In photos of Bongbong Marcos, Jr.'s visit to Imelda Marcos last week, Picasso's "Woman Reclining VI" can be seen hanging above the sofa on the left. (screenshot of a news broadcast from TV Patrol)

After winning the presidential election in the Philippines last week, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. made a publicized visit to the home of his mother, Imelda Marcos. In the background of their meeting, a supposedly seized Pablo Picasso painting made a surprise appearance.

The 92-year-old ex-first lady of the Philippines is perhaps best known for her shoes, nearly 3,000 pairs of them, which were broadcast to the world when civilians stormed the presidential palace in 1986 and ousted her family from power. Her late husband, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., had reigned as dictator since 1965, during which time he eliminated free speech, abolished congress, and enacted martial law for half his term. Marcos arbitrarily jailed tens of thousands of people and killed, tortured, and “forcibly disappeared” thousands more. The family fled to Hawaii and returned to the Philippines in 1991.

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan at a state dinner for President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos in 1982 (courtesy National Archives)

The family also stole an estimated $10 billion from the Filipino people, which they used to fund a famously opulent lifestyle — dozens of mansions, expensive cars, yachts, planes, helicopters, jewelry (worth at least $21 million), and of course Imelda’s designer shoe collection. As the country sank into recession, the family also bought millions of dollars worth of art, including Picasso’s “Reclining Woman VI.” The painting was supposed to have been seized in 2014.

The family has hidden its money, and art, so well that even after decades of trying, getting it back has proved nearly impossible. In 2018, Imelda Marcos was convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison, but she never served her sentence, and only around $4 billion of the family’s fortune has been recovered.

The US Ambassador to the Philippines Stephen Bosworth with President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos in 1984. (courtesy National Archives)

In 2013, Imelda’s former assistant tried to sell four Impressionist paintings and was convicted of criminal tax fraud and conspiracy in New York. A year later, Filipino authorities seized 15 paintings from the Marcoses’ home in San Juan, including Picasso’s painting.

And then in 2019, the ex-first lady was caught on film with the painting in Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Kingmaker, but the sighting didn’t make much of a stir.

It is unknown whether the Picasso turned over in 2014 was a fake, or whether the one currently on display is. (Imelda has been known to acquire fake paintings.)

“Personally I know that what we seized was a fake,” the former head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the body that conducted the 2014 raid, Andres Bautista told Filipino news outlet Rappler last week.

The Marcos family returned to the Philippines in 1991, and Imelda was elected into the House of Representatives in the late 1990s. As the memory of her late husband’s dictatorship waned, she began to once again flaunt her wealth — saying things like “there is more money the government is not yet aware of” and “we own practically everything in the Philippines.” The brazen display of the Picasso suggests that she’s doing it again, now with the confidence of her family’s return to presidential power.

President-elect Bongbong Marcos does not acknowledge his father’s human rights abuses. In his campaign, he spread misinformation on social media to contort his family’s history and fuel nostalgia for the dictatorial regime. Sara Duterte was voted in as his Vice President. She is the daughter of outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, who although popular, has repeatedly violated human rights, and his “war on drugs” has killed tens of thousands of Filipinos.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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