NEW YORK—A debt-ridden onetime aide to Imelda Marcos wrongly sold a hidden treasure: a $32 million Monet painting the former Philippine first lady had acquired and her country wants back, prosecutors said Wednesday as the ex-assistant’s conspiracy trial opened.
In a New York courtroom, Vilma Bautista is facing charges that invoke the tangled history of Philippine officials’ efforts to reclaim items from Marcos and her late husband, former President Ferdinand Marcos.
Bautista is accused of scheming to sell the artwork—part of the French Impressionist’s famed “Water Lilies” series—and trying to peddle other valuable paintings that prosecutors say she had no right to sell. The artwork vanished amid Ferdinand Marcos’ 1986 ouster, ended up in Bautista’s hands and is part of a multibillion-dollar roster of property the Philippines claims the Marcoses acquired with the nation’s cash, prosecutors said.
But for all the art-world intricacies and Philippine politics, “at bottom, this case is really quite simple—it’s about greed and fraud,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Garrett Lynch told jurors in an opening statement.
The defense said Bautista believed that Imelda Marcos rightfully owned the paintings and that Bautista had authority to sell them for her. Bautista is just an intermediary who got caught up in a decades-long dispute between a nation and its former leader, attorney Susan Hoffinger said.
“That battle doesn’t belong here” in a Manhattan criminal courtroom, Hoffinger said in her opening.
After ruling the Philippines with an iron fist for two decades, Ferdinand Marcos was forced by a “people power” revolt into exile in Hawaii. He died three years later.
Philippine officials say Marcos and his associates looted the country’s treasury to amass between $5 billion and $10 billion. The nation’s Presidential Commission on Good Government has seized a number of companies, bank accounts and other assets suspected of being part of that wealth. The Marcoses denied their wealth was ill-gotten.
With a massive collection of shoes, Imelda Marcos became a symbol of excess. But she has emerged relatively unscathed from hundreds of legal cases against her and her late husband, and she is now a congresswoman in the Philippines.
She’s not expected to testify at Bautista’s trial.
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 deep in debt. She began looking to sell four paintings the Marcoses had acquired during the presidency—including Monet’s 1899 “Le Bassin aux Nymphease,” also known as “Japanese Footbridge over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny,” prosecutors said.
Bautista ultimately sold the water lily painting for $32 million to a Swiss buyer, Lynch said. Some proceeds went to Bautista’s relatives and associates and to debts; $15 million stayed in her bank accounts, while Imelda Marcos knew nothing of the sale, the prosecutor said.
Bautista had a 1991 “certificate of authority” from Marcos to sell the painting and receive the proceeds, the defense emphasized; prosecutors question its legitimacy. At the time, the work was not on the Philippines’ list of allegedly missing paintings, though the government now seeks its return.
Bautista’s lawyer said the aide sold the painting for Marcos but never had a chance to give her the money.—Jennifer Peltz with David Thurber in Bangkok