French police quietly turned over nine valuable paintings to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III at the U.S. Embassy in Paris on Wednesday after seizing them from Saudi Arabian businessman Adnan Khashoggi, according to French government and legal sources.
There was an air of mystery about the transfer of the paintings, which the Philippine government insists were stolen from the Philippines by former President Ferdinand E. Marcos and then spirited to Khashoggi for safekeeping in France. Khashoggi was one of the middlemen used by the U.S. government in the Iran-Contra affair.
Peter Antico, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said that he could not confirm that the paintings had been given to Meese but could say that the attorney general had met with French police officials.
"I'm not in a position to comment on details of an ongoing criminal case," Antico said.
Confirmed by French
But both an official of the French Ministry of Interior and Jacques Sales, a French lawyer for the Philippine government, confirmed that the disputed paintings were turned over to Meese and are now legally in U.S. hands.
"Attorney General Meese thanked the French police for complying with the official request from an American court for the paintings," said the ministry official. The ministry runs the French national police force.
Neither French nor American officials would describe the paintings or specify the artists involved. Meese evidently had hoped to take the paintings with him today, when he is scheduled to leave Paris for Washington. But it was understood that some red tape, including final export approval from the French Ministry of Culture, is holding up export of the paintings from France.
Taken From Manila
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by the Philippine government in federal court in New York City. The Manila government contended that Marcos and his wife Imelda, now living in exile in Hawaii, had stolen the paintings from the presidential palace in Manila, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila and a Philippine government-owned townhouse in New York. All the paintings had been bought by Marcos during his 20-year-reign with money from the Philippine treasury, the government said.
To benefit from these paintings after his overthrow in Manila in February, 1986, Marcos, according to the Philippine government, gave 38 of them to Khashoggi to take to France. Although Khashoggi said he had bought them, the government said this purchase was a subterfuge and that Khashoggi was really acting as an agent selling the paintings on behalf of Marcos and his wife.
Sales, the lawyer for the Philippine government, said the U.S. government became involved in the case and officially requested the paintings back from France because the federal judge in New York had ordered that none of the disputed property of Marcos and his wife leave the United States until the court decided whether it belonged rightfully to the Marcoses or to the Philippine government.
Sales said that French police have seized a dozen other paintings, including works by the celebrated 19th-Century French artists Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour. But, the lawyer said, Khashoggi is contending that a corporation now owns these paintings, having bought them from him.
Were Taken to France
The Philippine government said that Khashoggi flew the paintings to Nice, put them aboard his yacht Nabila, transferred them to his Monaco apartment and later stored them for a while in his Cannes apartment.
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow, in Washington, and editorial assistant Alice Sedar, in Paris, also contributed to this article.