Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Traders beat museum execs to galleon treasure


By Gil Francis Arevalo
June 27, 2005

THESE centuries-old Spanish gold and silver coins are
among the treasures found in the sunken galleon off Rapu-Rapu

LEGAZPI CITY-Museum officials here found out too late that fishermen on Rapu-Rapu Island had discovered late last year a sunken Spanish galleon that contained gold and silver coins, jars and other valuable treasures.

More than a thousand 17th- and 18th-century Spanish coins were recovered from the wreckage but only fewer than 20 pieces could be left because the fishermen had quietly sold the items to treasure hunters and collectors, Legazpi Museum curator Erlinda Belleza said, citing a report by two residents of Barangay Viga in Rapu-Rapu.

Rapu-Rapu is about two hours by motorboat from this city. However, it would take another one-and-a-half hours to reach Viga.

The business was so brisk and profitable that fisherfolk in Barangay Viga and neighboring villages temporarily stopped fishing.

Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino businessmen and collectors coming from Manila had frequented the village to buy as many coins and other items as possible, the two whistle-blowers said. The price of each coin ranged from P6,000 to P10,000.

Belleza said she had asked the National Museum, through Assistant Director Cecillio Salcedo, to send coin experts and divers to Rapu-Rapu to look for the remaining treasure and other sunken galleons in the area.

She said that as early as November last year, she had heard stories about the treasure found off the island but could not find people who could confirm them.

Nilo Asuncion, 29, of Viga, and his cousin, Charles Asuncion, 36, who now lives in Barangay Rawis in Legazpi, disclosed that some of those who bought and hid the coins wanted to sell them to the Legazpi Museum so they could make more money. But they were reluctant to do so for fear of being penalized or imprisoned.

"This is the very reason why it took us quite some time before we revealed this and why we consulted Mrs. Belleza instead of the authorities in Rapu-Rapu, the police or the military," Nilo said.

He said there were several instances since late last year when local government officials and policemen collected coins and tolerated risky underwater treasure-hunting so divers could find more items.

Out of curiosity, Charles said he bought four gold and five silver coins, which he believed were the only ones left of the old Spanish coins recovered from the sunken galleon.

He said he bought the coins for P5,500 each.

"I was just interested to see for myself, so I asked one fisherman to show me a sample. At first, he was reluctant to show it unless I would really buy it. So I bought it and the others. But from the time I showed them to Mrs. Belleza, I became aware of the coins' importance and decided not to sell them to a certain Japanese collector," Charles told the Inquirer.

Isabel 2
The four gold coins were dated 1862, 1863 (two pieces) and 1868, while the five silver coins were dated 1792, 1801, 1867, 1882 and 1887.

Belleza noted that the name of Carolus III de Gratia was inscribed on the 1792 coin; Carolus IV de Gratia on the 1801 coin; Isabel 2 and Porlag de Dios Y La Const Reina on each of the 1863 coins; Alfonso X Porlag de Dios on 1868, and Alfonso XII Porlag de Dios on 1882.

"Most of the remaining Spanish coins that Charles has bought have determinant value upon considering its physical condition of being discernible and exceptionally fine, for only two of the silver coins have slightly worn features--the 1801 and the 1887," Belleza said.

Numismatists collect coins not just because of their historical importance but because of their investment value. A coin's value usually increases with time. But most of all, rarity is the foremost determinant in grading coins.

An official of Barangay Viga, who also has a house in Barangay Victory Village in the port area of Legazpi, confirmed the stories about the sunken treasures quietly gathered by the fishermen. Due to his position in the village, he requested not to be named.

Blast fishers
Both Nilo and Charles witnessed how frenzied the local fishermen in their barangay had become, to the point that most of them stopped fishing for months because of the huge amount of money they got from gathering and selling coins.

Nilo recounted that a group of blast fishers in their barangay accidentally discovered late last year that they had blown up jars containing gold and silver coins.

He said some of the fishermen swam underwater and were surprised to find other items such as antique cups, forks, tablespoons, worn-out garments and metal scraps from the sunken ship.

A buyer of scrap, Charles never thought that what he had bought was a part of the sunken vessel. He bought the piece for only P60 per kilo.

"I often came back to my hometown to buy metal scraps. No one told me that it came from a sunken vessel until my Taiwanese buyer told me that this was not an ordinary metal because of its durability. Compared with the metals today, it is not welded and is made of pure bronze and copper metals," Charles said.

Historians and anthropologists, both here and abroad, have considered Rapu-Rapu Island a sanctuary for galleons, based on historical documents provided by the Legazpi Museum.

Due to strong waves from the Pacific Ocean, many Spanish galleons coming from Sorsogon found Rapu-Rapu a safe haven for their voyage to other parts of Albay. But some of them reportedly sank off the coast of Rapu-Rapu.

"So, most likely, there are still many treasures left. That's why we are asking for the expertise of the National Museum on this matter before it's too late," Belleza said.

In the 18th century, the Spaniards frequented Rapu-Rapu to prepare for an all-out war against Moro pirates. This went on until 1819.

Belleza said Rapu-Rapu was believed to be the springboard for the Moros who raided big towns in Bicol.


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