Imelda Marcos Owned Monets, and Now They're Trapped in Brooklyn

  • Philippines republic and a victims’ group seek Marcos artwork
  • Paintings are part of $10 billion Marcos accused of plundering

Hear the name Imelda Marcos and everyone, of course, thinks shoes. But, it turns out, the former Philippines first lady had a thing for fine art too and amassed a collection of paintings worth millions of dollars.

There were Monets and a Sisley, and for years they hung in an Upper East Side townhouse owned by the Philippines and a Fifth Avenue apartment across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Today, they sit in a high-security, climate-controlled warehouse in Brooklyn’s Red Hook section, the focus of a contentious legal battle raging across multiple New York courts to determine ownership of the artwork.

Imelda Marcos

Photographer: PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

Three parties are vying for the assets. The current Philippine government and a group representing some 10,000 victims of Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal regime both insist they are entitled to the paintings and $15 million in cash found in the U.S. Imelda’s former assistant, who says the first lady gave her paintings as a birthday gift, is also seeking some of the assets. A federal trial in Manhattan could begin later this year.

The paintings, including Old Masters and Impressionist works, represent a fraction of the $10 billion in assets that the late Marcos and his wife were accused of plundering from the country’s treasury during his presidency from 1965 to 1986. In the hours after Marcos was toppled, the art disappeared from their Manhattan townhouse so swiftly that all that remained were bare walls and the paintings’ name plates, according to the Philippines government. Works by Picasso, Renoir, Rembrandt and Cezanne have never been found.

Imelda Acquittal

Ferdinand died in 1989 in Hawaii and, a few months later, Imelda dodged legal charges. In 1990, a Manhattan federal jury acquitted her of stealing more than $200 million from the country’s treasury and investing the money in jewels, art and four pieces of Manhattan real estate. Her defense argued that she didn’t know the money had been obtained illegally.

Water Lilies by Monet.

Source: Manhattan District Attorney

The whereabouts of the art and other assets had remained a mystery for decades, eluding a search begun in 1986 by the new Philippines government’s Presidential Commission on Good Government.

The crack came in 2011, when Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. seized 50 Marcos paintings that he said had been hidden in Manhattan and Long Island homes owned by Vilma Bautista, the former aide to Imelda.

Bautista was convicted in 2013 for tax fraud relating to her $32 million sale of one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series, “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” and attempting to sell other Impressionist works belonging to Imelda Marcos. The 1899 Water Lily painting is now owned by British hedge-fund manager Alan Howard, who paid the victims’ group $10 million to foreclose legal challenges.

Notable Artwork

Other notable artwork in storage includes another Monet, “L’Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil;” an 1887 seascape by Alfred Sisley called “Langland Bay,” and an Albert Marquet painting in 1946 entitled “Algerian View.”

Bautista, sentenced to as much as six years in prison, is free appealing her conviction. Her lawyer, J. Roberto Cardenas, didn’t return a voicemail message seeking comment.

“Langland Bay” by Sisley.

Source: Manhattan District Attorney

When the victims of Marcos’s dictatorship heard about Bautista’s cache, they sued in New York state court in 2012 to seize control of her art and funds. The victims had already obtained a $2 billion judgment against the couple and their assets in a federal court in Hawaii for human rights violations.

"We have a judgment and we have a right to claim that property as much as Imelda Marcos," said Robert Swift, a Philadelphia lawyer who has represented the victims for years. "My opponent represents the republic and they are the perpetrator of the abuses against my clients."

Political Changes

The Philippines government filed a claim for the art in 2014, arguing the republic is also a victim of the Marcos regime and the rightful owner of property Imelda Marcos purchased with money plundered from its coffers. The relatively small number of victims shouldn’t be allowed to get priority ahead of the full country, which has never been compensated, said Kenneth C. Murphy, a New York lawyer representing the Philippines.

“In the 1970s, tens of millions of dollars in secret Swiss bank accounts were used to obtain that art," Murphy said. "It should go back to the Philippines so they can decide how to distribute the proceeds.”

In the latest twist, in late November, the parties began fighting over which court should decide ownership of the art and funds. The victims’ group says a state judge should make the determination while the Philippine government says a federal judge in Manhattan has the authority. A federal appeals court in New York is considering the issue.

Time may be running out for those who toppled the Marcos regime. In the decades since the dictator was unseated, the Philippines’ political environment has changed dramatically. In November, Ferdinand Marcos was given a hero’s burial at a national cemetery there as the country’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, urged citizens to accept the tribute.

The Marcos family, which returned to the Philippines from exile in 1991, has also seen a change in fortune. Imelda Marcos is now a member of the nation’s House of Representatives while her son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., almost won the vice presidency. A daughter, Imee, is the governor of a northern province.

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