John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times
Vilma Bautista, center, the former secretary to Imelda Marcos, left court on Tuesday with her lawyers. She is charged with conspiring to sell art masterpieces that were acquired by Mrs. Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines.
By RUSS BUETTNER - In late 1985, with the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines in sight, a large truck pulled up in front of the Upper East Side town house where Imelda Marcos stayed and threw parties while in New York City.
Crates were seen stacked on the sidewalk, and by the time the new government took control of the nation in 1986 and reclaimed the house, the majestic paintings that had hung on its walls, including one from the waterlily series by Claude Monet, had disappeared.
The famed artworks remained missing for more than two decades, their location and ownership a mystery.
That all changed on Tuesday, when the personal secretary to Ms. Marcos, Vilma Bautista — long suspected of stealing the missing masterpieces — and two of Ms. Bautista’s nephews were charged with trying to sell the paintings.
They succeeded in selling the best known, Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nymphéas” (1899), two years ago for $32 million, even though the London buyer had reservations about whether Ms. Bautista and her nephews were the rightful owners, according to an indictment.
The former secretary, Ms. Bautista, 74, who has homes in New York City and on Long Island, was named, along with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and their New York lawyers, as defendants in a suit brought in New York State Supreme Court in 1986 that sought to return the Marcoses’ holdings to the Philippine government.
Prosecutors accused Ms. Bautista of secretly keeping numerous works of art that had been acquired by the Marcoses for nearly a quarter of a century. But beginning in 2009, Ms. Bautista and her nephews began efforts to sell some of the artwork discreetly, according to the indictment.
After the Monet waterlily painting was sold to a London gallery in September 2010, Ms. Bautista kept most of the proceeds, but shared some with her nephews, Chaiyot Jansen Navalaksana, 37, and Pongsak Navalaksana, 40, as well as unnamed co-conspirators in New York, according to the indictment.
She is also accused of trying to sell three other valuable works: 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), also known as “Algerian View.”
All three defendants face conspiracy charges, and Ms. Bautista and Chaiyot Navalaksana also face a tax-fraud charge for failing to report income from the sale of the Monet. If convicted on the top charges against them, Ms. Bautista would face up to 25 years in prison and her nephews would face up to 4 years.
Ms. Bautista pleaded not guilty through her lawyer and was released on a $175,000 bond. Her nephews did not appear in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. They were last known to reside in Bangkok, and authorities were seeking their return to New York.
“The integrity of the international art market must be protected,” said Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney. “This indictment sheds light on what happened to major works of art missing for more than 25 years.”
Ms. Bautista, a petite woman, walked slowly through the courtroom carrying a cane. She wore a black pantsuit and a gray scarf with silhouettes of leaping frogs. Her lawyers, Susan Hoffinger and Fran Hoffinger, declined to comment.
In the years before her husband’s reign ended, Mrs. Marcos accumulated a vast collection of artwork and other valuables, which she displayed in government-owned properties in the Philippines and New York.
According to court records, Mrs. Marcos purchased three of the paintings from a London gallery in the 1970s. Two, “Vétheuil” and “Langland Bay,” were shipped to the Malacanang Palace, the state residence of the Philippine president. “Algerian View” was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in Manila.
Mrs. Marcos kept the waterlily painting for herself, and at some point, the three other paintings in the Philippines were shipped to Mrs. Marcos in New York.
Ms. Bautista’s official role was as a foreign-service officer assigned to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations. But her actual work centered on catering to Mrs. Marcos’s social and personal needs.
She oversaw preparations for Mrs. Marcos’s functions at Lindenmere, a 16-bedroom house in Center Moriches, on Long Island, The New York Times reported in 1986. And her name appeared on receipts for luxury purchases. Citing a newspaper in Manila run by the Roman Catholic Church, The Times reported that a bill to Mrs. Marcos for $1.43 million from Bulgari was actually made out to Ms. Bautista, with Mrs. Marcos’s name beneath.
Court records say it is not clear how she came into possession of the paintings, but prosecutors contend that she held them for many years.