One photographer recalls her role in the documentation of the former First Lady’s jewelry collection seized by Philippine Customs
Stories from the Marcos era of Philippine history always seem to have one ending: inconclusive. This one is another.
On February 25, 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady Imelda fled the Philippines for the United States, leaving behind their treasures at Malacañang.
Eleven days later, on the 9th of March, Philippine customs officials followed up on an anonymous tip and detained a Greek national by the name of Demetriou Roumeliotes right before he boarded a flight to Hong Kong. The passenger was found to be carrying 60 pieces of fine jewelry addressed to Imelda Marcos. These were confiscated immediately and taken to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas for safekeeping and itemization, henceforth called the Roumeliotes collection.
As an act of transparency, the Philippine Commission of Good Governance (PCGG), created by President Corazon Aquino to recover ill-gotten wealth accumulated during the Marcos regime, wanted the Roumeliotes jewels properly documented. PCGG Commissioner Ramon Diaz began looking for an outside photojournalist to cover the jewel appraisal by Christie’s. At that time, I was a freelance magazine photographer, and I had a cousin working at PCGG. He set up a meeting with Diaz, and in 1988, I was given the assignment.
Upon arrival at Bangko Sentral for the appraisal, I received a copy of the Bureau of Customs’ (BOC) inventory list so I could match the jewelry to my photos. Numbered to match the BOC’s list, the jewels all came out of a series of Matryoshka doll-like suitcases. Some pieces came in their original cases, many in boxes or zip lock bags, but others were simply taped to paper with scotch tape that had already yellowed. Loose stones were wrapped in small pieces of paper folded into little packets. The jewels weren’t so delicate—many of the pieces were broken and needed repair.
We became an assembly line of sorts. Two women from Malacañang would take out each numbered piece following the list’s order and then check them off. Although ungloved, they handled the jewels with great care, treating them as both evidence and treasure. Each piece would then be handed to the appraisers, who were VPs from Christie’s.
The appraisers—Russel Fogarty, who founded Kazanjian & Fogarty in 1991 to buy and sell important jewels for private clients, and François Curiel, who would later head Christie’s Asia—were constantly abuzz with anticipation. They looked at each and every piece under a jewelers loop, measured every stone with a caliper. It was only after these appraisers were done that the jewels could be photographed.
This was the extremely tedious part. Even though I was the designated photographer, I couldn’t touch the pieces at all. Circumstances were less than ideal: I had brought my own cloth backdrop, but I wasn’t allowed to use it. The jewels would’ve been shot on the ugly dark wood desk if I hadn’t asked for the sheet of blue typing paper, which was hardly an improvement. If I didn’t like the way a piece was set out, I had to ask one of the ladies from Malacañang to rearrange it. If I made a move to touch any of the items, everyone in the room would jump up right away.
Three days in, I gave up. I didn’t bother to photograph most of the minor pieces, which were loose stones and trinkets I surmised Madame Marcos used as giveaways. I left before they were finished as I felt I had seen the best of the lot.
But the “best of the lot” was exactly that. When the larger pieces came out, you could hear a collective sucking in of breath from everyone in the room. There was an emerald and diamond choker that I can only describe as huge, and a bracelet from Bulgari that still had a price tag of $1 million on it. I was later told by someone who knew Madame Marcos well that these were some of her favorite pieces.
After the appraisal, I offered the photos to many notable titles—Time, Life, National Geographic, among others. The magazines paid to see the slides, but the story was never picked up: at that time, Madame Marcos vehemently denied the jewels were hers, and no one wanted to run a story based on “allegedly hers.” She has since come forward to claim them, and even sued the government to get them back.
It has been 26 years since I photographed the Roumeliotes jewels, and still there has been no resolution. They haven’t been displayed nor auctioned, as originally planned. In 2000, I wrote a formal letter to PCGG requesting information on their whereabouts. Sec. Renato C. Corona passed on the information to then PCGG Commissioner Jorge V. Sarmiento, and I received a stamped letter bearing Sarmiento’s signature that indicated all confiscated jewels are in the vaults of Bangko Sentral pending sale, as there was legal issue with the Roumeliotes collection specifically.
I have never seen the Roumeliotes collection on display or in the news, nor have any government agencies been forthcoming with the inventory list. On the subject of the Marcos jewels, it’s always about the two other collections: the Malacañang collection, which were seized from their private chambers when they fled the Palace in 1986; and the Hawaiian collection, which were removed from the plane carrying them into Honolulu. I recently read an article claiming that together all three collections was worth $8 million, but I don’t know how accurate that valuation is: the Roumeliotes collection alone must be worth at least that much in today’s market, especially with a $1 million price tag still attached to that one Bulgari bracelet.
Even Imelda Marcos can only wonder what is left at the Bangko Sentral vaults. I have run into her at various parties in Manila, and she always asks if I know where her jewels are. My answer is always the same: I have no idea.