After pulpit panels, Boljoon moves to recover tabernacle sold at auction

Max Limpag

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After pulpit panels, Boljoon moves to recover tabernacle sold at auction

LEGAL MOVES. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia talks with Capitol lawyers about legal options to recover items that were lost from heritage churches in Cebu.

Max Limpag/Rappler

Initially priced at P400,000, the tabernacle from Boljoon, Cebu eventually sold for P1.4 million

CEBU, Philippines – While awaiting the return of its controversial pulpit panels by the National Museum to the heritage church of Boljoon in southern Cebu, the town now seeks to reclaim a tabernacle auctioned in 2017.

The tabernacle was featured in Leon Gallery’s The Asian Cultural Council Philippines Art Auction 2017. The catalog indicated its origin as Boljoon. Initially priced at P400,000, it eventually sold for P1.4 million.

Leon Gallery Director Jaime Ponce de Leon told Rappler that he would assist Cebu province and the Archdiocese of Cebu in locating the item.

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LISTING. The listing of the tabernacle in the Leon Gallery auction. Leon Gallery

“We are compelled by law to help,” de Leon said, “but there has to be proof that the item was really stolen.” 

De Leon said that in the past, it was common knowledge that priests would often sell items, sometimes to fund projects in the parish, such as church repairs.

A source in heritage circles said the tabernacle was offered to a member of a prominent Cebuano family who, after consultation, was advised not to buy it because it obviously originated from a church.

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia said she intends to locate the antiques and treasures that parishes in Cebu have lost. During an interview with Rappler, she also expressed her commitment to recovering the tabernacle.

Father Brian Brigoli, chair of the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, said the archdiocese will also take action to locate the item.

Boljoon Mayor Joie Genesse Derama said he will seek Garcia’s assistance in demanding its return to the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in their town.

Municipal Councilor Eva Lowela Villanueva Moraca said she was preparing a resolution to request assistance from Leon Gallery in locating the tabernacle.

When the issue regarding the pulpit panels arose, the Archdiocese of Cebu said the items removed from churches without authorization by the archbishop are considered stolen. National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) Director General Jeremy Barns, however, said the sale of church items by priests was common in the past and continues today.

There is currently no information available regarding when the tabernacle, which was where the blessed sacraments were placed, was lost from the parish. What could complicate the issue is that the Boljoon parish inventory is missing. 

The inventory was signed by the current parish priest, Monsignor Arthur Navales, when he assumed the parish in 2019. Brigoli said that during their visit to the parish last Tuesday, the inventory was still not found.

In the Leon Gallery catalog, the tabernacle was described as made of molave. “Stylistically, it is a transition piece showing Baroque details in conjunction with the Rococo Style elements that began to manifest itself in Philippine art after the 1750s. The piece was originally used to enshrine a religious statue.” 

Brigoli said the catalog information was mistaken, and this was a tabernacle that contained the blessed sacraments and not an urna that enshrined a religious image.

“Originally, this urna was undoubtedly gilded with gold leaf and painted in polychrome. The paint and gilding were probably damaged by time and, when collecting such objects became fashionable in the 1970s, they were stripped away and varnished to expose the wood,”read part of the catalog.

The tabernacle has carved on its doors the logo of the Augustinian order, which is a large Habsburg or double-headed eagle with a crown. 

“The bird is perched on a flowering and fruiting pomegranate tree growing on a rocky ground. The pomegranate or granada with its numerous seeds inside one fruit is the symbol of the Church having many souls in one body,” according to the catalog.

Based on the catalog, the tabernacle was formerly in the collection of David Kamansky, who used to be the executive director of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California.

Kamansky was reported in a New York Times article on January 26, 2008 as having been entangled in a federal investigation on museum staff members accused of “visiting a storage locker maintained by a smuggler of stolen antiquities and meeting with the sellers of stolen goods.” Kamansky denied any wrongdoing.

Boljoon is awaiting the decision by the National Museum of the Philippines on the return of the four pulpit panels that were lost since the late 1980s. The NMP board is scheduled to meet in early May to discuss the issue. –

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