The Philippine government is seeking to recover museum-quality impressionist works after a past aide to Imelda Marcos received a prison sentence for conspiring to sell the paintings, including a Claude Monet piece that fetched $32 million US.

Vilma Bautista, a former personal secretary to the widow of ex-president Ferdinand Marcos, was sentenced in New York on Monday to two to six years in prison.

The case revolves around her sale of the 1899 Monet water lily painting Le Bassin aux Nymphéas to a London gallery, which later sold the work to a Swiss collector.

In November, Manhattan-based Bautista was convicted of conspiracy, tax fraud and other charges. She has also been ordered to pay approximately $3.5 million US in state taxes.

Prosecutors accused the ex-aide of conspiring to sell ill-gotten treasures. They said Bautista, who was mired in debt, tried to sell all four paintings, acquired by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos during their reign, in her possession. The other works are:

  • L'église et La Seine a Vétheuil by Claude Monet.
  • Langland Bay by Alfred Sisley.
  • Le Cyprès de Djenan Sidi Said by Albert Marquet.

With the successful sale of Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, Bautista was able to pay some of her debts, give money to relatives and associations and keep $15 million US, the prosecutors said, adding that they believe Imelda Marcos herself knew nothing of the sale.

However, the defence claims Bautista has simply been caught up in a clash between her former employer and the current Philippine government. Her lawyers argue that she believed Marcos rightfully owned the works and had granted permission to sell them.

An appeal is planned. On Monday, the Manhattan judge ruled that the frail, 75-year-old Bautista could remain free on bail pending the appeal.

Famed extravagance

During Ferdinand Marcos' repressive two-decade regime, his wife Imelda was known for lavish displays of extravagance, including her much-hyped shopping sprees and her massive shoe collection.

Imelda Marcos

Philippine politician Imelda Marcos, widow of ousted president Ferdinand Marcos, stands next to a bust of her late husband on display north of Manila in 2013. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

In the mid-1980s, the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian nation erupted in a "people power" movement that ousted the couple and forced them to flee the country. Though Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, his widow eventually returned to the Philippines, to active political life and currently sits as a member of the House of Representatives.

The Philippine government claims that during their reign, the couple spent billions of dollars acquiring a vast trove of artworks and jewelry as well as scores of companies, properties and other assets, using the nation's funds. The Presidential Commission on Good Government is charged with finding, investigating and recovering these assets. On Monday, for instance, it won a decision ordering Imelda Marcos to relinquish more than $100,000 in jewelry a Filipino court deemed ill-gotten.

Bautista previously served as the New York-based personal secretary to Marcos. The four artworks in the New York case disappeared from a Manhattan townhouse, owned by the Philippine government, where the former first lady had stayed while in town visiting.

"We want the three [remaining] paintings back," commission chair Andres Bautista (no relation to the former aide) said in Manila on Monday, referencing the New York case.

"We will recover them. They were acquired with state funds so they belong to the Filipino people."

Imelda Marcos, now 84, continues to deny that her family's wealth and assets were ill-gotten.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters