The name Imelda Marcos is synonymous with excess, corruption and, above all, shoes. Between 1965 and 1986, as President of the Philippines, her husband Ferdinand Marcos took advantage of his country’s strategic importance to the United States – at the time desperate to prevent the further spread of communism in South East Asia – to establish an extravagant and brutal dictatorship. During her 21-year reign as First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos became internationally notorious as she shamelessly amassed a vast collection of expensive clothing and jewellery. And like any self-respecting kleptocrat, Marcos’s spending sprees also extended to art.
Imelda Marcos is thought to have acquired up to 200 masterpieces by artists including Monet, van Gogh, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Canaletto and Raphael. Yet in the confusion surrounding the collapse of her husband’s regime, the works vanished. Over thirty years later, the hunt continues.
In recent years, this art world mystery has come back to public attention, as some of the missing works have started to reappear. In 2013, Imelda Marcos’s former secretary, Vilma Bautista, was jailed for trafficking in stolen art after she sold one of Claude Monet’s famous Water Lilies paintings Le Bassin aux Nympheas (1919) to a London gallery for $32 million. Bautista was also found to be in possession of three other Impressionist canvases from the Marcos collection, including Monet’s L’Église et La Seine à Vétheuil (1881), Alfred Sisley’s Langland Bay (1887), and Le Cyprès de Djenan Sidi Said by Albert Marquet (1946).
This case reignited the interest of the Philippine government, which claims that the artworks were purchased by Marcos using stolen state funds. As well as attempting to recover the four paintings held by Bautista, the authorities have stepped up attempts to locate the other missing artworks. In 2014, they seized 15 paintings from Marcos’s properties, including works by Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo, Bonnard, Miró and Pissarro, although the authenticity of some of the works has been called into question.
The Philippine government is now exploring the possibility of using crowd-sourcing technology to find the remainder. However, its efforts are hampered by the fact that there is only an incomplete list of all works owned by Imelda Marcos, and the prosecution of Vilma Bautista in fact brought to light the painting by Monet which was not previously known to have been owned by the former First Lady. Meanwhile, the artworks are also of interest to a group of several thousand Filipino victims of human rights abuses, who won a class-action lawsuit against the Marcos estate in 2011 and are therefore entitled to claim a stake in their possessions.
The case has also brought up some other surprising stories. Last April, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) came under scrutiny, when the LA Times revealed that one of the paintings seized from Marcos’s apartment in Manila had somehow made its way there from the LACMA collection. The newspaper investigation found that in 1978 the museum had discreetly deaccessioned a beloved painting by Francisco de Goya, The Marquesa of Santa Cruz as a Muse (1805) (see above, on display in Marcos’s apartment in 2006), before the canvas was resold through a gallery to Imelda Marcos. Further details of the discovery were given in a Blouin Artinfo blog post.
It remains to be seen what other uncomfortable truths will come to light as more artworks from the missing Marcos collection finally come to light.
Images: Top – Imelda Marcos in her Manila apartment, showing paintings including Reclining Woman VI by Pablo Picasso. Courtesy AFP; Lower – Imelda Marcos in her Manila apartment, showing Marquesa of Santa Cruz as a Muse by Francisco de Goya. Photograph by Steve Tirona.