23 November 2012

Illicit Art Trade 101: The Case of the Missing Marcos Paintings

On November 21, 2012, we learned that Imelda Marcos’ personal secretary, Ms. Vilma Bautista, was indicted in New York with two other individuals for selling Claude Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nymphéas” to a London buyer for $32 million back in 2010 and for trying to sell three Impressionist works—L’Eglise et la Seine à Vétheuil, by Claude Monet (1881), “Le Cyprès de Djenan Sidi Said,” by Albert Marquet (1946) and “Langland Bay,” by Alfred Sisley (1887)— Ms. Bautista had obtained all four works under dubious circumstances from an apartment at 13-15 East 66th Street, in New York City controlled by the Marcos family and known as the “Philippine House”. The paintings remained concealed for two decades.
13-15 E. 66th Street, NY, NY
Source: Google
Imelda Marcos in 1982
Source: Google

According to the New York Times, Mrs. Marcos had acquired these paintings in the 1970s from an unspecified London art dealer and had brought them back to Manila before shipping them to New York in 1982.

This case should be sub-titled “Art Theft 101” or better still “Illicit Art Trade 101.”

Indeed, the premise is simple: an individual, Vilma Bautista, gains control under unclear circumstances of four (4) Impressionist paintings in the late 1980s. A decade goes by and, together with two other individuals, a plan is hatched to sell them. It dawns on at least one of the members of this alleged conspiracy that they do not have good title to the paintings. Hence, it would be a bit difficult to sell them on the open market since they would most likely be nabbed. First lesson: theft does not convey title. Ms. Bautista’s actions with the Marcos paintings are no different than what opportunistic individuals did during the Nazi years—somehow gained access to victims’ property, hid the stolen items, oftentimes for decades before releasing them for sale. The more well-known the items, the more likely they would have to be sold on the sly through a parallel market.

This is precisely what Ms. Bautista and her accomplices attempted to do.

First off, officialize title to the works. To do so, Bautista sought out a “notary.” That notary issued a so-called certificate of authority bearing the forged signature of Imelda Marcos. In short, this document legalized Ms. Bautista’s authority to sell the paintings without worry.
Le bassin aux nympheas, by Claude Monet, 1899
Source: Google
Secondly, it proved more complicated than expected to sell the prize painting of the lot, Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nymphéas.” Estimated at somewhere around $40 million, the Bautista team knew that it would fetch a low value on the parallel market. In order to go through with the sale, the painting needed to be authenticated and processed for shipment overseas in case the prospective buyer was not on American soil. Hence, they enlisted several real estate brokers to cover their tracks and act as decoys or ‘fronts.’ Lesson: when selling hot property, including illicitly obtained art works whether in association with acts of mass slaughter or plain old misappropriation such as in the Marcos case, one needs to enlist a “go-between” who is accustomed to working unethically on the dark side of the tracks and can facilitate through “contacts” and “networks” an illicit sale, even beyond national borders.

In this case, after one failed attempt with a prospective buyer in New York, who actually raised concerns about the provenance and the right of Ms. Bautista to sell the painting in the first place, a prospective buyer was identified in London who would be willing to pay $32 million for the painting, despite his misgivings about title and authority of Ms. Bautista to dispose of this high-value item. The Bautista team even invoked Mrs. Marcos’ name to lend credibility to the pedigree of the work. Eventually, the painting was sold after the London buyer received written reassurances about the provenance of the work.

Question: $32 million represents a fairly tidy sum to spend on a painting for which there are doubts about clear title and ownership history. With so many questions hanging in the balance, how could a buyer act on the assumption that the people whom he suspected of being less than honest with him in fact were legitimate and had the right to sell him the Monet painting? Did the mere mention of Mrs. Marcos’ name impress this person beyond a doubt? Is it that easy, therefore, to swindle very wealthy people on the simple premise that these people would prefer to own an impressive Monet painting even with a cloud hanging over the true ownership of the work? This most recent example proves that, indeed, monied players in the international art market continue to forgo common sense, throw caution to the wind, do not follow their gut instincts and agree to acquire objects with problematic origins as to title and ownership. If they can do it with a recently-acquired painting, they can certainly do it with works that changed hands illegally more than 65 years ago and remained ‘concealed’ for decades before reappearing on the market—open or parallel.

Cyrus Vance, Jr.
Source: Google
To cap this story, the District Attorney of Manhattan, Cyrus Vance, Jr., stated unequivocally: “The integrity of the international art market must be protected….” I wonder where he was when Nazi looted art surfaced in his jurisdiction. We never heard him make such statements before. Let’s hope he means it and applies the lessons of the Marcos case to historic WWII-era thefts. Time will tell. One thing is sure: Cyrus Vance, Jr., pales in comparison to his predecessor, Robert Morgenthau. C’est la vie…

Epilogue: when checking Volume IV of the catalogue raisonné of Claude Monet’s works, authored by Daniel Wildenstein, there exist 11 variants of the “Bassin aux Nymphéas” all painted in 1899. Only one of them is in London, at the National Gallery (No. 1516, p. 156). There are no references whatsoever to a painting fitting that description and acquired by Mrs. Marcos in the 1970s which then hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, Philippines. Curious?
Monet Catalogue raissoné
Source: Google