Thirty-seven years after a laundress in a white veil disappeared from her home in northwest France, U.S. authorities discovered her at a New York City auction house, and today officially returned her to her rightful owners.
The woman in question is not a real person, but the subject of a 6.5-by-8.5 inch painting by French impressionist Edgar Degas that had been heisted from a Normandy art museum in 1973.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators discovered the masterpiece in a Sotheby's catalogue in October. Later, markings on the bank confirmed a link to the Louvre in Paris.
At the French Embassy residence in Washington Friday, U.S. and French officials formally signed documents transferring ownership of the painting.
Although only valued at an estimated $350,000 to $450,000, the work is particularly prized by the French, given the relative paucity of Degas paintings remaining within their national borders, officials said.
"We don't have so many Degas in France curiously," said acting French ambassador to the U.S. Francois Rivasseau. "Because Degas was seen at his time as modern, maybe too modern … the French bought from painters more recognized and classical, while Americans bought lots of Degas. So you will find more Degas in the U.S. than France."
The recovery was also hailed as an example of international collaboration to combat the illicit trafficking of high-value cultural property.
"To us, you had, after the theft from the museum, ultimately an attempt to use the art market here in the U.S. to generate considerable profit from that theft, and we were able to stop it," said ICE director John Morton. "There's a thriving black market for things like this."
Morton said no suspects are in custody in conjunction with the theft and declined to comment on specifics of the ongoing investigation. In the U.S., art thieves and illicit traffickers of cultural property can face up to 20 years in prison if caught and convicted.
The consignor of the stolen Degas had inherited the painting upon his father's death, officials said. He is believed to have put the piece up for auction in good faith and agreed to surrender it to France when approached by authorities.
"The name of the game with these things is to steal the item, wait many many years … and eventually the piece is 'laundered' to the point that it can be sold to an auction house with a fake provenance," Morton said.
The painting, entitled "Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents," was completed in the early 1870s and depicts a French laundress with a toothache. She is seen using her white veil to protect her teeth from changes in temperature while doing the daily laundry.
It had been on loan from the Louvre to the Malraux Museum in Normady at the time of the theft in 1973. It's unclear whether the painting will return there.
ICE, which regularly scours auction catalogues for stolen goods, has repatriated more than 2,100 cultural objects to 15 countries since 2007, according to spokesman Brandon Montgomery.
"We've recovered everything from a roadster to sarcophagi," he said. "But in the past year we've seen a lot of art stolen during the holocaust surface after being hidden for more than 50 years."