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Left Hanging: Dictator’s Wife Caught With A Stolen Picasso

May 17, 2022
Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, US president Ronald Reagan, and First Lady Imelda Marcos

(left to right) Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, US president Ronald Reagan, and First Lady Imelda Marcos

Ferdinand Marcos was president of the Philippines between 1965 and 1986 and was known as one of the most prominent dictators of the Cold War. He kept a hold on power through electoral fraud, corruption, and violent repression, aided by maintaining martial law for nine years straight. While that doesn’t make him stand out among the cast of colorful characters that the Cold War had to offer, his wealth made him unique. Marcos and his wife Imelda used their political power to enrich themselves and their family, mainly by skimming money from foreign aid and receiving kickbacks from government contracts. Experts estimate that the Marcos family plundered $5 billion at a minimum, with some economists predicting that the family could have stolen as much as $30 billion. Since Marcos typically only declared his presidential salary on government documents, he hid his ill-gotten gains by investing in real estate, buying jewelry, and, the focus of this story, curating a 200-piece art collection.

The Marcos family is back in the news again because Ferdinand and Imelda’s son Ferdinand Jr., also known as “Bongbong”, was elected president and is set to take office this June. Many have noted how his campaign was rooted in attempting to sanitize or whitewash his father’s dictatorship by trivializing or straight-up ignoring the human rights abuses and the outright theft that went on for twenty years. But this may be difficult to do when the Marcos family makes such lackadaisical efforts to hide all of it. A photo of Imelda celebrating her son’s electoral victory had some people looking not at the celebration but the wall behind the couch. One of the paintings hanging on the wall has since been identified as Femme Couchée VI, a 1932 work by Pablo Picasso almost certainly bought using the family’s plundered billions.

Many have been aware that this particular Picasso has been in Imelda Marcos’s possession for years. In 2014, the Philippine government seized a cache of artworks from the Marcos family, the Femme Couchée among them. Yet, in 2019, a documentary film looking into the life of Imelda Marcos featured several interviews with the former first lady. In these interviews, the Picasso in question is hanging on the wall behind her. Soon after the documentary’s release, authorities raided Imelda Marcos’s house in Makati City, only to find that the Picasso had been moved elsewhere. Philippine officials have since claimed that they probably seized a forgery back in 2014 and that the real Picasso is likely still in the Marcoses’ possession, worth over $150 million.

With Bongbong Marcos about to become president, there is a very real possibility that he will effectively crush any governmental efforts to recover his family’s plunder. Maybe the lack of oversight in hiding the Picasso is just a sign of the family’s growing comfort in showing off their wealth again. Who knows? But I think we all know that regardless, it’s not looking good for the Philippines.