Claude Monet painting among 50 works involved in bitter art dispute

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 paintings 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 lawyer representing nearly 10,000 victims of the Marcos regime who in 2011 won a judgment against Marcos, his estate and Imelda, his wife.

Seized Art Fight

In this Sept. 26, 1982 file photo, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos appear at a rally in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Millions in seized Impressionist art believed to have been owned by the regime of the former late dictator are the subject of a bitter legal fight. (The Associated Press)

Prized works

Of particular interest in the long-running, multi-jurisdictional case is an 1899 Monet from the Water Lilies series called Le Bassin aux Nympheas, 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 Cypres de Djenan Sidi Said.

Who owns it, the people or government?

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.

“It’s a question of who is the owner and who is entitled.”
– Human rights lawyer Robert Swift

“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.”

Marcos Staffer Art Conspiracy

Vilma Bautista, one time secretary to Philippine’s first lady Imelda Marcos, was convicted in New York in 2012 on charges of conspiracy and tax fraud after attempting to illegally sell this work, an 1887 painting by Alfred Sisley entitled Langland Bay, and others that disappeared as Ferdinand Marco’s regime collapsed in the late 1980’s. (The Associated Press/United States Attorney’s Office)

Then there’s Bautista, who kept $28 million when she sold the water lily work 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.

Secretary convicted on tax fraud

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. 

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