NEW YORK – A multimillion-dollar trove of seized Impressionist art believed to have been owned by the regime of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos has sat for five years in a climate-controlled Brooklyn warehouse, the subject of a bitter legal fight.
At issue is whether the 50 works — which include an 1881 painting by Claude Monet — should go to thousands of victims of the now-dead dictator, to the current Philippine government or to the personal secretary to Imelda Marcos, who contends she was rightfully given some of the art as gifts.
"It's a question of who is the owner and who is entitled," said Robert Swift, a human rights attorney representing nearly 10,000 victims of the Marcos regime who in 2011 won a judgment against Marcos, his estate and Imelda, his wife.
Of particular interest in the long-running, multi-jurisdictional case is an 1899 Monet from the "Water Lilies" series called "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas," that the secretary, Vilma Bautista, sold in 2010 for $32 million. The other highly disputed items are three other prominent paintings still locked away in storage — an 1897 Alfred Sisley painting called "Langland Bay"; Monet's 1881 "L'Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil"; and Albert Marquet's 1946 "Le Cyprès de Djenan Sidi Saïd."
Both the government agency established by the Philippines to recover billions of dollars in assets believed to have been amassed during Marcos' 14-year regime, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, and Swift believe they're entitled to the paintings.
"My client has nothing against the human rights victims," said Casey Murphy, the American lawyer representing the commission. "Our point is, if these were paintings accumulated through misappropriated funds, they should go to all Filipinos and not just one class of people and their lawyers."
And then there's Bautista, who kept $28 million when she sold the water lily to a Panamanian corporation controlled by a London-based art gallery. That gallery then sold the painting to a British hedge fund manager in Switzerland for $43 million, according to court papers.
The hedge fund manager has paid $10 million to Swift's clients. The Filipino government has also sought to recover the painting.
New York City prosecutors charged Bautista with failing to disclose the sale on her 2010 tax returns, and she was convicted after a five-week trial in 2013 of conspiracy, tax fraud and other charges. About $15 million of her funds were frozen by the courts.
A lawyer for Bautista, who is now 78 and free while appealing her conviction, hasn't returned a message seeking comment. At the time, her lawyers argued she had the right to sell the Monet, which was owned by Imelda Marcos. The other paintings were given to her as gifts or obtained on her own, her lawyers have argued.
Ultimately, it will be up to a Manhattan federal judge to sort it all out.
In the meantime, the Presidential Commission has established a website to solicit tips as to the location of hundreds of paintings and jewelry that Marcos, now 87 and a congresswoman in the Philippines, and her family allegedly obtained with state funds.
Representatives for Marcos said the congresswoman had no comment on the art.
Murphy said he hoped a judge would agree with the Presidential Commission's position that since Imelda Marcos ultimately obtained the paintings improperly, she was never a rightful owner.
"In the main, the argument is a thief never gets good title to property," he said.