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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - A local court has blocked attempts by a former private aide to General Juan Peron who wants to sell his collection of items that once belonged to the Argentine postwar leader and his glamorous wife "Evita."
Mario Rotundo hopes to auction items from the multimillion dollar collection to the highest bidders, but the court wants to investigate the authenticity of the mementos.
Past auctions riled historians and government officials who believe the memorabilia from the 1940s-era power couple, whose memory still looms over Argentine politics, should be turned over to the state as part of the country's heritage.
Rotundo agrees but said the government will have to pay.
"The government has to decide whether they want to buy them or not, and if they don't, we're free to continue auctioning them off," said Rotundo, 61.
He said he has over 10,000 items worth nearly $5 million, and he is working to recover several thousand more objects, which he estimated could fetch $20 million.
But the sale of memorabilia, which he said would finance the good works of his Funpaz foundation, is on hold due to the legal dispute.
Evita died of cancer in 1952 and Peron was ousted by a coup three years later. He returned from exile to become president again in 1973 but died a year later.
Rotundo said he met Peron in 1970 in Spain, where the former leader was living in exile while he planned his return to Argentina. He said he served as a confidant to Peron before his death.
Rotundo said Peron wanted him to preserve his belongings after his death. Peron's third wife, Maria Estela Martinez who is known as Isabel, agreed to donate items to Rotundo's foundation in 1990 but later challenged his claims in court.
In the meantime, Rotundo has been selling the memorabilia bit by bit. In 2004, he auctioned numerous items at Christie's in Rome, including the silk shroud that covered Evita's remains. It sold for $159,300, more than three times its estimated price.
Hundreds of books and records, many of them dedicated to Peron, copies of letters he wrote while in exile, handbags that belonged to Evita, radios, typewriters and ashtrays are stored in a cramped, windowless apartment in Buenos Aires.
The headstone of Peron's dog Canela, with an inscription reading 'Canela, the best and most faithful of friends,' sits in one corner of the apartment.
Rotundo's excitement was evident as held a tiny hand mirror he said was given to Evita by the singer Josephine Baker, or as he pointed to a voice recorder that Peron used during early-morning dictations.
Rotundo said Peron fled with just $70,000 when he was driven out by the 1955 military coup. He pulled out ledgers where aides budgeted for everything -- even toilet paper and soap.
Pepe Lorenzo, the head of the Juan Domingo Peron National Institute, has spearheaded the legal drive to take a closer look at Rotundo's collection.
"If what's there belonged to Peron, the government is obligated to expropriate it. They will pay the corresponding amount," Lorenzo said during an interview in one of the many Peron-themed cafes around Buenos Aires.
Editing by Hilary Burke and Patricia Reaney