Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda collected lots of art. They bought the works using the country’s public funds. Many decorated the presidential palace in Manila. Others hung in the Philippines consulate in New York City or in Imelda’s Upper East Side town house.
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.
The mystery began to unravel in November, when Imelda’s personal secretary, Vilma Bautista, was arrested in New York for trying to sell some of the paintings. She succeeded in selling the most famous of the collection: Claude Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nymphéas.”
In July, the person who bought that painting agreed to pay $10 million to the human rights victims who won a lawsuit against Marcos’ estate in 1995. Officials in Manila, however, claim the money should instead go to the Philippine government.
This, of course, is no surprise for any who read our news short in last week’s issue, The Fight for Ferdinand Marcos’s Cash.
As we detailed, the Republic of the Philippines and a class action group of 10,000 human rights victims are currently locked in a legal dispute over a $35 million stash from Marcos’ old Merrill Lynch account in New York City.
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.
It’s a legally ambiguous and morally complex quandary. One that also threatens to swallow the fate of the Monet painting’s proceeds.
For now, the money has officially been awarded to the victims.
The Republic had been able to block the victims’ claim on the Merrill Lynch money because the bank chose to remove itself from the dispute and instead asked a court to determine ownership. The Philippines declined to participate in that legal proceeding by citing its sovereign immunity. As a result, the money has remained in limbo.
In the Monet case, however, the the artwork’s owner simply decided to hand the money to the victims.
Robert Swift, the attorney representing the class of victims, had filed a claim for the painting soon after he heard about Bautista’s arrest. The painting’s owner, who remains anonymous, wanted no part of a legal battle over his valuable artwork, which he purchased for $32 million.
“He wished to resolve the dispute and gave $10 million,” says Swift. The victims accepted the settlement in early July.
Just like with the Merrill Lynch money, the Philippines has not made a legal claim on the painting in U.S. courts. But just like with the Merrill Lynch money, the Republic has called dibs.
“If the [buyer] reached a settlement with the lawyers of the Marcos human rights victims to buy peace, then that is the [buyer’s] prerogative. But this in no way diminishes the [Philippines’] legal claims and will not be a factor in our assertion of such claims,” the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the agency charged with recouping the money Marcos stole, declared in a statement last month, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The $10 million from the Monet is slated to be distributed sometime in 2014. So far, it accounts for nearly half of the total cash Swift has been able to secure for the victims.
The victims do have a voice in the Philippines government. Etta Rosales, chair of the nation’s Commission on Human Rights, has chastised the PCGG’s “parochial view.” The agency, she told the Inquirer, needs to “see the larger context of what human rights is all about.”
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha