Acquired from the estate of Ramon Villegas


There are no earlier examples of Filipino goldsmithing with as much stylistic & cultural force as the funerary masks from Butuan & Surigao. Made by hand between the 10th to the 14th centuries, these paper-thin, 22 karat gold memento mori are the among earliest examples of goldsmithing found in the country. At that time, in those places, there was a pre-colonial culture with what appears to be an aristocratic class who decorated their deceased with these gold masks, such as the fine example mounted by Claude Mark Caro Wilson. This culture appears to have been unique to the archipelago, as these gold masks are found only in 10th - 14th Century Butuan & Surigao. Wilson mounted the 22 Karat Gold Mask onto 925 sterling silver chainmail, then suspended the mask onto a sterling silver frame (420 grams of sterling silver). Like many others, this particular mask did not have a nose, so Wilson selected a jewelry-grade rutilated quartz for a nose. The rutilated quartz, as well as the gold sheets have 18 Karat gold settings that clasp onto sterling silver chainmail. Set onto a Balayong base, he turned an exceptional cultural object into a magnificent objet d'art. Wilson purchased this mask from the estate of Ramon "Boy" Villegas, the esteemed art historian, & author of numerous books of prehistoric Filipino gold, including those published by the Central Bank, which has the country's largest collection of precolonial gold. In the field of highly-collectible pre-colonial Filipino excavated gold, Villegas was the undisputed connoisseur (with perhaps Architect Lindy Locsin & his wife Cecilia, being a close second). His authority in the field emanates from his early exposure to the artifacts. In the 1970's, when the excavations in Butuan & Surigao were bringing to market excavated gold for the first time, it was Mr. Villegas' mother (who owned the jewelry firm "Capricci") that was among the first to handle these extraordinary objects, such as the masks, but also earrings, belts, barter beads, necklaces, and rings. After class, the young Ramon, still in grade school, would visit his mother in her Buendia shop and personally experience the objects first-hand, as they came in directly from agents coming from the Visayas. This first-hand exposure, absorbed into his encyclopedic mind, led him to become the country's foremost connoisseur & writer of excavated gold. When Wilson purchased this mask from the Villegas estate, he wondered how to mount & exhibit it. He held on to it for several years until an idea came to him. The starting point was the the fragility and spirituality of the mask. He resisted mounting it on a flat black velvet background, so typical of most presentations of these masks. Early Filipinos appear to have had a three-fold conception of themselves as composed of a body, a life force ("ginhawa"), and a spirit ("kaluluwa").[11] Wilson lit on the idea that sterling silver chainmail would be a beautiful & permeable mounting surface that could honor the spiritual nature of the gold mask. Chainmail connotes armor & military force, yet has movement & grace. It resists flatness, having an inherent suggestion of motion. This quality suggests transition & movement into the spiritual worlds beyond their earth, beliefs that appear to have been held with firm conviction by our ancient ancestors, as depicted in the famous Manuggul Jar (7th Century BC, Palawan) and in these equally renowned gold masks of 10th - 14th Century Butuan & Surigao.