The Republic of Haiti, acting to recover assets allegedly stolen by deposed president Jean-Claude Duvalier and his associates, obtained a court order yesterday placing a temporary hold on seven crates of rare Haitian art stored at a District warehouse.
The paintings, including the works of Hector Hyppolite, one of Haiti's most important artists, were acquired by Claude Auguste Douyon, Duvalier's former private secretary, with some of the $1.3 million in government funds he allegedly stole before fleeing his country, according to attorneys for Haiti.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan signed a temporary restraining order preventing Douyon or Marie Noel of Silver Spring, identified in court papers as Douyon's cousin, from removing the paintings. The artworks have been stored at a warehouse operated by Security Storage Company of Washington, 1701 Florida Ave. NW.
This marks the first time that assets of the Duvalier regime have been tracked to the District, according to Walter Pozen, a partner in the law firm of Stroock Stroock & Lavan, which is representing Haiti.
Duvalier and members of his family and associates allegedly drained Haitian coffers of an estimated $120 million during Duvalier's 15-year reign. About $8 million of those funds allegedly was used to buy four apartments in New York City and an 86-foot yacht in Miami, and to set up several New York bank accounts.
"Duvalier worked a massive fraud on the Haitian people," Pozen said. "We haven't been able to find that many assets in the United States. Just in economic terms, it's satisfying to find significant assets in Washington. On another level, this has significance for Haiti, for these paintings are a vital part of Haiti's cultural tradition, which places a value on them beyond dollars."
Pozen and other lawyers involved in the case said they have no way of knowing the exact contents of the crates or their value, although they were certain the paintings included one or more works by Hyppolite, who died in 1948 and is recognized by many as Haiti's foremost painter.
The paintings have been kept in storage in Washington for at least four years, according to Pozen, and at one time were valued for insurance purposes at $214,000. "But we believe they have a much greater value," he said.
Douyon, private secretary to Duvalier between 1974 and 1987, was a major collector of Haitian art. The Smithsonian Institution sponsored a traveling exhibit of 57 paintings from Douyon's collection throughout the United States and Canada in 1978 through 1982, according to a Smithsonian spokesman.
The exhibit, which opened in Washington at the Inter-American Development Bank, included the works of 34 important Haitian artists, including Hyppolite, Rigaud Benoit and Gerard Valcin. In a preface to the exhibit's catalog, Douyon thanked Duvalier, "who gave me much encouragement for this project from the beginning." Duvalier was deposed in February 1986.
Lawyers for Haiti believe that paintings from that exhibit are contained in the crates being stored in Washington. Michael J. Gillis, a Miami businessman, said last month in a deposition that, until recently, he made monthly payments to Security Storage Co. on behalf of Douyon to store the paintings.
"I felt that it was inappropriate for me to continue the arrangements that I had been doing previously for Mr. Douyon in view of all the things that were going on," Gillis said in the deposition. He said he turned over responsibility for the paintings to Marie Noel, whom he described as Douyon's cousin.
Noel, contacted yesterday, said she wasn't Douyon's cousin and denied any knowledge of the paintings. "I don't know anything about it," she said.
Noel, Douyon and Security Storage were named in court papers filed by the Republic of Haiti in seeking the temporary restraining order. A hearing on the case has been scheduled for June 16.