A TINY news report caught my attention on the night of November 24, when ABS-CBN ran a story on Christie’s auction house arriving in Manila to assess the jewelry collection previously owned by Imelda Marcos. It excites me no end, this jewelry collection, because it is such an artifact of a recent past, one that we speak of as a time of oppression and corruption, of un-freedom and abuse, but also one that had a vision for culture and the arts like we have not had since.
These jewels could only be a critical part of that past, a symbol of the Martial Law regime, and the true and good and beautiful that Mrs. Marcos liked to sell about nation. Of course one might say that this is also a symbol of her delusions. That this is also about the excesses of one First Lady, and the imaging of the first family as local royalty is of course part of the fascination.
But there are so many more layers and so many ways to read this collection, and in that sense it is a gift that can keep on giving. That is, if we wanted it to. If we had the imagination and creativity for it. If we were – dare I say? – cultured and intelligent enough for it.
The value of these jewels
Part of my fascination with these jewels is that as with Imelda’s shoes, as with the narratives about the Marcoses’ excesses, much of it is now being told like it’s mere urban legend – like something we blow out of proportion to scare the next generations about corruption and repression.
And yet the news that has been released about the jewels, particularly via Reuters (on Reuters website and on ABS-CBN’s site) reveals that this jewelry collection and the excess it stands for is no urban legend. Among the jewels that Christie’s reported were “Old Indian diamonds, Burmese rubies and Colombian emeralds <…> a rare 25-carat old barrel-shaped pink diamond valued at $5 million and jewelry with 18th century Indian diamonds.” (ABS-CBNNews.com, 24 Nov)
In another Reuters report, director of jewelry at Christie’s David Warren spoke of this diamond as “an extremely exciting find. <…> Pink diamonds are exceedingly rare.” According to the same report, “Only three pure, vivid pink diamonds of more than 10 carats have appeared for sale in almost 250 years of auction history, according to Christie’s.” (Reuters, 24 Nov)
Warren says of the diversity and magnitude of this collection: “Some of the pieces are so important, so magnificent. There’s a very wide variety of pieces – antique to modern, which is again what you would see in a current day royal collection – things that fit every occasion. So if you put me in there to value the jewelry and I had no knowledge of where it came from, I would say this feels like a royal collection.” (ABS-CBNNews.com, 24 Nov)
But of course it is the provenance – the story of these artifacts – that will also hike up its prices. Warren says: “Provenance is a big seller. People love the story, they love to know something more about jewelry. A lot of jewelry unfortunately carries no story. So when you have something like this where there’s a big story, a big provenance, it’s a provenance that some people are not going to like, it’s a provenance that some people are going to find interesting, that some people will love. It’s a mixture, it’s a mixture of emotions, obviously because of the history behind it. But it’s still provenance, it’s a very big provenance, whatever you feel about that.” (ABS-CBNNews.com, 24 Nov)
Warrren could just as well be talking about our national attitude towards the Marcoses, an attitude that swings between two extremes: the highly emotional assertions against the regime’s artifacts (shoes, jewels, paintings, narrative of excess), or the utter refusal to even acknowledge these artifacts as historically important.
Either way, the tendency seems to be to get rid of these artifacts. Sell them already, remove them from our sight. In 2012, I wrote about the 150 cartons of neglected artifacts that were collected from Malacañang in 1986, and left in some basement. It was a surprise to hear historian-in-residence of Malacañang Undersecretary Manolo Quezon say: “The boxes <of Marcos’ belongings> hold no historical significance, except some of the clothes were made by Joe Salazar, Pitoy Moreno, and other designers.” (GMANewsOnline, Sept 2012)
At that time President Aquino was quoted as saying that for all we know some of Imelda’s jewelry might even be fakes. Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez meanwhile did not like the idea of making this a tourist attraction, declaring that these artifacts are “not exactly the best way to attract tourists” given Imelda’s notoriety. (GMANewsOnline, Sept 2012)
May forever with these jewels
But it is precisely this notoriety, this fascination, this excess, it is precisely the magnitude of this jewelry collection, that will make it a gift that will keep on giving, i.e., a collection that we can continue to make good money on, a collection that we can hand down from one generation to the next, a collection that can be the key to teaching the history of Martial Law and the Marcos regime better.
These jewels will necessarily remind us about the dead and disappeared, the violence and abuses of the Marcos regime. But that is precisely the point. We can frame it the way we wish, we can use it as a jump off point for the more complex conversations we need to have about Marcos history.
We can curate these artifacts in so many ways, reveal it to be a collection at a time, a type of jewel at a time, a year at a time; have the same artifacts curated across our museums: National, Metropolitan, Yuchengco, Lopez, and Vargas; give veteran and young curators a hand at it, give historians and scholars, young and old, an opportunity to speak of it. Layer it with images of Imelda, when she wore it, where and for what?
Oh, the possibilities are endless! And one is finally hopeful about this collection, previous statements from Quezon, the President, and the Tourism Secretary notwithstanding.
Andrew de Castro, Commissioner on Research and Development of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) is a voice of reason. Speaking about the jewelry appraisal as a way of to get closure and allow the Filipino people to benefit from the jewelry, he says: “<The jewelry collection> shows you the excesses of the Marcos regime. At a time when people were suffering, they were collecting this set of jewelry, so I guess it’s a matter of perspective also. It’s a physical manifestation of all the talk about the problems with the Marcos regime <…> So I guess especially for young people now – it’s nice for them to see it, know that it’s real, we’re not making this up. These were from the Marcoses and they’re very expensive.” (Reuters, 24 Nov)
Sotheby’s is set to appraise the collection today, Thursday. Here’s hoping that all this appraising will not be for selling, but for actually exhibiting these jewels in a museum, and building an exhibit around it year in, year out. The better to hook tourists with, the better to teach history with.
The Filipino people own these jewels, we might as well gain as much as we can from it, for as long as forever.