippine pesos each.5
But why all the fuss for pieces of furniture that the original owners no longer wanted and probably discarded in the first place?
Before anything else, let us take a look at the Philippine “mesa altar” or altar tables to understand why antique furniture collectors value them so much. The Batangas Uno, for instance, is considered the “Holy Grail of Philippine furniture” according to collector Murvyn Callo.6
It is likely that altar tables were first introduced to the country by the Chinese. The earliest known altar tables made in the Philippines bore a strong resemblance in design to those made in China during the Ming Dynasty. Moreover, these were also made of rosewood, the same material preferred by the Chinese.7
Ocampo wrote that altar tables used to be common in Filipino homes prior to World War II “for the display and veneration of the images of saints.” This was probably the reason why these pieces of furniture became known as the altar tables.
Despite the apparent Chinese influence, Filipino craftsmen would eventually develop their own styles and designs in the making of altar tables. Jamir observed that the best of these were found in Batangas and the Bulacan town of Baliuag. The Batangas style, she wrote, evolved in the seventeenth century in the earliest Spanish-established pueblos of Taal and Lipa. Before long, the style was being copied by furniture-makers in Mindoro, the Bicol area and even as far south as Cebu.
The Batangas style altar table varied in size from the simple design with just one drawer to the large and elaborate five-drawer ones. There were tables called “tuwid” because of their straight legs and “kilo” because of their curved cabriole legs, wrote Ocampo, citing research by the historian Ramon Villegas.
The rare Batangas Uno was a massive five-drawer altar table, also distinguished according to Callo by “cabriole legs on stretchers terminating on ogee8 feet.” Callo further wrote that the Uno is attributed to an unknown craftsman known in collectors’ circles as Batangas I Master “but may have been a product of his son or a skilled apprentice.” The Uno has been traced back to a workshop in the town of Taal.
A somewhat toned down version of the Uno is known, no surprise, as the “Dos.” The shape of the Dos was basically the same as that of the Uno, but it did away with “the heavy moldings and intricate carvings.” Furthermore, wrote Callo, the Dos is attributed to a master craftsman in the town of San Pascual, also in Batangas.
Ocampo wrote that Filipino antique furniture enthusiasts had long been collecting items from the so-called “three Bs” – Bohol, Baliuag and Batangas. The ones created in Batangas are generally priced higher – at least, the authentic ones – because these were likely made earlier and, therefore, bear more historical significance.
Moreover, particularly those attributed to the Batangas Masters, these were intricately designed and its panels painstakingly carved. Add to these the fact that the surviving versions, especially of the Uno, have become exceedingly rare and it is not difficult to understand why these have become affordable only to those who do not quite know what to do with their money.
There is, doubtless, a moral to all of these: never throw away your old furniture. You just never known when one will be worth more than your entire house.
Notes and references:1 “Deal of the Decade: Batangas ‘Uno’ Mesa Altar,” online at Absolute-Furniture.com.
2 Afzelia rhomboidea, a legume tree, Wikipedia.
3 Diospyros blancoi, a hardwood native to the Philippines which bears fruit called locally as the “mabolo.” Wikipedia.
4 Kibatalia gitingensis, a medium-sized tree found in several islands of the Philippines, online at Cainta Plant Nursery.
5 “Demonyo Tables,” by Ambeth R. Ocampo, 2014. Online at the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
6 “The Batangas Mesa Altar Revisited: A Primer,” by Murvyn Callo, online on Facebook.
7 “The Mesa Altar,” by Milagros Covarrubias Jamir.
8 Ogee: a molding that (in section) has the shape of an S with the convex part above and the concave part below. Advanced English Dictionary.