The Exchange

The Billionaire, the Secretary, and the (Possibly) Stolen Monet

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A photo shows an 1899 painting by Impressionist master Claude Monet entitled Japanese Footbridge Over …

British hedge fund manager Alan Howard made waves in the art world in 2010 when he reportedly bought an original oil painting from Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series from a London art dealer for $43 million.

Turns out, the painting may have been stolen.

Not only that, but this particular Monet – full name: “Japanese Footbridge Over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny” – comes with a uniquely scandalous backstory. Imelda Marcos, the one-time First Lady of the Philippines, whose profligate spending on the country’s dime ended when her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was forced into exile in 1986, once owned it. And her former secretary has been accused of stealing it from her.

Now the 1899 painting is a key piece of evidence in the criminal trial of that ex-aide, Vilma Bautisa, which began in New York City in mid-October. The 74-year-old Bautista has been charged with conspiracy after she and two nephews tried to sell the painting (and several others from Marcos’ New York City townhouse) in 2010 after the former first lady’s properties were seized by the new Philippine government in the 1980s. Bautista faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the charges.

“It’s a simple story of greed, opportunism and fraud,” Garrett Lynch, an assistant district attorney, said to the jury at Bautista's trial, according to The New York Times.

Speaking of greed, Marcos – whose spending habits while First Lady are the stuff of legend: a closet with 3,000 pairs of designer shoes, $3-millon-in-a-day shopping sprees in New York, artwork by a range of old masters, and even several Manhattan skyscrapers including the Woolworth Building – remains active in Philippine politics and is now serving as a member of the country’s House of Representatives.

Howard, for his part, was a good faith purchaser of the painting and has no part in Bautista's trail.

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