Imelda aide gets 6 years for stolen art
Rosalinda L. Orosa (The Philippine Star) - January 15, 2014 - 12:00am

NEW YORK – A former aide to ex-first lady Imelda Marcos was sentenced Monday to two to six years in prison after being convicted of scheming to sell a $32-million Claude Monet painting overlaid with political intrigue.

The Monet from the water-lily series is part of a roster of valuables the Philippine government has sought to reclaim from the former first couple.

Prosecutors have said the ex-assistant, Vilma Bautista, greedily peddled ill-gotten treasure. Defense lawyers said she was caught up in a clash between a government and its ousted leader. Bautista plans to appeal and has “substantial issues” to raise, defense attorneys Susan and Fran Hoffinger said after the sentencing.

Bautista, 75, also was ordered to pay about $3.5 million in state taxes. She was convicted in November of charges including conspiracy and tax fraud.

The case “finally solves the mystery of what happened to four masterpieces of Impressionist art,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said then.

The 1899 Monet, from the French painter’s famed “Water Lilies” series, and other art ended up in Bautista’s hands after vanishing when a 1986 “people power” revolt sent longtime President Ferdinand Marcos into exile in Hawaii. He died three years later.

During his two decades in power, his wife became known for excess, symbolized by her gargantuan shoe collection.

The Philippines claims the Marcoses acquired billions of dollars’ worth of property with the nation’s money. The country has spent years seizing companies, bank accounts and other assets believed to be part of that trove.

The Marcoses denied their wealth was ill-gotten, and Imelda Marcos has emerged relatively unscathed from hundreds of legal cases against her and her late husband. She is now a congresswoman in the Philippines.

Bautista was a foreign service officer assigned to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations and later served as Imelda Marcos’ New York-based personal secretary.

By 2009, Bautista was mired in debt, and prosecutors said she resorted to trying to sell four paintings the Marcoses had acquired during the presidency. Besides the water lily painting, they included another Monet and works by Alfred Sisley and Albert Marquet.

Bautista ultimately sold the water lily painting – “Le Bassin aux Nymphease,” also known as “Japanese Footbridge Over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny” – for $32 million to a Swiss buyer.

Some proceeds went to Bautista’s debts, relatives and associates, and $15 million stayed in her bank accounts, prosecutors said.

They said Imelda Marcos, who didn’t testify at Bautista’s trial, knew nothing of the sale.

Bautista’s lawyers said she believed that Imelda Marcos rightfully owned the paintings and that Bautista had authority to sell them for her. Bautista never had a chance to give Marcos the money, the defense said.

The artworks’ ownership is being determined in civil courts. Bautista, who has a pacemaker and chronic heart disease, will however stay out of prison pending the outcome of her appeal after Judge Renee White allowed her to post $175,000 bail, according to sources familiar with the case.

Bautista’s lawyer Fran Hoffinger said the court should impose no jail sentence because of her frail health. Hoffinger pointed out that paramedics had wheeled Bautista out of the courtroom on a gurney twice during her five-week trial after heart palpitations and a fainting spell.

“Incarceration for her would be a death sentence, or at least a life sentence,” Hoffinger said, according to the New York Times.

There was no word yet on the sentence of Bautista’s two nephews and co-accused Thai Americans Chaiyot Jansen Navalaksana (Jansen), 38, and Pongsak Navalaksana (Pongsak), 41, who allegedly conspired with her in selling the art works.

The other paintings included “Vetheuil” and “Langland Bay,” both later shipped out of the country and hung on the walls of the Philippine Townhouse located in Manhattan.

The fourth painting – “Algerian View” – was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in Manila and later shipped to Imelda Marcos in New York City with several other paintings in 1982.

‘Ill-gotten’

On Monday, a Philippine court ruled that a jewelry collection owned by the former first lady was “ill-gotten,” potentially paving the way for an auction of millions of dollars worth of seized treasures.

The anti-graft Sandiganbayan court decided that the Malacañang Collection, the smallest of three confiscated from the Marcos estate and worth some $150,000, was rightfully owned by the government.

“Partial judgement is hereby rendered declaring the pieces of jewelry, known as the Malacañang Collection, as ill-gotten, and are hereby forfeited in favor of petitioner Republic of the Philippines,” read the 33-page ruling released Tuesday.

It is one of three collections seized from the Marcos estate, including a 60-piece set featuring a 150-carat Burmese ruby.

The other two collections are already in government hands, but the ruling is significant because previous attempts to auction off the entire haul have been derailed by legal issues relating to the Malacañang pieces.

Officials said the court ruling on its forfeiture meant that an auction could now proceed.

An assessment made by Christie’s in 1991 put the value of the three collections at up to $8.5 million, though more than two decades on it is likely to be substantially higher.

The pieces in the smallest collection were seized from the Malacañang presidential palace after the 1986 “people power” revolution ended the two-decade regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The Philippine government has said it has so far recovered about $4 billion of an estimated stolen wealth of $10 billion, but no one from the Marcos family has been convicted.

The government has long said it wanted to put the jewelry on public display or auction it off to raise funds for its poverty alleviation programs.

But the Marcos family has tried to block the government from claiming the treasures, and had fought the seizure in court.

Monday’s judgement could still be appealed.

However, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the agency tasked by the government to go after the fabled Marcos wealth, welcomed the decision.

“PCGG is of course pleased,” commission chairman Andres Bautista told AFP. “This is another victory for the Filipino people.”

He said he would confer with President Aquino to make a final decision on what to do with the jewels, which are currently locked in a vault at Manila’s central bank. – AP, Helen Flores

ALFRED SISLEY AND ALBERT MARQUET ALGERIAN VIEW BAUTISTA GOVERNMENT IMELDA MARCOS MALACA MARCOS MARCOSES MONET
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