Despite Argentina's efforts, artifacts of Juan Peron, Evita in private hands

Argentine officials say the famed leader's speeches and memorabilia belong in a museum. Mario Rotundo says they can have them -- if they're willing to pay.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 27, 2010; 7:37 PM

BUENOS AIRES - Like a devoted curator, Mario Rotundo affectionately recounts the history of each of the objects in his musty apartment as if they were museum pieces, from the jazz LPs to a book some two centuries old to the size-9 wingtips neatly lined up in a row.

The faded knickknacks look as if they could have belonged to Rotundo's father. But the elegant dinner jacket, the dusty typewriter, the Yashica-D camera and the silk bed robe have a far more novelistic history - they were once owned by the iconic strongman Juan Peron and his beloved wife, Eva.

The 1950s-era ruling couple, whose populist speeches and ambitious social programs endeared them to the masses, still have a cultlike following here. That makes their personal effects patrimony of the nation, Argentine historians say, worthy of being honored in the same way the Smithsonian Institution reveres Abraham Lincoln's top hat.

But the bric-a-brac in Apartment H on busy Carlos Pellegrini Street in the heart of Buenos Aires belongs not to Argentina but to Rotundo, a 60-year-old former aide to Peron. And despite legal attempts to stop him, his plans for the memorabilia remain decidedly commercial: He wants to sell them.

"There are many things of great value," said Rotundo, who has stored the entire haul in several apartments for safekeeping and estimates the value at $25 million.

Much to the dismay of Argentines, Rotundo said he wants to auction off the valuables online and raise money to fund social works carried out by the group he runs, the People's Peace and Friendship Foundation. He asserts that Peron himself would have approved.

The legal fight

Peron, a three-time president who died in 1974, is seen as a demagogue by detractors, who say he used every lever of power to stay in office and sideline his opponents. But the wily leader and his second wife, known to all as Evita and venerated for her devotion to the poor, have mesmerized this country for much of its modern history. That has prompted the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, as well as aging Peronists who were associates of the former president, to team up in a legal fight to take back the treasure trove.

So far, nothing has worked.

Like a chess master, Rotundo has adroitly countered every legal move mustered by his adversaries. His strongest card is that Peron apparently wanted his possessions in Rotundo's hands. It was the strongman's third wife, Isabel Peron, in fact, who signed them all over to Rotundo on April 20, 1990, in Madrid.

Rotundo, who wears thick glasses and smokes incessantly, professes to want to see the objects back in the hands of the republic. But that did not stop him from holding a 2004 auction in Rome in which he sold Peron's 1,150-book library, the blue-and-white silk shroud that covered Evita's embalmed remains and the gray wool overcoat the president wore in the last speech he gave from the presidential palace. Those items were part of a 56-piece lot that sold for $536,800, according to Christie's, which held the auction.

For now, the courts have temporarily stopped Rotundo with an injunction until a team of experts can register the 14,000 pieces that belonged to Peron and Evita and review documentation demonstrating the chain of custody, said Lorenzo Pepe, the 79-year-old director of a government-funded institution that studies Peron.

"He cannot move any one piece," Pepe said. "We are going to resolve this with the professionals, who have absolute responsibility."

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