For over 27 years, Manuel Morato kept the camera in one of his vaults, along with his art collection that includes paintings by his favorite masters such as Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.
“It’s no ordinary camera. It’s a Rolleiflex, a top-of-the-line German-made camera. It’s in mint condition, with a pure leather case and strap, and I believe it’s still in working condition,” Morato said.
Not only that, he said of the classic camera. It once belonged to President Benigno Aquino III’s father, the late former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., who used it in the early 1950s while covering the Korean War as a correspondent for the Manila Times, then the Philippines’ leading newspaper.
It is also the one shown in the P500 bill, “along with Ninoy, its former owner,” he added. “It’s amazing.”
Morato, a former chair of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, has turned the camera over to the Inquirer through this reporter for donation to the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Foundation.
He said he could not do it himself because of “political differences” with the Aquinos.
Sold for P20,000
In an interview with the Inquirer, Morato described the camera as “beautiful and unique” (maganda at kakaiba).
“Unlike [with] other cameras, you shoot from the waistline, looking down at a big square lens. ’Di halata (You won’t notice) that one is taking pictures. It’s like shooting from the hip, as the saying goes,” he quipped.
Morato said Ninoy Aquino’s personal photographer, Ricardo Cabrera, sold the camera to him for P20,000 on Feb. 7, 1984.
“He came to me six months after Ninoy’s assassination (on Aug. 21, 1983, at the tarmac of the then Manila International Airport) and sold it to me, knowing that Ninoy and his elder sister, Maur, were my childhood friends,” Morato recalled.
“Ninoy’s parents and my parents were close friends. When I was about eight, I spent weekends at the Aquino mansion somewhere in Arlegui, Quiapo,” he said.
Cabrera told Morato that the Rolleiflex was “the same one used by Ninoy as a correspondent in the Korean War.”
“I never heard from Mr. Cabrera again,” Morato said.
In 1984 or 1985, Morato thought of giving the camera to Ninoy Aquino’s wife, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, who would soon become President.
He said the late Cory Aquino used to visit his family’s home on Sampaloc (now Tomas Morato) Avenue in Quezon City. (The street was renamed after Morato’s late father, the first mayor of Quezon City.)
“But I had misplaced the certificate issued by Mr. Cabrera when he sold the camera to me. I didn’t want to give it to Cory without the certificate, for it would be meaningless,” he said.
‘Angry with me’
Morato said that after “retiring from government service” last year (as PCSO board member), he “spent time going through [his] vaults, putting [his] records in order,” and found the certificate.
“Now that I’ve found it, I can donate the camera to the foundation for posterity. It’s also more pertinent for them to have Ninoy’s camera,” he said.
But he cannot do the donation himself, according to Morato.
“That’s why I contacted the Inquirer. I cannot go to that foundation because galit sila sa akin (they’re angry with me),” he said, adding:
“We had political differences. I openly supported Gilbert Teodoro, the Arroyo administration’s presidential candidate, during the May 2010 election, remember?
“I hold no grudge against them. I’m just keeping distance.”
Morato has also turned over to this reporter a copy of the certificate issued by Cabrera on Feb. 7, 1984.
In the document, Cabrera said he was the “absolute owner” of the Rolleiflex camera “made in Germany” with serial No. 748357.
Cabrera said the camera was given to him by Ninoy Aquino in 1964 when the latter was governor of Tarlac. He said he was Ninoy Aquino’s personal photographer up to the time the latter became a senator, “[until] the present as their family photographer.”
The relationship of the two men included their being detained during martial law.
The Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Foundation, established shortly after the former senator’s assassination in 1983, aims to “perpetuate [his] memory … in recognition of his patriotic and dedicated services, sacrifices and achievements in pursuit of truth, justice, freedom, reconciliation and national unity.”
It maintains the Aquino Center, which contains family memorabilia, personal collections, manuscripts, books, documents “and other objects of historical, cultural and educational value.”
Morato said he did not mind parting with the Rolleiflex. “I still have my artworks, among others,” he said.
Morato owns at least four works by Picasso, the Spanish painter and father of Cubism, and whose paintings rank among the most expensive art pieces in the world.
(They include “Garçon à la Pipe,” which reportedly sold for $104 million at a Sotheby’s auction in May 2004, and “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” which was sold at Christie’s for $106.5 million in the same year.)
Morato is also the “proud owner of a Goya,” as well as a Van Gogh and a Toulouse-Lautrec.
As well, he owns works by Edward Leeteg, the father of US velvet painting, and Andy Warhol, the late American pop artist and printmaker whose 1963 canvas, “Eight Elvises,” fetched $100 million during an auction.
Among Filipino artists, Morato has acquired “fantastic pieces” done by Fabian de la Rosa and Antonio Malantic, among others.
But he said he was shying away from local masters because “the faking of their works has been rampant for years now.”
“Even the works of contemporary painters are now being faked,” he said.
In ivory and silver
Morato’s other treasures include religious statues in ivory and international pieces in silver, plus “royalty medals and necklaces, like those issued by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (who ruled that Latin American country from 1864 to 1867), the Royal Order of Chakri of Siam (now Thailand), and Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor (from 1930 to 1974, and said to be the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba).”
Add to that “the tombstone of St. Fabius, one of the earliest Christian martyrs in Rome, that is made of Carrara marble; a rare Russian icon of the Blessed Mother, which I got in 1980 from the Wijenburgh Castle (in Echteld, the Netherlands); and a strip of cloth that’s a venerable relic of our Blessed Mother.”
“That one is my favorite. It was certified by the Israeli government. I got it from a close relative of Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo,” one of the great Filipino painters of the late 19th century, Morato said.
And Morato is “still on collecting mode.”
“It’s been my hobby since I was a young boy. It makes me happy. It’s like Christmas when I find something nice to buy,” he said, adding:
“It goes on every day. It’s a work in progress. The rare art pieces are getting scarcer and harder to find; the supply is dwindling. And like the Gettys, the Mellons and the Rockefellers, I also sell and unload and buy better ones to improve my collection.
“That makes it more exciting. It also makes you feel young. At 77, I feel young being surrounded by artworks that are more than 200, if not 2,000-plus, years old.”
“I feel like the youngest in the group,” he said with a big laugh.