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Heritage heist

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The recent art heist that involved the theft of an Amorsolo from the Hofileña private museum within the Silay City Heritage Zone will have far reaching implications on the tourism sector of the city, whether or not the priceless artwork is ever recovered and the perpetrators apprehended.

The 1936 painting of Fernando Amorsolo titled “Mango Harvesters”, was stolen from the private museum of the Hofileña family on July 3, when two suspects joined a group of six guests during a tour. It was taken from the second floor of the house, and police investigations are currently counting on CCTV footage for clues.

A high profile theft like that can be damaging to the city’s tourism industry because it discourages other heritage homes from opening their doors and premises to tourists or customers, lest they also be similarly victimized.

The Hofileña home along Cinco de Noviembre street is one of the few heritage homes in the city that is partially open to the public as a private museum. That was made possible because of Ramon Hofileña, who had a passion for the heritage and history of his city and island, which led to him hosting an annual tour of Negros, which included their home. When Ramon passed away, his brother Boy was able to keep their home turned private museum open, but on a by-appointment basis.

The other museums which are fully accessible to the public in Silay City would be the Balay Negrense and the Bernardino Jalandoni Museum (Pink House). These have a full time staff and operating hours, making them more suited to handling all sorts of visitors.

Sadly, after this event, the owners or heirs of the homes that had been toying with the thought of allowing public access would probably think twice, especially if they also have valuable artwork or any priceless collections, as it reminds them that opening up makes your home prone to petty theft, art heists, vandalism, and even innocent accidents that could still damage furniture or knick knacks that are either irreplaceable or difficult to repair in this day and age where craftsmen are rare and we are often left with no choice but to buy a replacement from an online store instead.

In the case of the Amorsolo, one theory that I would subscribe to was that it was a targeted hit, since there is probably no easy secondary market for it. The thieves were probably contracted by an art collector who wanted it for a private collection, who had no intention of selling it once it was “acquired.”

Hopefully our police investigators can track down the thieves and recover the stolen art.

But even if they do, the magnitude of the heist will probably dwell in the thoughts of Silaynon families who have been looking for options for the heritage homes that they have been both blessed and cursed with. It is a blessing to have a heritage home passed down, but at the same time a curse to maintain and repair it, especially if the home doesn’t come with the necessary funds. A heritage home is more expensive to maintain than a modern one, because of the materials and craftsmanship, and one of the options that is left to families who have to take care of one is to open it to adaptive reuse or heritage tourism. In the case of the latter, the city will have to find the ways and means to assure the owners that their homes and its contents will be safe from vandals and thieves, at the very least, because aside from insurance, there is nothing that can be done against naturally clumsy visitors.

If you come to think of it, having a priceless Amorsolo on display in a semi-public space is putting a bit too much faith in humanity and maybe asking too much from the cops and LGU. Aside from thieves, there are also radical climate activists who have this tendency to damage valuable artwork as they try to save the planet in a most roundabout way. So even if the Hofileñas do get it back, there is a very slim chance that it’s going back to where it was hung before this happened. Those of us who have already seen it hanging there should probably consider themselves fortunate. I, for one, took that for granted and didn’t really give that particular artwork the attention it deserved when I was at that private museum just a few months ago. Now that it’s been stolen, I suddenly want to see it. It is ironic how something needs to be stolen before it becomes a crowd drawer.

We may not have a lot of Amorsolos on display for free, but the Negrense community certainly has a lot of heritage treasures just waiting to be appreciated. How the owners and heirs can continue to preserve it, while at the same time giving opportunities for those treasures to be safely appreciated by the public, is one question that our local government officials and the heritage circles will have to figure out. Hopefully we can find an answer to that issue that has been raised by the Amorsolo heist of 2024.*

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