British Jane Austen enthusiasts may have got their petticoats in a twist trying to prevent the author’s jewellery falling into the wrong (i.e. American) hands.
But the US, too, is engaged in a battle to retain an item belonging to one of its own cultural icons – which may yet slip on to the fingers of an equally unwelcome recipient.
On Monday, a Los Angeles courtroom will host the latest hearing in a long-running case: “United States of America v. One White Crystal-Covered ‘Bad Tour’ Glove and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia.”
For the past 28 months, the US has been trying to keep hold of a glove once worn on stage by the late Michael Jackson, which was bought following the singer’s death by Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the playboy son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. In April 2011, the government seized about $71m (£45m) worth of assets belonging to Obiang Jr, who owns a car collection including Bentleys, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces, and Ferraris; a $38m private Gulfstream jet; and a house overlooking Surfrider beach in Malibu, California, worth some $30m.
Despite the West African country’s wealth of natural resources, more than 70 per cent of Equatorial Guinea’s population lives in poverty. Yet President Obiang and his cohorts have amassed substantial fortunes through bribery and corruption, the US claims. According to the government’s lawsuit, the dictator’s son, who was elevated to the role of forestry minister by his father, has “amassed over $300m in net worth, all while earning an income of less than $100,000 per year as an unelected public official appointed by his father.”
Obiang Jr first moved to the US in 1991, enrolling at Pepperdine University in Malibu, where he is said to have been funded by an American oil firm that operated in his home country. The 42-year-old music fan is alleged to have laundered stolen public funds in banks across the globe. In 2010, the aspiring rap music mogul used some of his vast wealth to acquire a selection of ephemera from the Michael Jackson estate, including the white, gem-encrusted glove at the heart of the case.
Last year, the French authorities seized a Parisian mansion worth €80 (£68m) belonging to Obiang Jr, where they found millions more in luxury goods and cars. In April 2012, however, a California judge threw out the US government’s case, saying it had failed to prove that Obiang Jr had amassed his fortune by means illegal in Equatorial Guinea, where he had never been charged with any crime.
The US has now been permitted to file an amended version of its complaint, but, in a brief filed last month, Obiang Jr’s lawyers argue that the US still has no grounds to retain possession of their client’s prized pop souvenirs. “The government still has not identified a single victim of extortion or bribery,” the brief contends. “In short, all that the government has is evidence that [the] Claimant spent money. Where the money came from is a matter of pure speculation.”