Marcos's Secretary Sentenced for Monet Theft, But the Fight Over the Artwork Continues

Categories: Courts

ferdinand-marcos.jpg
Wikimedia Commons
Ferdinand Marcos
A good chunk of Filipinos will argue that former dictator Ferdinand Marcos never faced sufficient punishment--for his years of political oppression, extrajudicial executions, and looting of government funds. He was exiled in 1986 and spent the rest of his life in Hawaii, where the Reagan administration offered its longtime ally safe haven. Meanwhile, his son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., rose to become a Senator in the Philippines, and his wife, Imelda Marcos, received a presidential pardon and became a member of the House of Representatives. Even though the Philippine government has struggled to recoup the $10 billion the dictator allegedly stole, Rep. Marcos remains the second wealthiest elected official in the country (and the only member with a higher net worth, boxing star Manny Pacquiao, may not have as much cash as we thought.)

So the anti-Marcos contingent on the islands likely felt a tiny, delayed sense of justice on Monday, when a Manhattan judge sentenced Imelda's former personal secretary, Vilma Bautista, to up to six years in prison for trying to sell artwork from the dictator's collection--artwork that, government officials argue, should belong to the Republic.

"The evidence was overwhelming," State Supreme Court judge Renee White said.

See Also: The Fight for Ferdinand Marcos's Cash

During the trial, Bautista's legal team argued that Imelda Marcos had given the secretary permission to sell the artworks, and that Bautista intended to eventually pass the profits to the Philippines government. But a jury needed just three hours to convict Bautista in November.

The revelation of the secretary's crimes solved a mystery that had lingered for nearly three decades.

Ferdinand and Imelda collected much art during the administration's 21 year rule. Some of those pieces decorated the walls of the couple's Upper East Side apartment. But by the time the People Power Revolution drove Marcos into exile in 1986, all the paintings had vanished. And nobody outside of Marcos' circle knew where they went.

Then, in November 2012, Bautista was arrested in New York trying to sell four of them on the Asian black market. She succeeded in selling the most famous of the collection: Claude Monet's "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas," for $32 million.

See Also: Monet Painting Is Latest Chapter in Fight for Ferdinand Marcos's Cash

The case added a chapter to an already long, legally ambiguous, morally complex quandary: Who should the paintings belong to--the government Marcos stole from or the victims of Marcos' human rights abuses?

As we detailed last year:

In 1995, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled that Marcos' estate must pay the 10,000 plaintiffs $1.9 billion. It was an historic decision--the first time a court awarded human rights victims compensation through a civil judgement.

The Republic, however, has claimed that Marcos' assets should go toward paying down the $10 million he stole from tax-payer funds over his 21 year rule. After all, that money only became Marcos' property through illegitimate means.

The victims made a legal claim for the Monet painting in New York's courts. In July, the person who bought the painting agreed to a settlement, paying the victims $10 million for the rights to the artwork. The Philippine government claims that that money should go to all tax-payers. Both sides will continue a legal battle over the rights to the rest of the paintings, as well as other pieces of Marcos's old property, including his old Merrill Lynch bank account containing $35 million.

Bautista faces two to six years in prison. The judge allowed her free on $175,000 bail while her lawyers appeal. Bautista is 75-years-old, has a pacemaker and other health issues. Twice during the trial, Bautista fainted and had to leave the courtroom on a gurney.

Her lawyer, Fran Hoffinger, argued for for no time behind bars: "Incarceration for her would be a death sentence, or at least a life sentence."

Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha




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