The obsession with ivory | Inquirer News
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The obsession with ivory

/ 08:55 AM September 27, 2012

The cat is finally out of the bag. I read the National Geographic article on the ivory trade and the revelations made by Msgr. Cristobal Garcia (see “Ivory Worship” Why am I not surprised?

What surprises me in fact is that I was one of those who had been with Bryan Christie when he was in Cebu thrice over the past two years. All the while, I really thought he wanted to write about Cebuano/Filipino religiosity and the seemingly inexplicable devotion to the Sto. Niño.


I remember the informal tete-a-tete we had at Museo Sugbo in January 2011. Bryan asked me to explain how many people I thought would be joining the Sto. Niño procession the following day and why. He found it hard to believe why people from all walks of life would march kilometers under the gruelling sun to follow a tiny image made of wood. I had to explain to him that an American like him, who did not grow up in my culture, would never find the right words to explain such a practice, such devotion.

The second time we met was when I was doing a Kabilin TV episode on the processional images that come out of the old families of Bantayan during Holy Week of April 2011. He joined me and my SugboTV crew in Bantayan led by Dennis Tanoc (now a TV5 news reporter) but stayed with heritage advocate and Bantayan resident Trizer Mansueto. I doubt if Trizer also had an inkling that he was doing an investigative report on the illicit trade in Catholic ivory images. But therein lies the rub. Neither Trizer nor I have any obsession with ivory. We have documented and catalogued the small but significant collection of ivory images in the Cathedral Museum dating from the late Spanish to the early American period but never really felt like owning one.


Once a friend told me he recently bought an ivory image in Manila. I quickly reminded him that this was patently illegal. At another instance I saw one on display in a trade fair recently and I asked the trader how old the tall solid ivory statue was. He was quick to reply that it was an heirloom piece. But I pressed further and asked him if he was aware that trading in ivory after 1989 was illegal. He replied that he was. Well, I could no longer do anything else except to ask for the price tag which was P450,000!

This, I believe is what feeds the trade, the status conferred on the owner for having such an expensive item among his or her collection of otherwise wood-based life-size images. That it took a foreigner, an American, to expose the shenanigans of traders and collectors in ivory in Manila and Cebu is understandable. I doubt if something close to a confession about the hows and wheres of the illegal trade would have come out in the open if a local media person made the inquiry.

The question on everyone’s mind now among heritage enthusiasts is this: “Did Monsignor Cris shoot himself in the foot or did he go overboard, boasting of things that may have been far exaggerated than reality would have it?”

I was asked by a news reporter the other day what my reaction to the issue was. I responded that as a person normally asked about heritage issues, I do not see any direct connection between illicit ivory smuggling and heritage. One must, I stated, strictly adhere to accepted museological and archaeological ethics. You cannot collect or bring home what you excavate or exhibit in museums. You cannot be a museum curator and a collector of the same type of artifacts or objects at the same time.

What should owners of illicit ivory pieces do now? If they can live with their consciences, then they can hold on to them and prepare to answer to God when they leave this earth. I cannot judge their motives but some higher power perhaps will. Perhaps, the best thing to do for them is to let go of this obsession and donate these illegally obtained statues to churches or to museums, properly labelled, of course.

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TAGS: ivory trade, Religions
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