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Gold coins and other museum treasures
Source: Inquirer
Author: Ambeth Ocampo
Date: 2000-08-04
WASHINGTON, D.C.--What draws

people to particular exhibits when

they enter a museum? Is it the

historical or artistic value of the

object on display, or is it the

monetary worth of an artifact? At the National Gallery, I

watched a woman take a snapshot of the only work of Leonardo

da Vinci this side of the United States. I wanted to suggest that

it would be cheaper and better to buy a postcard, but that was

rude so I quietly observed her. When the guard approached I

expected him to reprimand the camera bug about flash

photography and how it contributes to the deterioration of old


To my surprise the guard asked the woman hurrying on the way

out, ''Do you know how much it is worth?" Stopped from

heading off to the next item on her souvenir photo hunt, the

woman gasped when told the painting was worth $150 million.

Only then did she give the Da Vinci a second glance. She even

had to be prodded to see the back of the painting where Da

Vinci paid more praise to the beauty of his sitter. I guess Da

Vinci, in the popular mind, is associated more with the star of

the movie ''Titanic'' than the great Italian painter.

When I send students to the collection of pre-colonial artifacts

in the Central Bank, they make a quick tour of the earthenware

pottery, but are awed by the pre-colonial Philippine gold.

Museum-goers are probably the same everywhere whether it be

Manila or Washington, D.C. At the National Museum of

American History, I walked through a hall filled with coinage

and banknotes from around the world. Money always attracts

attention so the hall was filled with visitors. Naturally, gold

attracted more people than paper money and a multitude of

coins made of lesser metals. In a small room filled with gold

coins, I was drawn to the Spanish coins as these reminded me of

tales of maps, pirates and buried treasure I read avidly when I

was a boy. Though the profiles of Spanish Kings Carlos III and

Ferdinand VII were everywhere, I was surprised to find out that

many of these coins were minted outside Spain. How these gold

onzas came from Spain's South American colonies and traveled

to the Philippines is a story in itself. The coins reminded me of a

time when the Catholic kings could boast of an overseas empire

where the sun, literally, did not set.

My interest in Philippine gold coins stemmed from the Manila

visit of Bill Gates some years ago. What do you give a man who

has everything? Well, the Ayala Corp. presented Gates with a

boxed set of gold coins minted in the 19th-century Philippines.

There were three coins of .875 gold in varying sizes depending

on the denomination: the smallest at P1 weighed 1.6915 grams,

P2 at 3.3830 grams and the biggest at P4 weighing 6.7661 grams.

All coins carried the bust profile of the pudgy Spanish Queen

Isabel II on one side and the Spanish coat of arms on the

reverse. These gold coins are sometimes referred to as


If you want to see a statue of Isabel II in Manila you will find

her standing outside Puerta Isabel in Intramuros facing the

Bureau of Immigration and the National Press Club. A

fascinating etymological aside from Alejandro Roces is that

Isabel, notorious for her lovelife, gave us pera, the Philippine

word for money. Roces says that when 19th-century coinage

carried the likeness of Isabel II, her detractors referred to her as

la perra (the bitch) and this simply caught on to become our


A royal decree in 1861 established the Casa de Moneda in

Manila that melted down gold onzas from South America

circulating in the Philippines and converted these into the gold

Isabelinas that proudly carried the name "Filipinas" on the

reverse of the coin below the Spanish coat of arms. Officially,

Isabelinas were minted from 1861, the year the Casa de Moneda

was founded, to 1868 when Isabel was deposed. Coins carrying

the profile of Alfonso XII were minted but according to

tradition, people preferred Isabelinas which were thus

continuously minted in Manila till 1877 but kept the minting date

1868. This explains why 1868 Isabelinas are relatively easy to

find today. The international value of Isabelinas varies

according to rarity and condition. One coin catalogue puts the

following price ranges for Isabelinas: P4 can be had for as low

as $100 and as high as $8,000. Two pesos from $50 to $3,000 and

P1 from $45 to $1,000. Whatever they are worth in terms of gold

value, Isabelinas are important not only as the first gold coins

minted in the Philippines, but Isabelinas also mark the first time

the country's name "Filipinas" appeared on its coinage.

While the Philippines is one of the major sources of gold in the

world--once upon a time we were one of the top 10 producers of

gold worldwide--we hardly see or use gold coins today. When

the Isabelinas ceased to be minted, gold continued to be

panned and mined in the Cordilleras or Paracale, yet the

Philippines did not mint gold coins from the 19th century till

1970 when a commemorative coin was struck to mark the Manila

visit of Pope Paul VI. Where did all that Philippine gold go?

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