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Philippines hunts for Marcos' plundered art

As family of former dictator seeks historical redemption, government counters with unrelenting search for stolen wealth.

| Arts & Culture, Asia Pacific, Philippines

Imelda Marcos kisses the glass enclosure holding the preserved body of her late husband, Ferdinand [EPA]

By

Jason Gutierrez

Manila, Philippines - The family of Ferdinand Marcos is seeking to rewrite history after regaining political clout, but an unrelenting worldwide hunt by the Philippine government to recover millions of dollars of artwork bought using funds allegedly plundered from state coffers is serving as a potent reminder of the dictator's cruel legacy.

The recovery effort is spearheaded by the perennially underfunded Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), a local agency tasked with going after the Marcos' fabled wealth.

Officials are looking for hundreds of paintings by European masters - including Monet, Gauguin and Michelangelo - that Ferdinand and his wife Imelda amassed during their two-decade rule, in which thousands of activists were killed or went missing as the Southeast Asian country spiralled into bankruptcy.

"We'd like to think that these paintings have been with the Marcoses from the beginning, and we believe that they were purchased using ill-gotten wealth and public funds," PCGG head Andres Bautista told Al Jazeera, shortly after the agency raided a Manila home owned by Imelda last week and seized at least 15 paintings.

Andres Bautista shows some of the rare paintings of European masters, allegedly part of the Marcos collection [AP]

"These will be eventually turned over to the Central Bank for safekeeping, after we call in experts to examine them to check their value or whether they are replicas or not," he said.

Agents from the Justice Department's National Bureau of Investigation also secured court orders to enter Imelda Marcos' condominium in the upscale Makati financial district. A source told Al Jazeera the men were made to wait outside for about an hour, and when they entered, they only saw an empty wall where paintings were initially displayed, based on old photos of the place.

"We are just doing our job, let history judge the Marcos family," said Bautista, who took over the PCGG four years ago.

He said the recovery of the paintings represented a victory of sorts for Filipinos, even though none of the Marcoses and their cronies had been convicted and jailed.

Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines with an iron fist from 1966 to 1986, much of it through dictatorship. He is believed to have raided government coffers of up to $10bn, and stashed the fabled wealth in secret bank accounts abroad.

Imelda Marcos, a former beauty queen, became the symbol of the family's extravagant lifestyle, collecting some 3,000 pairs of shoes and rubbing elbows with international celebrities, as millions across the Southeast Asian nation wallowed in abject poverty. A Philippines court acquitted Imelda Marcos in 2008 of 32 counts of illegal transfers of about $863m into Swiss bank accounts.

Political rivals

In 1983, the father of current President Benigno Aquino, Marcos' arch political rival, was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila's international airport upon landing from exile in the United States. Many blamed Marcos and the military for the murder, but no one was ever punished for ordering it. 

The killing triggered widespread public anger, which culminated in a "people power" revolution that saw tens of thousands of people pouring into the city's main thoroughfare, and openly defying Marcos' loyal security forces in 1986.

This is part of the family's plan to change history and make sure that the public, particularly the new generation of Filipinos, will not know about what transpired in the past.

- Ramon Casiple, political analyst

The uprising sent Marcos and his family into exile in Hawaii, where he died in 1989. But before they left, officials said they distributed an estimated 300 paintings by masters, as well as expensive jewellery collections, among their friends.

The collection included those of Van Gogh, Renoir, Rembrandt and Cezanne, among others, according to a list compiled by the PCGG using art gallery receipts and shipment records left behind when the family hurriedly left the palace at the height of the revolution.

About half of the paintings remain missing, and are believed to be in the hands of private collectors, but the government managed to recover three sets of jewellery that at one point the international auction house Christie's had estimated to fetch up to $8.5m.

The precious stones, which include a 150 carat Burmese ruby, are locked in a vault although the government has said it may auction it off.

Until last year, when a former Imelda Marcos secretary was jailed in New York for conspiring to sell a Claude Monet painting that belonged to the collection for $32m, a vast majority of the Filipino public were unaware of the existence of the paintings.

Marcos' impunity

Imelda Marcos and her children were allowed to return home in 1991, and despite numerous civil and criminal cases filed against them, none of them nor their cronies have been jailed. The family matriarch is now a sitting congresswoman representing a northern district, while Marcos' son and namesake is a senator who has said he may contest the presidency in the 2016 elections. His sister is a vice governor.

The dictator's body was also eventually repatriated, and has since been kept in a refrigerated glass casket in his hometown in a macabre shrine that has also become a tourist attraction.

And nearly three decades after the revolt, PCGG has only recovered $658m in Marcos funds from Swiss deposits, largely because of the corruption and mismanagement of its former leaders.

But what is more worrisome, analysts say, is a recent resurgence of pro-Marcos discourse in public and on social media, with at least one senator urging the government to grant a hero's burial with full military honours to the dictator.

"This is part of the family's plan to change history and make sure that the public, particularly the new generation of Filipinos, will not know about what transpired in the past," said political analyst Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila.

"This is really worrying because you are talking of a group of people who for two decades controlled the entire Philippines in one of the darkest periods of our history," he said.

An undated photo released by the Philippines Presidential Commission on Good Government [AP]

Casiple said the campaign apparently was aimed at conditioning the mind of the electorate - about half of the 56 million eligible voters in the upcoming 2016 national elections are between 18 and 45 years old, who were either not yet born or were young when the Marcos regime fell.

'Short memory'

Anti-Marcos activist and former senator Heherson Alvarez, whose brother was killed by Marcos' troops, said a flawed democracy that allowed for patronage politics has allowed the family to mount a comeback, as he urged the public not to forget.

He said many remained "vulnerable to wily, money dirty politics" in a freewheeling democracy that has ironically also led to "many development infirmities".

"Part of the Marcos' success is due to the short memory of a number of the population," Alvarez told Al Jazeera during a recent gathering of activists who fought the dictatorship.

"The freedom in our democratic community has enabled them to gain some space to participate in government. But the people and a generation cannot trust a Marcos' full ascendancy to power. It would be very dangerous. It means the nation has lost its capacity for fair and balanced political judgement."

Imelda Marcos could not be immediately reached for comment. Her son, Marcos Jr, appeared on local television at the time the painting raids were carried out, and he played coy about his political ambitions.

"I feel that history will be the ultimate judge, and I believe history will be much kinder to my father's administration," Marcos Jr said.

Source: Al Jazeera

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