US court reveals secret of Marcos artworks

Prosecutors reveal case against Marcos' secretary and relatives over the US$32 million sale of Monet painting, and bids to sell other prize works

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 4:08am

In late 1985, with the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines in sight, a large truck pulled up in front of the Upper East Side townhouse where Imelda Marcos stayed and threw parties while in New York.

Crates were seen stacked on the pavement, and by the time the new government took control of the nation in 1986 and reclaimed the house, the majestic paintings that had hung on its walls, including one from the water-lily series by Claude Monet, had disappeared.

The famed artworks remained missing for more than two decades, their location and ownership a mystery.

That all changed on Tuesday, when the personal secretary to Marcos, Vilma Bautista - long a suspect in the theft of the missing masterpieces - and two of Bautista's nephews were charged with trying to sell the paintings.

They succeeded in selling the best known, Monet's Le Bassin aux Nympheas (1899), two years ago for US$32 million, even though the London buyer had reservations about whether Bautista and her nephews were the rightful owners, according to an indictment.

The former secretary, Bautista, 74, who has homes in New York and on Long Island, was named, along with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and their New York lawyers, as defendants in a suit brought in New York State Supreme Court in 1986 that sought to return the Marcoses' holdings to the Philippines government.

Prosecutors accused Bautista of secretly keeping numerous works of art that had been acquired by the Marcoses for nearly a quarter of a century. Beginning in 2009, Bautista and her nephews began efforts to sell some of the artwork discreetly, according to the indictment.

After the Monet water-lily painting was sold to a London gallery in September 2010, Bautista kept most of the proceeds but shared some with her nephews, Chaiyot Jansen Navalaksana, 37, and Pongsak Navalaksana, 40, as well as unnamed co-conspirators in New York, according to the indictment.

She is also accused of trying to sell three other valuable works: Monet's L'Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil (1881), Alfred Sisley's Langland Bay (1887) and Albert Marquet's Le Cypres de Djenan Sidi Said (1946).

All three defendants face conspiracy charges, and Bautista and Chaiyot Navalaksana also face a tax-fraud charge for failing to report income from the sale of the Monet. If convicted on the top charges against them, Bautista would face up to 25 years in prison and her nephews would face up to four years.

Bautista pleaded not guilty through her lawyer and was released on a US$175,000 bond. Her nephews did not appear in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. They were last known to reside in Bangkok and authorities were seeking their return.

In early 2010, they enlisted the help of two Manhattan real estate brokers, who are not named in the indictment. The brokers found a potential buyer for the Monet water-lily painting and arranged a meeting at Bautista's Manhattan apartment.

The sale collapsed because the buyer became nervous of who owned the painting.

The real estate brokers then identified a potential buyer in London. The younger Navalaksana wrote to his brother saying that the buyer would "find creative ways to get the documentation they need".

The sale went through, according to court papers, and on September 14, 2010, about US$28 million was deposited in the name of Bautista. Another US$4 million went into an account jointly held by Bautista and the two brokers, as commission, according to the indictment.

"The integrity of the international art market must be protected," Cyrus Vance Jnr, the Manhattan district attorney said. "This indictment sheds light on what happened to major works missing for more than 25 years."