Waterlilies

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By Neil Honeyman

An Independent View

Monday, January 20, 2014


One of the most famous works of the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet is entitled "Japanese Footbridge over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny" or as the French say "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas" which sounds better.

Monet completed the painting in 1899. For many years it was on display at the Orangerie Museum, Paris. The artwork is affectionately known as "waterlilies."

It was purchased, allegedly using "ill-gotten" gains by former first lady Imelda Marcos. I am not sure when she bought the artwork but it may have been after Marcos was deposed.

The excruciatingly slow process of obtaining funds from Marcos "loot" continues. Last week, the Sandiganbayan ruled that a collection of jewels owned by Imelda Marcos is "ill-gotten" and is therefore forfeited in favor of the Nation. Imelda’s son Bongbong Marcos has responded: "We respect the decision of the court." (Translation: He does not respect the decision of the court). This is a legal battle. We leave it to our legal team to do all the necessary actions. This is sad. Legal processes can be interminable. It is regrettable that the resources of the Sandiganbayan may continue to be consumed on an issue which should have been resolved years ago.

Back to the Waterlilies. Monet’s painting found its way to New York to an Upper East Side townhouse owned by the government. At some point, Imelda’s assistant Vilma Bautista gained possession of the artwork together with another Monet “L’Eglise el la Seine a’ Vetheuil”, Alfred Sisley’s “Langland Bay”, and Albert Marquet “Le Cyrres de Djenan Sidi Said”.

In 2010, Bautista sold the Waterlilies to Hazlitt, Gooden, and Fox, a London art dealer who sold it for $43 million to Alan Howard, a British hedge fund manager living in Switzerland. Bautista received $32 million. Middle men got $11 million.

Before an artwork is sold by a reputable dealer its provenance needs to be verified. Does the seller have the right to sell? Bautista claims that she was given a 1991 "certificate of authority" by Imelda Marcos to sell the painting and receive the proceeds. A dealer with a reasonable knowledge of the Philippines may conclude that this does not constitute the required undoubted provenance.

The buyer, Alan Howard, says that he bought the painting in good faith and is reportedly considering legal action against the dealer.

Robert Swift representing, originally, 9,539 victims of human rights violations during Marcos’ martial law era has filed suit against Bautista for the illegal sale of the painting.

Swift and Howard discussed the lawsuit and in June 2013. Howard agreed to pay the class-action group $10 million for a legal release from all claims to the painting? It cannot, surely, prevent Philippine government entities such as the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) from claiming the painting from Howard. It also means, I believe, that Howard would find it difficult to sell the painting should he wish to do so.

How many clients does Swift have now? A substantial proportion of the original 9,539 will no longer be alive and those who are alive may not have the tenacity to have persevered for the past 28 years.

The $10 million paid by Howard was deposited to the class-action settlement fund in federal court in Hawaii which is handling the rights victims’ case. Swift has reportedly said that those of his clients who approach him personally may receive P50,000 each. How many clients have done this?

So the middle men win. The painting was sold for $43 million (approximately P1.935 billion). In addition the buyer paid a $10 million (P450 million) doubtful provenance premium.

So where did the money go:
(a) The illicit seller received $32 million (P1.44 billion) (which she soon distributed to others).
(b) The dealer and others involved in the sale got $11 million (P495 million)
(c) Swift, working on a contingency fee basis, gets at least $3 million (P135 million)
(d) Bautista owes New York City and New York State $3.5 million (P157.5 million)
(e) A few Filipinos get P50,000 ($1,200)
(f) The Philippine government gets $0 (P)

Bautista was convicted in a New York court in for conspiracy and tax fraud and was given a six-year sentence. She is out on bail while her lawyers file an appeal.

The French are justifiably proud of their heritage.

Why did they sell?
And to Imelda?
Sacré-Bleu!
***
“She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side,
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried”
The Lady of Shalott (1832, revised 1842) - Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 20, 2014.

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