The Story Behind the Philippine Gold

The Exhibit, that is. Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms opened on September 10, 2015, in New York City at the Asia Society museum.

The exhibit features exquisite pieces of gold jewelry and adornments found by one Berto Morales in a shallow mound in Surigao del Sur sometime in 1981. Over the following decades, many of the major pieces that Morales and others found, were reassembled and finally came home to roost at the Ayala Foundation Museum in Makati and the Bangko Sentral Museo ng Pilipinas (BSP, or the Metropolitan Museum of Manila [MMA]). The discovery of the Surigao gold hoard constitutes a major find in the anthropological history of the Philippines.    

So far, the Surigao artifacts comprise the earliest known collection of significant importance in Philippine history because this is the first grouping of such pieces, which show highly sophisticated crafting and detailing previously unknown to historians. The pieces, all of 24-karat gold -- loosely dated, seem to have been created between the 10th to the 13th centuries A.D. -- show that there was a hitherto unknown thriving society in that region before the Spaniards recorded the history of the islands.

The existence of these artifacts reveals that early Filipino tribes were on a par with other faraway societies in the rest of Asia, South America and Africa insofar as being on some sort of “gold standard,” i.e., in a sort of unspoken conspiracy before the different continents of the planet connected with each other in the industrial age and established a universal system or gold standard. Here is solid proof that in a corner of what would eventually become known as the Philippine Islands another three or more centuries later, such a sophisticated society or tribe(s) lived and prospered.

It all began sometime in 1981 when Morales, working with a bulldozer for a reclamation project in Magroyong, Surigao del Sur, accidentally bumped into a mound of metallic objects. When he got down to investigate, to his amazement, it was a trove of treasure unlike any that had been seen. Realizing its rarity, Morales took evasive steps to protect his discovery and his safety. He hastily hid the pieces from his coworkers and tried to keep cool until he could get them home safely.

Berto Morales (right), finder of the “Surigao Gold” hoard, at his farm in Surigao del Sur, showing a documentary film crew where he came upon the first find of the Magroyong hoard. The site is at the edge of the parcel of land that Morales later purchased from his earnings after the sale of some of the gold pieces. This is a screen-grab from the 2008 documentary “Gintong Pamana” (Golden Legacy) hosted by Cheche Lazaro. The eight-part documentary from GMA network can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn7nqNAoVd4).   

Berto Morales (right), finder of the “Surigao Gold” hoard, at his farm in Surigao del Sur, showing a documentary film crew where he came upon the first find of the Magroyong hoard. The site is at the edge of the parcel of land that Morales later purchased from his earnings after the sale of some of the gold pieces. This is a screen-grab from the 2008 documentary “Gintong Pamana” (Golden Legacy) hosted by Cheche Lazaro. The eight-part documentary from GMA network can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn7nqNAoVd4).   

Understandably, Berto, fearful of the consequences if word of the discovery got out, resorted to other cloak-and-dagger measures. Although he was not a professional treasure hunter like Rogelio Roxas, the finder of the fabled Golden Buddha back in 1971 (pre-martial law), the specter of what happened to the hapless Roxas only ten years earlier, hung heavily on the minds of Berto and his small, trusted circle. And all the more so because the Marcos martial law was still in effect, so anything could have happened to Berto and his family.

Such was his fear for their lives that Berto, after temporarily entrusting their local parish priest with some of the items, relocated to Dumaguete City with his family, and they lived under assumed names for a year. After that, the Moraleses returned to Surigao and tried to monetize the treasure the best way they knew how and, to an extent, get the “accursed” things off their hands. While its discovery was nowhere near as monumental as King Tut’s treasures, nonetheless, once word of Morales’ little find got out, a mini-gold rush of sorts--of treasure hunters and grave diggers--descended on the site over the next few months and tore up the rural landscape. This, in effect, flushed out whatever remaining “royal” treasure was still in the area.

The succeeding excavations were all very furtive and helter-skelter. Since there was no concerted, organized effort to preserve and document the findings in a methodical manner, unscrupulous dealers and merchants were the first to sell. Much of the first wave of Surigao gold found its way to the antiquities market in Cebu. Because it was all done under great subterfuge, foreign buyers of doubtful backgrounds got involved; and sadly, many fine pieces were broken up, re-crafted and even melted—and lost to history.

The “Kinari” is one of the centerpieces of the show. It is based on a mythological figure/ deity bearing a woman’s head and the body of a bird. This more than any other artifact in the collection shows Hindu and Javanese influences in the craftsmanship. From the Ayala collection.  

The “Kinari” is one of the centerpieces of the show. It is based on a mythological figure/ deity bearing a woman’s head and the body of a bird. This more than any other artifact in the collection shows Hindu and Javanese influences in the craftsmanship. From the Ayala collection.  

Word Reaches Manila

Eventually, sometime in 1982, word of the fantastic, ancient 24-karat gold pieces reached the ears of major collectors in Manila. One of those first contacted was the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The governor of the Central Bank (which oversees the MMA) at the time was Jaime Laya who is also a knowledgeable art collector. Laya immediately recognized the historic importance of what was being offered to him. He had the Bank rouse up additional funds to grab these exceptional pieces before they totally disappeared. However, one remarkable piece that the MMA/Central Bank passed up due to its prohibitive cost was the Sacred Thread (picture following).

At the same time, Leandro and Cecile Yulo-Locsin, known major collectors of exotic Filipiniana with deep pockets, were included in the Surigao gold sales loop. The Locsins had been collecting since the mid-1960s, at about the time Locsin’s star was rising since he was the architect of choice of Imelda Marcos, the Ramses of the Philippines. One of the crowning jewels (to use a pun) of Locsin’s career was Imelda’s first pet project, the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In 1990, Locsin had also been proclaimed a National Artist for Architecture.  

One of the centerpieces of the show is the Sacred Thread, a halter-like adornment weighing about four kilos. It was first offered by dealers to the MMA/Bangko Sentral for ₱4 million around 1983-84. As the BSP found that overpriced, they passed on it. Per the economics of the trade, the object then moves down to the next possible buyer at a reduced price. The Locsins were next in line, so this item was acquired at the time (for possibly between ₱3.5-3.75 million).  (Images courtesy of the Ayala Museum)

One of the centerpieces of the show is the Sacred Thread, a halter-like adornment weighing about four kilos. It was first offered by dealers to the MMA/Bangko Sentral for ₱4 million around 1983-84. As the BSP found that overpriced, they passed on it. Per the economics of the trade, the object then moves down to the next possible buyer at a reduced price. The Locsins were next in line, so this item was acquired at the time (for possibly between ₱3.5-3.75 million).  (Images courtesy of the Ayala Museum)

As one hears the history of how the treasures eventually ended up in the Manila museums, the big elephantine question in the room is, how did President Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, absolute rulers at the time and known to be covetous of things precious and shiny, not reach their grubby paws into the Surigao treasure when word reached the capital? It was not for lack of secrecy or discretion on the part of any of the principals involved, especially as the MMA-Central Bank was quickly scaring up extra funds to acquire some of the pieces. Such administrative moves would not have gone unnoticed at the presidential office.

Similarly, the Locsins, as the fall back buyers, were put in a particularly uncomfortable situation. Having been in the inner circle of Imelda for many years, they were certainly mindful of the former first lady’s acquisitive, “mining” eye. Whatever the ‘mining” queen fancied, would often not be denied her. So the Locsins tried to keep their on-going acquisition of the Surigao gold on a very low profile.

But what was the real reason for the Palace’s non-interference, when the Marcoses could very easily have picked off the best of the lot, as they did with the Roxas-Golden Buddha episode? Two theories emerged: One, Ferdinand was busy raiding the Central Bank assets via the back door, thus allowing the smaller outward acquisitions “for legacy’s sakes” to move forward; and two, the couple was known to be quite superstitious and preferred not to have anything to do with what seemed to be treasures from the grave. (There are a few funerary items, mini-death masks, which shall be in the New York show). However, it appears that Southeast Asian gold filigree wasn’t really Imelda’s groove. She has always been more into diamonds, emeralds and western-set jewelry. So one can only thank the diwatas (the anecdotal deities) for that predilection of hers.

Where did these artifacts come from?

Once a sizeable quantity had been collected in the MMA-Central Bank and Locsin holdings, archeologists and scholars attempted to place their origins. What society or tribe did they come from? Since there was no written record, tags or labels, the best that could be done was to study other artifacts of the region and do some comparative dating. In that Surigao-Agusan area, fairly well preserved boats of an early trading post had been carbon-dated to the 10th-13th centuries.

There were also accounts of Chinese traders doing business in that area with a port called Butu-an (not the site of present-day Butuan City but farther east, about midway between present Butuan and where the treasure was found). Further, other archeological finds from Java and nearby Indonesian islands of roughly the same guestimated period showed similar Javanese-Hindu characteristics and influences. Finally, a rare, scholarly treatise published around 1590, the Boxer Codex, provided a helpful guide to the dating of many of the artifacts (although the Codex was published some three centuries later). Thus, the Surigao gold objects’ date-stamp could be placed in the span of the 10th to the 13th centuries, A.D., pre-Hispanic era. 

The center graphic is a watercolor image from the Boxer Codex, published c. 1590. The rare publication helped date and ID many pieces that were discovered in Surigao. The Codex will also be view at the Philippine Gold exhibit in New York.  

The center graphic is a watercolor image from the Boxer Codex, published c. 1590. The rare publication helped date and ID many pieces that were discovered in Surigao. The Codex will also be view at the Philippine Gold exhibit in New York.  

Why was the hoard so secluded?

One theory is that since no bones were found mixed with the artifacts, this was obviously not a burial site but a hiding place for which the last living holders of the secret of the location may have paid with their lives. Either those who buried it were executed somewhere else, or there was a last stand against outside aggressors farther away. In any case, those who knew the location literally took the secret with them to the grave. As such, the site lay undisturbed for about ten centuries.

Around 2001-2, the Locsin heirs decided the time was right to make the hitherto unknown treasures public and be shared with the Filipino nation. To make this happen, the Locsins partnered with the Ayalas, with whom they’d had a longstanding friendship and working relationship.

Thus, a deal was reached wherein the Ayala Foundation would acquire the 1,059-piece pre-Hispanic gold collection for an undisclosed sum (my guess: around ₱50 million pesos—about the cost of a property in Forbes Park or Dasmariñas village at the time) and be displayed in a new, state-of-the-art setting. Part of the historic deal was that the Locsins themselves would design the new, enlarged Ayala museum. Thus, in 2004, the old Ayala Museum was demolished and work began on its replacement.

And that is how this hoard, found in totally humble dirt, now resides in two state-of-the-art museums. The new and expanded Ayala Museum opened in 2008, devoting the entire 4th floor to the pre-Hispanic gold collection.   

Gold belts. Both the Ayala and Bangko Sentral museums have these, and at least two are traveling with the show to New York. Berto’s initial find of about 20 pieces also contained some of the more significant objects exhibited in Manila today. Some of the slightly over 100 pieces traveling with the New York exhibit were culled from the BSP’s 24-piece collection and the rest from the Ayala Museum’s 1,059 gold pieces. Note that not all of the Ayala-Locsin collection was solely from the Surigao site.  

Gold belts. Both the Ayala and Bangko Sentral museums have these, and at least two are traveling with the show to New York. Berto’s initial find of about 20 pieces also contained some of the more significant objects exhibited in Manila today. Some of the slightly over 100 pieces traveling with the New York exhibit were culled from the BSP’s 24-piece collection and the rest from the Ayala Museum’s 1,059 gold pieces. Note that not all of the Ayala-Locsin collection was solely from the Surigao site.  

The exhibit in New York attempts to be more comprehensive of the era since it show various gold works from other areas of pre-Hispanic Philippines; hence the scope of the show: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms. Other highlights of the show will be (i) some gold items found in Marinduque, on loan from the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, France; and (ii) the Boxer Codex (so named due to its last private owner, professor Charles Boxer, an American expert on the Far East, who acquired the rare manuscript at an auction in 1947), now owned by the Lilly Library in Indiana.

As for discoverer Berto Morales, he did well for himself. He was able to purchase some land and a farm, build a comfortable home, buy modern farming implements, get much needed medical treatment for himself and his family and even helped out some needy neighbors and townsfolk.  

27 years after his discovery, Berto Morales confronts his treasured past on a visit to the Ayala Museum in 2008. There he caught up with the fruits of his discovery, now ensconced behind bulletproof glass. However, Morales lamented the loss of an exquisite scabbard-and-dagger set which he had to surrender to a military operative when his life was threatened. (Again, the above is part of the eight-part GMA-network documentary, “Gintong Pamana” (The Golden Legacy), hosted by Cheche Lazaro, 2008.) 

27 years after his discovery, Berto Morales confronts his treasured past on a visit to the Ayala Museum in 2008. There he caught up with the fruits of his discovery, now ensconced behind bulletproof glass. However, Morales lamented the loss of an exquisite scabbard-and-dagger set which he had to surrender to a military operative when his life was threatened. (Again, the above is part of the eight-part GMA-network documentary, “Gintong Pamana” (The Golden Legacy), hosted by Cheche Lazaro, 2008.) 

No West Coast Engagement.

Unfortunately, there will be no other showing of the exhibit outside of New York— on West Coast or elsewhere. Due to the rarity and great fragility of the gold, it was a deliberate decision to just take the exhibit to one city. Bringing the various components of the exhibit together to one time and place required several years of planning and negotiations. Further, because this will be the first time many of the 100-or-so pieces will travel halfway around the world, one of the lending institutions was very hesitant to see its share of the exhibit go in transit.

Thus, state-of-the-art security, with fake manifests, code names and utmost secrecy, have been employed at great expense, to ensure the safety of these irreplaceable treasures. The collection is considered one of the most valuable and anthropologically significant collections of gold artistry in the world today and something present-day Filipinos and hyphenated-ones, wherever it is they now call home, should be immensely proud of.


Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms will run through January 3, 2016 at the Asia Society in New York. Sincere thanks to Dr. Florina Capistrano-Baker, curator of this exhibit and of the Ayala and Getty Museums, for some insights shared in this article.

http://asiasociety.org/media/philippines/asia-society-museum-present-exhibition-dazzling-early-gold-philippines


Myles Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based author/writer. His proudest work to date is the book Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies. Myles is also a member of the ISOH (International Society of Olympic Historians) and has also written for the ISOH Journal. Finally, Myles has just completed his first play, Murder a lá Mode, which is now available to Broadway producers.


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