A university professor here, combining a knack for tracking down stolen art with a dislike of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, says he is convinced that "with a little patience and time" he and his volunteer group of sleuths will recover valuable paintings and other artworks that the new Philippine government says were misappropriated by the former president, his family and their close associates.
Alejandro Roces, a wealthy former education minister and professor named to head the Good Government Commission's task force on recovering "ill-gotten" art, said the Marcoses and their entourage did not have enough time before fleeing the country in February to take art with them.
"It's not their mentality," he said in an interview. "They preferred dollars or gold bullion or jewelry."
Roces, who is a writer and journalist as well as a connoisseur of the arts, expressed contempt for ex-president Marcos, and, especially, the former first lady.
That assessment, he said, is prompted by his judgment that Imelda Marcos' favorite collection, the approximately 70 paintings billed as Italian masterpieces at the Manila Metropolitan Museum, are fakes.
Museum director Alberto Luz, a noted Filipino painter, said Imelda Marcos had told him the "authentic and original" Renaissance and other Italian paintings were "on loan" from an anonymous Italian donor and were valued at $8 million.
Government investigators have alleged that the Marcos family freely borrowed paintings from the museum without drawing a distinction between what belonged to them and what belonged to the government. If any ownership documents exist, neither Luz nor Roces has been able to find them.
Roces said it was widely believed in the mid-1970s that the paintings were fakes, but at that time the country was under martial law, and speaking out against the Marcoses in public was considered rumor-mongering, punishable by time in prison.
Roces suggested that the Marcoses must have known the paintings were fakes because the artworks were not insured, a process that requires authentication by an expert. Luz said the museum budget could not afford insurance.
If Roces has his way, the government will close the 10-year-old museum of foreign art.
He said it draws too few Philippine visitors to justify the $5,000-a-month electricity bill for air conditioning to keep the paintings, which he believes to be valueless fakes, from deteriorating in Manila's humid climate.
Roces said he has high hopes of recovering the authentic Ming vases and paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso that disappeared from the New York town house the Marcoses maintained close to the Philippine Consulate.
"Whoever removed those works of art botched the operation," he said, "because they forgot the ownership documents, and without them they are hard to sell."
In the Philippines, he is concentrating on tracking down missing classic Philippine paintings by such artists as Juan Luna, Lorenzo Guerrero and Carlos V. Francisco.
So far he has financed his trips around Manila and to the summer capital of Baguio out of his own pocket. Many of his volunteer sleuths have done the same.
Much of the art they are trying to locate disappeared after Feb. 25, when Marcos fled the Malacanang presidential palace and looters rampaged through its halls. In the ensuing days, men dressed in military uniforms also raided a number of Marcos' homes and offices and those of his close associates.
Working on tips, Roces is now used to entering offices only to find them stripped of their art.
So far, he said he has not dared visit Marcos' houses in northern Luzon, the former president's home region, or on the island of Leyte, which was Imelda Marcos' home.
"That's still dangerous Marcos country, and I have no desire to have my head blown off," Roces said.
But Roces is struck by what he called the surrealism of his quest.
"After what has happened here, we've become so blase. We say those paintings are fakes, and the people's attitude is, 'So what else is new, and what is $10 million?'
"Who can blame them? What is a Rembrandt compared to a woman who kept 3,000 pairs of shoes?" he asked.