'They Didn't Only Hoard Shoes'

(This is a November 30, 2012 essay of Juan L. Mercado for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.)


“THEY DIDN’T only hoard shoes,” Daily Telegraph culture editor Martin Chilton wrote. “Former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda amassed an art collection, paid for with stolen funds.” Today, 146 masterpieces—including works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Magritte and Brueghel the Younger—are missing.

The Manhattan District Attorney has indicted Imelda Marcos’ former personal secretary and two nephews—Vilma Bautista, now 74, and nephews Chaiyot Jansen, 37, and Pongsak, 40, both surnamed Navalaksana—for selling Claude Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nymphéas” for $32 million. The London buyer had reservations on who the real owners were, according to the indictment. The Monet sale went through on Sept. 14, 2010.

From the proceeds, Bautista funneled $28 million into her bank account. Two real estate brokers got a $4-million commission and a $5-million slab went to the two nephews. “Chaiyot … sent an e-mail, after the sale, to a coconspirator, saying his aunt wanted him to meet with his brother to give him a bundle of caaaaaaaaassshhhh,” the indictment added.

Bautista, who now walks with a cane, is also accused of peddling: Monet’s “L’Église et La Seine à Vétheuil” (1881), Alfred Sisley’s “Langland Bay” (1887), and Albert Marquet’s “Le Cyprès de Djenan Sidi Said” (1946), known as “Algerian View.”

Aunt and nephews face conspiracy raps. Lodged against Bautista and Chaiyot is a charge of failing to report income from the Monet sale. Released on a $175,000 bond, Bautista faces up to 25 years in prison. If convicted, her nephews could get four years in the slammer. Will authorities succeed in getting them to New York from Bangkok?

Newspapers from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, Honolulu Star Advertiser, to Brisbane Times reported the indictments. “Much of the bounty and privilege the Marcoses acquired in years of power … disappeared with the fog of revolution,” the Australian daily said.

From 1966 to 1986, Bautista held a $3,000-a-month first-secretary post at the Philippine Mission to the United Nations. In fact, she served as Imelda’s eyes and ears and factotum for Marcos functions at the 16-bedroom Lindenmere house on Long Island. She acted as bag lady for “shopping sprees.”

This Oct. 13, 1977, entry appears in “Chronology of the Marcos Plunder” compiled by Charlie Avila: “Today, after addressing the UN General Assembly, Imelda celebrated by going shopping and spending $384,000 including $50,000 for a platinum bracelet with rubies; $50,000 for a diamond bracelet; and $58,000 for a pin set with diamonds. The day before, Vilma Bautista, one of her private secretaries, paid $18,500 for a gold pendant with diamonds and emeralds; $9,450 for a gold ring with diamonds and emeralds; and $4,800 for a gold and diamond necklace.”

A US federal court (9th Circuit) earlier whacked Imelda and her son Ferdinand Jr. (Bongbong) with a daily fine of $100,000. They tried to secretly ship out of the United States paintings and other artworks, from court-contested holdings, for a 25-percent, tax-free share. When the contempt order expired, the tab totaled $353.6 million.

Where do Vilma Bautista and nephews come from? To understand, browse through “A Dynasty on Steroids” written by Jackie Dent, available on the Net.

“Dry, sleepy, tobacco-growing Ilocos Norte remains Marcos territory, as it has been since 1949”—although the Marcos regime killed more than 3,200 people, tortured 35,000, and incarcerated 70,000. That surpassed even the brutality of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet.

The Laurel clan runs Batangas, the Osmeñas (used to monopolize) Cebu, etc. Do the Marcoses merely perpetuate the oligarchic politics that plagues the country? “I always find ‘return to politics’ a misnomer,” Ferdinand Jr. snaps. “We never left.” Or, as Imelda’s daughter Imee remarks drolly: “It is nepotism plus plus, a dynasty on steroids.”

Does a Marcos have to run all the time? “It’s the whole Filipino system—they really count on you, they have all these expectations,” Imee says. “Your family is taking care of their family, which is taking care of your family, and it just goes on and on and on. It’s pretty feudal in the Philippines still, even though we like to fool ourselves.”

That includes Bongbong? “He seems to think that his family did nothing wrong and has nothing to apologize for. He says they have either won cases or they have been dismissed… We have a judgment against us in the billions. What more would people want? That we open our veins and die before them? Is that the solution? … History will be the best judge of the family.”

Benito Mussolini was executed outside an Italian villa; Gaddafi died in the desert, killed by rebels; Robert Mugabe and Castro will probably die in power. “Why are Filipinos so willing to embrace the Marcos family again?” Dent wonders.

Filipinos have a “soft, forgiving culture,” notes former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his book “From Third World to First”—“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.”

“Your brother [Bongbong] says that politics is the national sport here,” Dent tells Imee. She replies: “It’s not very sporting, though. No fair play, no rules, very movable goal posts. Not quite right as a sport. It is better as something else. Vaudeville, maybe?”

Spell that as caaaaaaaaassshhhh.