The Decades-Long Dispute Over Millions of Dollars in Art Owned by Filipino Dictator Ferdinand Marcos Is Going to Trial

The battle over artwork owned by the notorious dictator and his wife Imelda Marcos may finally be moving forward.

Former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos standing next to a bust of her late husband and former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos in Batac town, Ilocos Norte province, north of Manila. Photo courtesy of Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images.

It is one of the longest-running and most complex international disputes over artwork ever recorded—a three-way battle over millions of dollars worth of art and other assets once owned by notorious Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda. Now, a ruling by a US District Court judge has moved the dispute a step closer to resolution.

On March 29, Judge Katharine Polk Failla issued a lengthy 93-page ruling denying a motion to dismiss and several competing motions for summary judgment, all of which would have decided the case before going to trial. Instead, the case will now have its day in court—a trial will be scheduled at the next hearing on May 3.

Judge Failla outlined in detail the extraordinary history of the case in her ruling for the Southern District of New York. She addressed the competing claims for “certain property purchased with funds that Ferdinand and Imelda Marco allegedly misappropriated during Mr. Marcos’s presidency of the Philippines.” The property at issue includes Claude Monet’s L’Église et La Seine à Vétheuil and Alfred Sisley’s Langland Bay, as well as additional unidentified paintings, and “sundry personal items” such as jewelry, carpets, boxes, and a jade and wooden screen. Also in dispute is about $15 million in cash and seized funds from several bank accounts.

Further complicating matters, some of the artwork identified in the case had been resold by Vilma Bautista, a confidante and personal secretary of Imelda Marcos. Bautista, who is in her 70s, was sentenced to two-to-six years in prison for tax evasion and other charges back in 2014 and began serving her jail sentence this past December. Bautista is also a claimant in the proceedings. She insists Imelda Marcos gave her authority and rights to many of the artworks in question.

The Manhattan District Attorney seized contested assets from Bautista in the course of a criminal investigation and has transferred the property to the court so that the rightful owner can be determined. (The DA declined to comment for this story.) The other two main claimants to the property are the “Republic of the Philippines,” a class action suit brought on behalf of roughly 10,000 human rights victims, and a third party known as the estate of Roger Roxas.

Back in 1988, Roxas brought a lawsuit against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in Hawaii, alleging that in 1971 he found a “lost treasure” that was said to have been left by General Tomoyuki Yamashita in underground tunnels in Baguio City in the Philippines. The treasure included a Buddha statue made of one metric ton of gold, handfuls of uncut diamonds, and boxes filled with gold bars. Roxas alleged that in separate incidents in 1971 and 1972, he was taken into custody and tortured at the direction of President Marcos. He further alleges that in 1974 government soldiers seized the treasure and sold off the gold. He sought compensation for torture, false imprisonment, and theft of the “Yamashita” treasure. Roxas passed away in 1993, but in 1996, a Hawaiian jury found in his favor and awarded $6 million in damages to the Roxas Estate.

Following a popular uprising in 1986 that removed Marcos from office, the Filipino president and his wife fled to Hawaii and Corazon Aquino took over as president. She established the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was charged with recovering assets that the Marcos family misappropriated during its presidency. The commission quickly established a New York office and began identifying artwork that had been removed from properties in Manhattan, including a townhouse on East 66th Street and an apartment in the Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue.

The commission inventoried the paintings, using bills, invoices, and labels that remained behind on walls, and created a list of specific works that had gone missing. It launched an awareness campaign called “Where’s the Art?” which solicited help from the public—targeting artists, schools, and media specialists, among others.

Many years later, in 2011, the DA seized property from Bautista and funds in her and her sisters’ bank accounts. The seized property included 10 paintings, a Serafian Isfahan rug, and just over $250,000 in cash from her Manhattan apartment, as well as 42 paintings from her residence in Long Island, and another $13.6 million from bank accounts she and her siblings controlled. The ruling says further that two other paintings connected to criminal action were seized from Bautista’s attorneys, Hoffinger, Stern & Ross.

Judge Failla’s ruling includes details about the Marcoses’ initial acquisition of some of the paintings in the 1970s, such as the Monet and the Sisley, which were part of a group of six paintings sold by Marlborough Gallery for a total of $450,000. Another work, Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, was part of a group purchase of nine paintings from Marlborough Gallery in 1977 that totaled $2.9 million.

Nymphéas was valued at $791,000 at the time. Bautista eventually took possession of the paintings, according to court papers, “though the timing of her appropriation of the paintings is a point of speculation and some contention.”

In September 2010, Bautista sold Nymphéas to an unidentified London gallery for $32 million. She provided the buyer with a certificate of authority purportedly signed by Imelda Marcos in June 1991. It stated that Bautista was authorized to offer and negotiate on behalf of Marcos.

The DA eventually indicted Bautista in 2012 for having “illegally conspired to possess and sell valuable works of art acquired by Marcos during her husband’s presidency” and for having hidden the proceeds of the sales from New York state tax authorities and others.

Judge Failla was charged with the mind-boggling task of ruling on seven separate motions including “five cross-motions for summary judgment, one motion to dismiss, and one motion for imposition of attorneys’ retaining and charging liens.”

The motions included one brought by the plaintiffs in the class action for partial summary judgment against the Republic of the Philippines, and another for summary judgment against Roxas, which would have effectively thrown out the estate’s claim. Bautista had lodged a motion for summary judgment against the class action plaintiffs, and the Republic of the Philippines, as well as Roxas.

However, the only motion that the judge allowed to move forward was for a law firm, Simon & Partners LLP, to recoup fees it has incurred for serving the plaintiffs in the class action suit. (Simon & Partners had not responded to a request for comment as of publication time.)

As for the art, according to reports in late 2016, many of the paintings have been languishing in a Brooklyn storage warehouse for the past several years. After last Thursday’s ruling, that may not be the case for too much longer.

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