MANILA - The Duterte administration is seeking US$30 million from the British billionaire who bought over 8 years ago "Le Bassin aux Nympheas," (Water Lily Pond) one of the most expensive paintings of former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
In exchange, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) will no longer pursue a lawsuit against the billionaire Alan Howard, who bought the Le Bassin painting for $43 million at Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox Gallery in London in 2010, unaware that the painting was still the subject of litigation in New York involving the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth.
An ABS-CBN source in New York privy to the initial talks between the PCGG and Howard’s legal team said the amount is part of what could be a compromise agreement to settle government claims to the painting. Malacañang endorsed the plan for a compromise agreement in a memorandum dated January 8, 2019.
Signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, the memorandum authorized acting PCGG chief Reynold Munsayac to close the proposed agreement.
Medialdea said the “Office of the President interposes no objection to the PCGG entering into a settlement agreement” involving Le Bassin “for as long as it is “not disadvantageous to the government.”
ABS-CBN News has not gotten any word if Howard agreed to the proposal or made a counter-offer. But his counsel has reportedly begun reaching out to New York court executives and American human rights lawyer Robert Swift, counsel of Marcos’ martial law victims for the proposed agreement, according to the source.
Philippine officials confirmed to ABS-CBN News that they were pursuing a settlement agreement with Howard.
The ABS-CBN source said a compromise agreement was nearing completion, short of saying that Howard had agreed to the plan, boosting hopes of collecting $30 million from the British billionaire.
“There is already an agreement in final form,” the source said. “Otherwise, the Office of the (Philippine) President would not have approved.”
In a 2013 story in the New York Times, Howard invoked protection under US and British laws to free him from any lawsuit as buyer of the Le Bassin in good faith, but he was also willing to enter into an out-of-court agreement to settle it once and for all.
When he first spotted Le Bassin at Hazlitt, Howard was assured by the Gooden & Fox Gallery in London that its title was clean, according to the report by the New York Times in November 2013.
“Mr. Howard bought the painting in good faith from a reputable gallery and received expert legal advice on the purchase,” the Times reported, quoting Howard’s spokesman Anthony Payne.
Howard wants to keep the painting, the ABS-CBN source said.
Munsayac told ABS-CBN News late Wednesday night that the compromise agreement will have to be approved by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) officials. “This is to ensure that any agreement will be for the best interest of the State,” he said in an email.
He said the DOJ was already organizing a meeting between all the government agencies concerned to discuss the proposed settlement and to determine whether the terms will be acceptable to both OSG and DOJ. “We are continuing efforts to recover other artworks and there is in fact another case pending before New York involving some paintings,” he said.
That meeting was set for two days beginning January 23, according to Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Villar in an interview with ABS-CBN News Wednesday afternoon.
But the meeting had to be reset to a later date, Villar said, because the OSG was not available for the meeting. “And I am still waiting for some other important matters (on the PCGG’s proposed settlement). It is premature at this time to talk about a compromise agreement because there is still none.”
Impact on Marcos cases
Villar said the meeting among DOJ, OSG and PCGG officials was to ensure that the terms of the settlement “shall not be prejudicial to the pending cases and existing claims of the Philippines against the Marcoses and their ill-gotten wealth.”
“Any settlement entered into,” Medialdea said in the memorandum, “shall be to the best interest of the Philippines, and will be subject to the existing laws, rules, and regulations.”
He assured Munsayac, who has remained in an acting capacity as PCGG chair, of the PCGG mandate under Executive Order No. 01 of 1986 signed President Corazon Aquino: to run after the Marcos's ill-gotten wealth anywhere in the world.
“Further, since the PCGG is sufficiently authorized by law and jurisprudence to represent and bind the Philippines in compromise agreements involving ill-gotten wealth, this Office finds that being a signatory to the settlement agreement involving the Water-Lily painting is unnecessary.”
Most expensive Imelda painting
If Howard, who made a fortune as a hedge fund manager, agrees to cough up $30 million more, the Le Bassin would in all cost him $83 million, the biggest deal so far involving one of Imelda Marcos’ collection by the eminent Claude Monet, one of the leaders of the French impressionist movement of the 1870s.
According to Swift, when news of the London sale broke out in 2010, he told Howard that Le Bassin was the subject of the ongoing New York litigation. Swift said Howard then offered an additional $10 million so that he would not get embroiled in the class suit that Swift and the late Filipino lawyer broadcaster Jose Marie Velez filed and won in Hawaii against the Marcos estate on behalf of some 10,000 human rights victims.
With the go-signal of the New York court and state lawyers, Swift gleefully collected from Howard and distributed the $10 million, minus his legal expenses, to the martial law victims a few months later in the Philippines.
Le Bassin, the one showing a Japanese footbridge over a water lily pond, is one of around 200 paintings Imelda Marcos reportedly acquired during her husband’s 20-year rule.
All of the 200 paintings had been stored in a townhouse located at No 13-15 East 6th Street in Manhattan, which used to house the Philippine Consulate and Mission to the United Nations.
Bautista stole the paintings
But the art pieces disappeared--or stolen--from the consulate in New York at the height of four-day peaceful revolution in the Philippines in February 1986 that ousted the Marcoses.
A few days before and after the revolution, Bautista was seen to have been loading paintings into a huge van, said Swift, quoting sworn statements of witnesses. She subsequently disappeared into the night.
Other paintings Bautista has been accused of secretly keeping are Monet's 'L'Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil,' British landscape artist Alfred Sisley's 'Langland Bay,' and French painter Albert Marquet's 'Le Cypres de Djenan Sidi Said.
Nobody knew where Bautista, a former diplomat who served as Imelda's aide during the Marcos regime, allegedly kept the paintings until she and her two nephews were arrested in November 2013 in New York for the September 2010 sale of Monet's Le Bassin to the London Gallery.
Bautista has since been charged in Manhattan with theft of the paintings, conspiracy and tax fraud relating to the September 2010 sale of the Monet.
Swift said in an earlier interview that he had the legal personality to claim a share of the paintings' sale because he was backed by the Hawaii court ruling on the Marcoses’ wealth.
“The Philippine government said it was the rightful owner of the paintings because Imelda had used stolen money to acquire these. But where is their proof?” he asked.
It was Swift who asked the New York court in December 2013 to take legal custody of the paintings in the hope of raising funds for the martial law victims because the Philippines refused to implement the Hawaii verdict. The court did, hence the litigation. It also gave Swift the power to distribute proceeds in May for the victims in the Philippines, including the government’s $4-million share. Hundreds of other Imelda paintings remain missing.
3 more paintings sold
Last November, Christie’s in New York auctioned three other Marcos paintings-- Monet’s “L’Eglise a La Seine a Vetheuil” , Sisley's 'Langland Bay,' and French painter Albert Marquet's 'Le Cypres de Djenan Sidi Said, raising about $3 million in proceeds.
Last week, Swift flew to Manila to announce he would distribute the proceeds in the sale of the three paintings to around 7,500 Marcos victims starting in May. He started reaching out to the victims, some of them very old and very weak.
Swift takes custody of the proceeds based on the New York court order last September 25, which stemmed from a favorable verdict handed down in Hawaii on the class suit. He left Manila telling ABS-CBN News that he was still in search of other ill-gotten wealth for the Marcos victims.
Judge Manuel Real, who handed the verdict on the class suit, is now 94 years old, and still active in court. Appointed judge by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, Real is closely monitoring cases involving the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth in New York, especially the Le Bassin.