Nearly 40 years after a small but rare painting by master French impressionist Edgar Degas disappeared without a trace, the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit of of ICE has returned it to it's rightful owners.
The painting, entitled 'Blanchisseuses souffrant des dents' - depicting a laundress in a while veil suffering from a toothache - was on display at the Malraux Museum in Le Havre, France in 1973 when it vanished seemingly into thin air. Decades passed with no sign of the painting until it resurfaced in October 2010 at a Sotheby's auction, mere weeks before it was to be sold.
Authorities from Interpol spotted the piece and tipped off HSI agents.
After close work with the French government and Interpol, HSI determined that this piece was indeed themysterious stolen Degas and determined the rightful owners to be the people of France.
Although the piece is valued at approximately $350,000 to $450,000 - much less than other Degas pieces - the work is especially cherished by the French as very few original Degas paintings remain within their national borders.
"However exceptional this situation may be, it's not just a coincidence," said French Ambassador to the United States Francois Rivasseau as he joined ICE Director John Morton to unveil the painting at a repatriation ceremony held at the French Ambassador's residence last week. "It's a concrete example of the close cooperation that exists between the United States and France with respect to combating the trafficking of cultural property, and the key role played by Interpol in this area."
Morton also expressed his delight over solving at least part of this decades-long cold case. While the investigation into just how the piece disappeared is still ongoing, Morton said that HSI is "better equipped than ever before" to combat crimes of theft and trafficking of cultural artifacts. "I'm proud to stand here today to hand over one of those items, soon to be rewoven into the fabric of France's rich cultural heritage."
Investigating crimes involving cultural property, art and antiquities is one of the lesser known but integral parts of ICE's mission. Some of the most memorable items HSI recovered and returned in 2010 include an Egyptian sarcophagus returned to Egypt, a silver pendant engraved with the image of Peter the Great returned to Russia, an 18th century manuscript depicting a town's history returned to Italy, and fossils returned to the Peoples Republic of China.
Learn more about the important role that ICE plays in cultural property, art and antiquities investigations.