Copy of rare 18th-century Philippine map sold for $1 million

Relic helped bolster Manila's case against Beijing in dispute over South China Sea

A copy of a rare map that helped to bolster the Philippines' case against China in a dispute over the South China Sea was sold last Saturday for 40 million pesos (S$1.06 million).

The price was more than three times what another copy fetched at a Sotheby's auction in London in 2014. Mr Mel Velarde, chief executive officer of Philippine telco NOW, had bought that copy for 12 million pesos.

In the latest auction, a four-minute bidding war between two art collectors inside the gallery and a third collector bidding through a proxy pushed the price to 40 million pesos.

Ms Lori Juvida, a gallery owner, tendered the winning bid. She later told The Straits Times that the purchase was "for a friend". The friend's identity has not been disclosed, but he is believed to be a Chinese Filipino.

Mr Jaime Ponce de Leon, director of Leon Gallery, where the auction was held, pointed to the map's rarity and historical significance. "As a document of history, it is very important," he said.

He added that it helped that the map had figured prominently in a case the Philippines brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013, challenging China's claim to over two-thirds of the South China Sea.

The map, first published in 1734 by Jesuit cartographer Pedro Murillo Velarde, drew Scarborough Shoal - referred to back then as Panacot - as part of the Philippines' territories. The shoal lies 358km west of the country's main Luzon island.

The map, first published in 1734 by Jesuit cartographer Pedro Murillo Velarde, drew the South China Sea's Scarborough Shoal - referred to back then as Panacot - as part of the Philippines' territories. PHOTO: US LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

China has been in control of Scarborough since 2012, following a stand-off with the Philippines.

The tribunal in The Hague sided with the Philippines and struck down China's claim to the South China Sea in 2016. It upheld the Philippines' rights to more than 200 nautical miles of "exclusive economic zone", which included Scarborough. China, however, has ignored the ruling.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte raised the case with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited China last month, but was told that China would not change its position on the matter.

The 1734 map is by itself an important historical artefact. It was engraved by printer Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay on eight copper plates. The plates were seized by Britain when it occupied Manila from 1762 to 1764, and taken to England as war booty. The University of Cambridge used the plates to print copies of the map before the plates were "rubbed down" and reused to make other maps.

The copy auctioned in 2014 had belonged to the Duke of Northumberland.

Fewer than a dozen copies of the map exist today. Three are with the national libraries of Spain and France and the US Library of Congress, while another three are in private collections in the Philippines.

The map has been described as the "mother of all Philippine maps", as it was the first to accurately represent the Philippines and define its borders. It had the names of over 900 towns, cities and villages, and showed important rivers and waterways.

What also made the 1734 map unique were 12 panels on both sides, drawn by artist Francisco Suarez, that depict everyday life in the Philippines in the 1700s.

The panels portray "sangleys" - as the Chinese who settled in the Philippines were called - as well as African slaves, Armenian and Persian merchants, and a Japanese samurai.

There are also depictions of cockfighting, as well as of people going to church, playing the mandolin, dancing, cutting bamboo for scaffolds, steering a carabao (water buffalo), and pounding rice. There are also images of forts and the walled city of Old Manila.

"It was the culmination of two centuries of map-making," wrote curator Lisa Guerrero-Nakpil.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2019, with the headline Copy of rare 18th-century Philippine map sold for $1 million. Subscribe