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Curator Says $6 Million Art Collection in ‘Horrible Condition’

April 5, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ The curator of a private art collection bought by Imelda Marcos in 1981 for $6 million said many of its valuable pieces have since suffered ″heartbreaking″ damage.

Morton J. Bernstein’s testimony came in the third day of the former Philippine first lady’s trial in U.S. District Court. She is accused of having diverted money stolen from her homeland’s treasury to the purchase of four pieces of New York real estate and the art collection.

Bernstein testified that he had served for two decades as manager of the art and antiques collection owned by the late philanthropist Leslie R. Samuels, and could identify every one of its paintings, figurines, 17th and 18th century furniture pieces and other items.

The Samuels Collection was among the purchases that Mrs. Marcos and her husband, former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, allegedly made with $160 million embezzled from their homeland. Mrs. Marcos bought the entire collection in 1981 for $6 million.

Bernstein testified that the FBI asked him to go to California to identify items from the collection that were found at the small estate of Mrs. Marcos’ younger daughter, Irene Araneta.

Bernstein said he found the items in ″horrible condition,″ with priceless pieces of furniture stacked in a damp, dirt-floored barn. He said mirrors were cracked, tables damaged, and some statues had fingers broken off.

″It was heartbreaking,″ Bernstein testified. ″I was very much a part of the Samuels family for many years and I knew what it meant to them.″

On Wednesday, a real estate broker testified that an associate of Mrs. Marcos threatened him after a 1981 news report revealed that Mrs. Marcos was secretly negotiating for the Samuels’ posh apartment and its furnishings.

Thomas Bryan, the prosecution’s first witness in the trial of Mrs. Marcos and Saudi Arabian business tycoon Adnan Khashoggi, said Gliceria Tantoco did not directly accuse him of leaking the story to the New York Post.

But she ″expressed regret that the information had become public and said I should fear for my life and my family,″ Bryan testified in federal court.

Under questioning by Mrs. Marcos’ defense attorney, Gerald Spence, Bryan said that he was upset by the threat but that it did not deter him from further contacts with Mrs. Marcos.

Bryan, of Fairfax, Va., who was then a $27,000-a-year broker for the Sotheby’s auction house, told how Mrs. Marcos and Mrs. Tantoco tried to secretly purchase the Samuels’ Park Avenue apartment and its contents.

Earlier Wednesday, a lawyer for Khashoggi, once described as the richest man in the world, portrayed his client as a naive businessman who committed ″foolish acts.″

″If this wasn’t such a serious charge, this would be funny,″ James Linn said. ″It is not the sinister thing that the government makes it out″ to be.

Khashoggi, 54, is charged with mail fraud and obstruction for allegedly helping the Marcoses hide their ownership in New York real estate after the Philippine government won a U.S. court order in 1986 to prohibit any further transactions involving the properties.

Linn admitted that Khashoggi had signed a fake document involving the buildings, but said this was intended to help a Marcos associate, not to defraud anyone.

Khashoggi was trying to head off moves by creditors to foreclose on the properties, Linn said.

In explaining the Saudi financier’s frequent contacts with Marcos, Linn also said Khashoggi ″fell for″ a bizarre scheme in which Marcos offered him 10 percent of a shipload of gold if he could find a ″safe port″ for the vessel, preferably in the Arab world.

Marcos, who died in exile in September, supposedly intended to use the gold to finance a counter-revolution in case the Philippines fell to the communists.

Mrs. Marcos, 60, is charged with racketeering, conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction. She could receive up to 50 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Khashoggi faces up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

Mrs. Tantoco, a longtime friend of Mrs. Marcos and owner of the Rustans department store in Manila, and her husband, Bienvenido Sr., former Philippines ambassador to the Vatican, also were indicted but are fugitives.

Bryan testified that Mrs. Marcos offered to buy both the Samuels apartment and its contents for nearly $14 million. A corporation controlled by Mrs. Marcos acquired the artworks for $6 million, but she lost the apartment when the cooperative’s board of directors rejected Mrs. Tantoco as the purchaser.

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