Stolen art sale gets Imelda Marcos ex-aide six years in New York prison

NEW YORK Mon Jan 13, 2014 1:55pm EST

1 of 3. Vilma Bautista (C), the ex-secretary of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, smiles after her sentencing at the Manhattan Supreme Court in New York, January 13, 2014. Bautista was sentenced in the New York court after she was found guilty of conspiracy in the attempted sale of a Monet painting and other valuable artworks.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Imelda Marcos' former secretary was sentenced on Monday to up to six years in a New York prison for a scheme to sell art that once belonged to the former Philippine first lady, including a Claude Monet water-lily painting that netted $32 million.

Vilma Bautista, 75, was convicted in November of conspiracy and tax fraud charges related to the sale or attempted sale of four museum-quality paintings acquired by Marcos during the two decades that her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was president of the Philippines.

The art disappeared around 1986, when Marcos was ousted from power. He died three years later.

A New York state judge sentenced Bautista to between two and six years in prison for the count of tax fraud and between one and three years for the conspiracy charge.

Bautista, who had faced up to 25 years in prison, was also ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution to the state of New York. Bautista was charged in the state because she lives in New York City.

Prosecutors said Bautista secretly held on to the artwork for more than two decades until 2010, when she sold Monet's "Le Bassin aux Nympheas," part of his famed series of water-lily paintings, to a London gallery for $32 million.

She was also accused of secretly keeping and attempting to sell Monet's "L'Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil," Alfred Sisley's "Langland Bay" and Albert Marquet's "Le Cypres de Djenan Sidi Said," with help from her two nephews.

During her month-long trial last year, prosecutors said Bautista knew the art was stolen from a Manhattan townhouse that was once used by Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. They argued she hid the multimillion-dollar pieces until she tried to sell them for personal gain, keeping the money tax-free.

Bautista's lawyers argued that she had been given permission to sell the artwork and had intended to return the money to the Philippine government, but it was seized by the Manhattan district attorney's office before she could do so.

One of Bautista's attorneys on Monday told Reuters Television that she planned to appeal the conviction.

"We will be filing an appeal, and the appeal is going to be somewhat expedited and we're hoping that the appellate division agrees with us," attorney Fran Hoffinger said.

Bautista was released on $275,000 bail pending her appeal.

Bautista was a member of the Philippine foreign service and was a close confidante to the former Philippine first lady, serving as her unofficial New York-based personal secretary while assigned to the Philippine mission to the United Nations from the early 1970s through 1986, prosecutors said.

During her husband's rule, Imelda Marcos amassed art, jewelry and other valuables using state assets. The Philippine government is still trying to recover many of the items.

After Bautista's trial, the Philippine government said in a statement it welcomed her conviction and said it would try to recover the art.

The Philippine government charged Imelda Marcos and her husband with corruption in 1987, seeking billions in U.S. dollars in damages for plundering the Asian nation's wealth.

(Additional reporting by Sharon Reich; Editing by Scott Malone, Amanda Kwan and Leslie Adler)

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